One Problem with Entrepreurship Education

I’m not saying this is the only problem. And, by the way, I’m in favor of entrepreneurship education, when it’s done well. I think it helps … but that’s another post.

It’s a simple story. It’s a real problem with business education concerning entrepreneurship in top institutions. It happens way too often. Not that it’s the only problem with entrepreneurship education, but it’s harder to spot.

Take an imaginary person named Leslie who’s interested in entrepreneurship and wants to study it and then teach it, as a career. Here’s what happens.

First, she enrolls in a good graduate school intending to get a doctorate degree. In business grad schools, the MBAs study for two years to get jobs in business, not to teach business. Yet it takes a doctorate to teach business in a good school, as a career. Yes, there are exceptions to that rule, but Leslie is focused and motivated so she wants the best path to the best career opportunities, which means she needs the PhD degree. That’s a matter of academic records, standardized testing, essays, and recommendations, pretty much the same process people go through to get into college or university.

As she gets used to her studies and the general path to doctorate and teaching career she discovers, within the first year or so, that the academic study of business divides itself into standard groups; marketing, finance, operations, and so on, that don’t really include entrepreneurship (yet). And those functional divisions have generated a small set of academic journals, fewer than the fingers on one hand in most cases, that control her future. And the system of rewards and such within the small world of doctors of business is shockingly (to Leslie) well defined. Here is what she finds out:

  1. She can’t get the doctorate without a thesis.
  2. She’s not going to get into the upper echelon she wants for her career unless her thesis is published by one of those academic journals.
  3. And those journals focus on the standard specialties: marketing, finance, operations, etc. Not entrepreneurship.

Result: if she’s ambitious, Leslie drops the focus on entrepreneurship and moves over to finance or marketing or something else that’s more established within the academic hierarchies. And you, dear reader, can go from there to the other logical conclusions.

Think about the impact on education in entrepreneurship at the big business schools. Maybe it’s a good thing because it means more real-world entrepreneurs teaching, even if they’re normally adjunct instructors instead of professors. And maybe it’s not so good because it relegates entrepreneurship and the study of entrepreneurship to a lower rung on the career ladder. I don’t know.

If you’re out there in academia, reading this, and I’ve got it wrong, please tell me. I’ve had a chance to watch how this works. I haven’t been down this path myself, but I’ve been an adjunct instructor for a few years, teaching one class per year at the University of Oregon.

(photo credit: lynnlin/Shutterstock (modified by me))

13 thoughts on “One Problem with Entrepreurship Education

  1. Tim, agreed a major problem – but the bigger problem is this: you say “Take an imaginary person named Leslie who’s interested in entrepreneurship and wants to study it and then teach it, as a career.” Leslie plans to study entrepreneurship and then teach it – but never do it? I’m going to study French, learn the language, but never speak it or spend time in France – how do I teach it? Well? Or poorly – from a text book? That’s what’s really wrong in entrepreneurship education – and it’s the adjuncts like you, who bring real world practical experience into the classroom that save the day!

    1. John: yes, I have, for most of my business career. Over and over. Not rigorous research, by any means, but rigorous research is flawed by the fact that the teaching of entrepreneurship is a relatively new thing in the business schools. I have seen research — I think it’s from Kaufmann — that corrolates successful entrepreneurship with education, but there’s a correlation/causation question with that.

      Which is not to say that it’s any guarantee, or that entrepreneurship is something you can get only through studying. Having studied entrepreneurship is certainly not a requirement. But can it be an advantage? Yes, of course.

      Very glad you brought it up though, because it is an important question. I’ve been working on a draft of 5 things about entrepreneurship you can learn in a classroom (starts with cash flow) and another 5 things you need but can’t learn. You make me want to review that draft and get it posted.

      Tim

  2. Tim,
    Entrepreneurship as a subject can be taught in a class room but it will consist of a lot of discussions on historical studies of what A or B did, or what strategies company C or D did. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that entrepreneurial activity can be taught in a class room as a pure subject. Entrepreneurial activity entails a combination of such areas as management,marketing, business acumen and financial management. These may all be governed by social (environmental) and psychological factors of the particular entrepreneurial area of activity. Thus there is no set pattern or standard; and, what holds good for today may not hold good for tomorrow.

    Your claim “It’s a real problem with business education concerning entrepreneurship in top institutions” is OK, but it lacks the reasons and evidence to take it to the next level. I will expect to see these in your reviewed draft.
    Regards
    Shareef

  3. Yes. I agree with you. The real world problems are not covered by academic education. The strategies you need to harness in order to stay in business and grow business is your wit and your ability think ahead and pursue with the determination and courage that no other possess. But academics definitely help to look at problems in different ways and solve it accordingly. I’m all for education but with practicality.

  4. I agree with Tim — and would take it a big step further. Not only is the future-professor PhD forced to specialize in a discipline, e.g., finance, but within the discipline expected to specialize in something narrow and technical, equivalent to financial string theory. The result is that in the all-important mission of delivering fundamental understanding to non-specialists, the PhDs are worse than voids – instead of spreading clarity and understanding, they spread complexities and confused misunderstanding.

    I’ve been looking at the field of finance, and can see the spread of confusing complexity across the spectrum, from (a) confusing the Wall Street Wizards off the cliff to (z) training our “fiduciary” investment advisors in such confused complexity that, thinking they’re doing right, they feed The People’s retirement savings into the great mutual fund fleece machine.

    For entrepreneurs too, financial “education” is dreadful. A company’s accounting can be summarized and reported in a beautifully logical company financial picture, all the parts related in the company’s financial plumbing system of value circulation and value creation. One can understand the whole and its interrelated parts, see how it represents a living business. But NO! – the professors teach that the picture be fragmented into jigsaw pieces – separate reports on different parts, each presented as a laundry list of accounting terms with numbers. The fitting together that gives it meaning and makes it understandable has been stripped out.

    It is SO bad, the Wall Street Journal is fully confused. As we speak, the Journal is threatening to publish a guidebook telling small business people the income statement tells you “how much you’ve spent.” How to totally miss the distinction between income statement and cash flow, miss the whole idea of accrual accounting, spread misunderstanding of the whole concept and purpose of the accounting and financial reporting system!

  5. This is an interesting subject. I do have an Engineering degree and would like to start my own company in a completely different field(i.e Tourism). To enhance my knowledge, I opted to do a B,Comm in Entrepreneurship, do you think it will add value? How can you advise me.
    Thank you
    Gilbert

  6. Yes, I agree with the some of the ideas above, Entreprenership is a subject like any other subject. When it comes to it practicality it depends on a lot of factors specific to the environment you are living, and on having chosen the right business to do. It is not like you see somebody has started business of selling beans, so you also start the same business, even though the customers in the surrounding areas are very few. My advice is that entrepreneurs are supposed to be innovative.
    Thanks
    Akwelina ( Dar es salaam – Tanzania)

  7. My first brush with entrepreneurship, specifically tech entrepreneurship, did NOT come about through direct contact with entrepreneurs. I decided to do a Minor in Technopreneurship (as it was called in my uni) along with my Major in Computer Engineering at National University of Singapore. Along with a couple of very interesting & inspiring Entrepreneurship classes with lots of case studies (and a fab prof http://kwanghui.com/), I took courses in two courses in law – Business Law (has proven to be VERY useful, haven’t had to pay lawyers to write up simple contracts) & IP Law, Marketing, Organisational Behaviour, etc. This program initiated me into the world of startups, and I worked as an intern through my final year in uni at http://tencube.com and now, in London, I’m trying to get back into that space with http://protected.cc

    My university also had a year-long program (as part of the 4-year bachelors degree) which placed students in full-time internships in tech startups in the Silicon Valley/Philadelphia/Stockholm while they took part-time entrepreneurship classes at Stanford/Wharton/KTH. I understand the program has since expanded also to Bangalore & Shanghai. I did not go on this program myself but many of the alums of this recently-started program have begun the journey to make a mark as entrepreneurs (including above-mentioned tenCube) Some of the most active entrepreneurs in the city-state (otherwise not known to be a breeding ground for the startup mentality) behind forums such as http://sgentrepreneurs.com/ were trained through this program.

    Apologies for taking over your comment space, but I read quite a few comments across your 4 posts about entrepreneurship expressing skepticism about whether entrepreneurship can be taught at all – and I wanted to make the case for ‘Yes, indeed, it can be!’

  8. Thankyou for such a nice piece of thought provoking proposition. My comment is a personal experience. I am a medical doctor by profession(44 yrs old now). After practising as a GP for 12 yrs (5yrs doubling as a government & private hospital dr, quit both jobs to start & run a small cottage hospital in partnership with another ambitious GP. Financed with personal savings & a bank loan- business grew but by the 5th yr, a bad economy forced us to close down. We woud up the company. I went back to employment with my previous employer-a private hospital(2004-2006) and worked for 3yrs and then quit for a start up again). Inspired by Robert T. Kiyosaki book (Cashflow Quadrant) which I purchased & read in Feb 2005, I enrolled for an MBA on May 2005 (Evening classes) and completed the coursework by Dec 2006. Nov 2006 just before seating for my last units exam , I secured a contract with a leading Mobile phone network provider ( emerging markets) to become one of its agent (dealer) with immediate effect. Jan 15 20o7 I resigned my job as a Dr and incorporated my own company as an agent of the Network provider. I finished my MBA in strategic management but took entreprenership as an optional unit (this is the only entreprenerurship education the university offered). For three yrs now I have been an entrepreneur and a businessman in a fast paced and turbulent industry. MY COMMENT. The entrepreneurial education I learnt in my MBA has realy helped me think “business” as my previous default thinking was medicine. Due to my previously limited business exposure & experience, I very often pick my books and read topics relevant to the challege at hand in an effort to comprehend the challege in business terms & visualize how it relates to other business processes. However I have this to say. All entrepreneurship teachers should be & must be business practitioners, in order to inject & infuse the reality of true business world to their students. For heavenly sake, it is torture to expect a lecturer who has never been a business operative to train and discharge competent entrepreneurs into the harsh and unforgiving world of competitive business engagements. Its ok to have the Phd lecturers teach the students the accademics, but no less than half of the class time should be devoted to operative businessen & women to lecture to the students. Entrepreneurs are hands on not academicians.
    Dr Njoroge

  9. Entrepreneur education needs lots of discussion and harnessing due to its powerful impact on socioeconomic development. The education methodology or pedagogy must be established by the objectives, competency, outcomes and assessments. These are not areas inherent in entrepreneurship, nor necessarily approached by adjuncts, entrepreneurs or academic professors. These must addressed through the integration of practitioners of entrepreneurship behavior and those in the field of education. For example, if the objectives are based on the development of a mind set, the focus on experiential learning becomes a primary concern. The competencies would be focused on uncertainty, ambiguity, risk-taking, decision-making and their responses.

    Academically, the traditional business curriculum is based on theoretical foundations and models that are essential (I consider this Scheme A, which is structured, administratively and controlled, and of great importance to the practitioners of business). Most schools are designing “entrepreneurship curriculum” that is in reality structured small business management education. Entrepreneurship generates a complementary scheme (B) based on innovation, transformation and accelerated change. The professionals that go into the workforce in May 2010, must have a clear understanding of both schemes.

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