Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

The idea of teaching entrepreneurship is an ongoing debate in both academic and entrepreneurial circles, and one that has a number of perspectives, given the emotional appeal of entrepreneurship as a career choice, and the “rockstar” status it holds in today’s world. The question is can it be taught?  

There has been a lot of research conducted in entrepreneurship pedagogy, which has contrary opinions. Even in my own cohorts, it creates a bit of controversy. So, let’s examine what we do know.

In research conducted on “success”, there is little evidence that suggests having a university or college degree will lead to being successful in your profession. Now, of course, it all depends on how you measure “success”, but in this context let’s assume it’s about leadership success (i.e. being able to get to top leadership roles). Mainstream, society states that having an education qualification is the benchmark that it tends to hold as a measure of success. However, in my belief, this is an outdated view and something that belongs in the chronicles of the Industrial Age.

Furthermore, even employment innovators such as Google Inc., have recently discarded the idea of having an undergraduate degree for its candidates in place of a 6-month training course through its “Google Academy”, to receive a “Google Certificate”; which is supposedly equivalent to a four-year degree (according to them).

So, if this is the case, then what relevance do universities play in training future candidates for professions, when clearly success does not always lay in hard-skills development? It seems in today’s world soft-skill development, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence development, curiosity, creativity, etc., is highly sought after (and required) because these are the skills that are hard to replace through AI or robotics.

Does that mean universities will become irrelevant? Well not quite, as they still will be required for professions such as medicine, law, engineering, etc., but the way candidates will be trained will dramatically change over the coming decades, not just with virtual or blended form, as we are currently seeing, but for more experiential and self-discovery type of education, where educators become facilitators of self-learning and mentors to the candidates. This is exactly the type of development that is essential for entrepreneurship. These are personally tailored experiences around project development that enables curiosity and allow for soft-skills development, whilst hard-skills or theory development is introduced through self-learning when required, or in the latter parts of the project development. Over the last decade, this has been my proven teaching model for undergraduate entrepreneurship at a university level, here in Melbourne.

Research suggests that whilst entrepreneurship skills can be taught, the desire or drive to be an entrepreneur is usually not. It seems as though the enterprising spirit must be discovered within the individual, NOT developed by the individual’s experience. This discovery is often initiated through imagination and “play”, and that is why curiosity is an important attribute for success in entrepreneurship.

Furthermore, universities are not adequately preparing candidates for careers in entrepreneurship. In fact, education may even hinder them from being a successful entrepreneur, as it does very little to encourage the discovery of the enterprising spirit, replaced with the teaching of risk avoidance behaviour, so that candidates can be “conditioned”, and seen as “risk-free” for the employer, (just ask any employment recruiter).

 In today’s uncertain world, being “safe” is the riskiest thing a business can do. Given the average length of a company, today is around 8 years, it is a sure-fire way of growing broke. In fact, if a business fails to innovate, it’s a potential disaster in the making, not a case of “if” but “when”, due to technology (and more recently Climate Change and the COVID-19 pandemic), which is driving rapid societal behavioural change.

An entrepreneurship education experience must create a “safe” environment for candidates, one that teaches game theory and is designed to enable curiosity and imagination. It must be created in a way that creates a trial-and-error environment; a play area with boundaries. Such environments encourage “failure tolerant” behaviours, that also instill resilience and self-confidence. All of which are critical characteristics for successful entrepreneurship. These skills can be taught and developed through tools such as gaming and simulation activities, where making mistakes don’t have “real” world consequences.

So, as our learning capabilities have evolved towards experiential learning, today’s education institutions also need to keep up (in fact innovate), to remain relevant in the modern world. Contemporary education requires it to be a customized and self-learning experience for candidates.

As entrepreneurship requires creating a unique experience both for the entrepreneur and the customer, so too does the learning environment, and in the words of the author and entrepreneur Steve Blank, “it all begins with a blank canvas”. Therefore, the candidate’s learning also needs to be unique and tailored to their experience, not something that is “cookie-cut” and churned out for Industrial Age environments, that maximise profits for teaching institutions.

By Tobi Nagy