Soapbox

July 13, 2014 10:30 pm

Business schools thinking big at the expense of small enterprises

Academics, students and business owners have much to learn from each other

There is a paradox at the heart of business school education. If current trends persist then we may soon be at the point – if we are not already – where we have to ask whether the delivery, content and assessment of entrepreneurial education are fit for purpose.

Business and management education is primarily a platform for entry into corporate culture. This is why we challenge students to compose business plans and to give thought to such lofty concerns as equity finance for initial public offerings, management buyouts, acquisitions and international expansion. The basic idea is to think big.

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Yet business schools in the UK and elsewhere have been recast as institutional anchors that are expected to impact on the local competitiveness of the small business community. And anyone at all familiar with the small business community will know that world domination is neither a popular nor a remotely relevant topic of conversation.

This much is confirmed by an ethnographic study of micro and small enterprises (MSEs) last year*. Only a small number of owners who took part in the research, carried out by Nottingham University Business School, described their experiences in terms congruent with the high-growth businesses that have come to dominate airtime in enterprise education.

Much more commonly expressed was the market-based view that starting, maintaining and building a small business was merely a means of creating personal wealth for oneself and a limited band of employees or family members. Some MSE owners spoke of distant goals, but IPOs, MBOs and acquisitions were seldom even pinpricks on the horizon. A comparatively modest outlook, some might think – but an inescapably sensible one.

Criticism of the ways in which business schools continue to market themselves is both mounting and justified. Again, the default option is to think big: few business schools, after all, are likely to trumpet their ability to prepare graduates for anything less than corporate superstardom.

Yet we have to create a space in which the dialogue between business schools and small businesses can take place, because there are genuine and important synergies to be exploited.

Firstly, MSEs account for a growing and, as the government has repeatedly stressed, increasingly vital proportion of the business community. It is therefore reasonable to assume that many business school students will spend at least part of their careers in such organisations. This being the case, are we doing enough – or, indeed, anything – to ready graduates for this kind of experience?

For instance, is the aforementioned business plan, with all its exalted aims and empire-building contingencies, truly the most appropriate method of channelling imagination? Can we honestly claim that it prepares anyone for working in, founding or transforming a small business? Do we still too frequently stray into “masters of the universe” territory when our approach should be far more rooted in not only what is clearly required but what is overwhelmingly likely to occur?

Granted, the provision of a thorough grounding in small business life is not a curriculum component likely to spark a mass influx of eager scholars. But there will be many graduates who might one day be grateful to know something about it.

Although some world-leading courses are already moving towards such learning environments, considerably more work is needed to integrate classrooms seamlessly with the actualities of life beyond academia. We need to reflect what is happening, not what we would like to happen. Above all, we need to equip students with the tools that enable them to take calculated risks, make informed decisions and ultimately prosper when faced with the pressures that inevitably await them when they emerge, blinking, into the real world.

And what of the people who already constitute the MSE community? Many of them would welcome the expertise that business schools can offer regarding day-to-day concerns such as administration, developing professional credibility and establishing links to foster resilience and survival. We can tell them what they need to know; and they, in turn, can offer valuable insights for our students.

We too often overlook the fact that few institutions are better positioned than universities when it comes to drawing together different stakeholders for shared benefit. It is a unique characteristic that is habitually underused. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in many business schools’ enduring failure to seek meaningful engagement with the small business community.

Harsh economic reality alone is sufficient to tell us we should be striving for a much closer integration between theory and practice. In short, we should be doing everything possible to encourage academics, students and small business owners to co-create knowledge. Business schools and MSEs have much to learn from each other; but at the moment, sadly, we are simply not speaking the same language.

The author is a lecturer in entrepreneurship and creativity at Nottingham University Business School.

*‘Everyday entrepreneurial action and cultural embeddedness: an institutional logics perspective, Entrepreneurship and Regional Development, vol 25

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