Entrepreneurship education comes of age
Gaining the confidence to plot your business’s next step without knowing all the answers is the key to entrepreneurship education, as Mark Story discovers.
It’s not what happens to you and me that defines us as people, but how we respond to the challenges and opportunities life throws our way. The same truism applies equally to the business world. But can these survival skills be taught?
What’s the real difference between a formal business degree and more eclectic entrepreneurship education? According to Richard Seymour, programme director in innovation and enterprise teaching at the University of Sydney, it’s the ability to sink or swim in situations where there’s massive uncertainty. Seymour would be the last person to deny the role of the formal business degree in developing a graduate’s analytical skills. But when they’re supposed to hit the ground running, he says, graduates are often still learning to crawl.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if today’s school leavers were all destined for nine-to-five desk jobs. But recent surveys suggest a huge proportion want to be their own boss. ”These (analytical) abilities tend to dissolve when it comes to decision-making where there are incomplete sets of information,” says Seymour. “While learning based on functional knowledge is good, it’s a low-order skill set.”
Ironically, for most companies, dealing without all the facts is just another day at the office. And if the proliferation of entrepreneurship education offered (mostly) by universities over the past six years is any guide – the penny is finally starting to drop. Sydney and Melbourne Universities, the University of Queensland, Macquarie University, Deakin University, Victoria University and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), are among leaders in the entrepreneurship education stakes (at both the graduate and undergraduate level).
Swinburne University of Technology went one better when nailing its moniker to the mast of ‘all-things-entrepreneurial’ through its Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship programme. Then there’s the Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre at the University of Adelaide, which provides an entrepreneurial business incubator facility where students can work on their businesses while studying their degree.
While entrepreneurship education may have come of age, statistics still don’t flatter entrepreneurial ventures. And with 90 percent failing to survive five years, it’s clear that not all businesses are entrepreneurial, nor is the term entrepreneur a metaphor for success, commercial or otherwise. But neither is the term (entrepreneur) synonymous with self-employment. According to Dr Roy Green, Dean of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM), there’s growing demand from corporates for customised entrepreneurship programmes that provide interdisciplinary skills for individuals running separate business units, under a corporate umbrella.
Traditionally, the more removed students have been from the commerce faculty, the fewer business skills they’ve acquired.
Nowhere was this more acutely experienced than through recent results to a Federal Government-commissioned review of the textile industry by MGSM’s Dr Green. According to Green, fashion and design graduates are by no means alone in lacking the commercial skills to tackle the business end of their industry.
In an attempt to change this single-silo approach, entrepreneurship units are becoming a welcomed inclusion within other disciplines. Having successfully lodged entrepreneurial-type courses within its engineering faculty, the next step for the University of Sydney, says Seymour, is to embed them across all other faculties. Further north, the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) is implementing campus-wide minors (encompassing commercialisation and entrepreneurship) across all its faculties.
At the other end of higher education’s food-chain, universities have historically been frigid suitors in the life-long learning stakes. While they clearly endorse this mantra, it’s only recently that they’ve made it easier for business people to participate through new university offerings and outreach programmes.
In an attempt to find out ‘what they now know they don’t know’, many entrepreneurs are heading back to the classroom. Their need for ‘just-in-time’ as opposed to ‘just-in-case’ knowledge means shorter block courses are de rigueur.
Since offering his Foundations of Entrepreneurship unit to 45 students back 2006, Seymour says the course will be offered in three semesters in 2009, with 80 to 100 students per semester. While most will go on to complete their Masters of Commerce, a growing number are taking this unit as part of a Graduate Certificate in Innovation & Enterprise (GCIE).
Having launched last year, the GCIE will be offered in three streams as of 2010: Technology, creative industries and social enterprise. “Most entrepreneurs don’t want to do a masters degree,” says Seymour “They’re keen to get the working knowledge now.”
Learning to cope with uncertainty is one thing, but according to independent brand strategist Andrew Moss, a key benefit from completing Seymour’s GCIE was that it fast-tracks DIY learning by putting critical information in one place. “I was able to bring new tools and frameworks to bear on the issues confronting my business,” says Moss. “Problem-based learning, drawing on live case studies increased my ability to adapt decision-making to an imperfect knowledge base.”
Since completing the graduate certificate, Moss has gone on to complete a Masters of Commerce, and plans to undertake one course every semester. “Since returning to study, I’ve learnt to use a university in ways I’d never contemplated,” says Moss.
To former civil engineer Sam Penny, the biggest benefit in undertaking an entrepreneurial-focused MBA at QUT six years ago was gaining the confidence to step into the family’s ailing health-care business and identify turn-around strategies. He says the greatest asset was being able to sift through a lot of knowledge from lecturers, fellow students and high-calibre guest speakers with real-world experience, and apply it within his own business environment. “The biggest value I learnt was the competitive advantage of a distribution system which we now have,” says Penny, who’s been attending annual entrepreneurship forums at Boston’s MIT for the last three years.
In hindsight, both Penny and Moss agree that student composition is integral to an entrepreneurship course’s overall success. From Moss’s observations, more mature students were hungrier and vastly more stimulated by being able to draw on past business experiences.
It became evident to Penny early into his MBA programme that there were two types of entrepreneurship students. While business owners were focused on applying the knowledge, he says academics and ‘corporates’ were more interested in adding the letters (MBA) to their CVs. And like Moss, he says this marginalised some of the collaborative teamwork and networking aspects of the overall programme.
If the GCIE had any underlying flaws, Moss says, it was an inconsistency in the quality of individuals brought in to deliver course content. And for Penny it was the collision of cultures between the curriculum’s law component and the student’s entrepreneurial thinking.
Given that university faculties strongly prefer entrepreneurship teachers who have a doctorate and business experience, Seymour admits that finding suitably qualified people is tough. And while finding guest speakers is relatively easy, he says convincing industry experts to spend 14 weeks co-teaching is a more challenging proposition.
On a more generic note, Evan Douglas, Dean of the Faculty of Business at the USC, says the paucity of professionals capable of teaching these programmes explains why many universities prefer to protect their turf rather than collaborate on developing and presenting entrepreneurship programmes together.
Interestingly, some studies suggest the greater the formal education, the less entrepreneurial the behaviour it delivers, and MBAs are no stranger to these accusations. Yet when it comes to recognising entrepreneurial talent, lack of formal training isn’t an obstacle.
While former NSW Young Entrepreneur of the Year Peter Sheahan has none, he says formal entrepreneurship education should add outstanding value if it can: Cultivate a genuine understanding of business models, show how companies make money, help manage scale and growth and provide mentoring networks. “You can’t learn your way to greatness. Entrepreneurs need to ‘learn to learn’ from making mistakes,” says Sheahan, author of Flip. “Ideally, you should have a business concept to work on before enrolling in any entrepreneurship programme.”
Mark Story is one of Australasia’s most prodigious financial and business journalists. With over 15 years experience in print and online publishing, Mark has worked on over 50 publications throughout Australasia and the US, including group managing editor of Resource Stocks, Australia’s Mining Monthly, Mining News net & Petroleum magazine, editor of MIS Magazine and editor of Investor Monthly Magazine.
Is your idea a winner?
Entrepreneurs often lament the difficulty in getting their ideas heard by the right audience (i.e. those with the money and know-how to help them get past a well thought-out business plan). So it may come as some surprise to learn that there are several entrepreneurial competitions run in Australia that are squarely aimed at getting the best and most innovative ideas in front of investors (not to mention providing handsome funding to the winners).
Anthill is proudly supporting two of the best:
The John Heine Challenge
Run annually by the Queensland University of Technology, the JHC is open to students (typically post-graduate) from participating tertiary institutions.
Entering teams are paired with a business mentor and must submit a water-tight business plan. This is followed by several days of heats and presentation showcases in front of judging panels comprised of venture capitalists, successful entrepreneurs and CEOs. (Who said you couldn’t get these people to listen?) The winners of the challenge go on to compete in the Global MOOT CORP® Competition, where the prize at stake is a handy $100,000 in seed capital.
The JHC’s strength is in its educational focus. It is committed to improving the standard and stature of entrepreneurialism in Australia. Past winner Zork had this to say about the experience:
“Winning the 2002 Competition gave us the confidence and focus to kick-start the venture, the credibility to secure the COMET grant and the tools to move forward into capital raising”.
To find out more, visit www.johnheinechallenge.org
Enterprize is run by the University of Queensland and is comprised of four stages. The first three involve the creation and showcasing of a full, commercial-ready business plan, culminating in “Pitch Day”, where applicants are given eight minutes to pitch their idea to a panel of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.
It’s then that Enterprize gets really exciting. Stage four is “Commercialisation”. The winner of stage three is given $100,000 and professional support to turn their venture into a commercial success.
All finalists will also win the support of i.lab, the Queensland
Government’s technology incubator.
For more information, visit http://enterprize.uq.edu.au