Entrepreneurship is often thought of as a process—a process of identifying an opportunity, understanding resource requirements, acquiring resources, planning, and implementing. Of course, a “process” assumes known inputs and known outputs, as in a manufacturing process. For example, building a car on an assembly line is a manufacturing process. You know all the parts; you know how they fit together; and you know the type of car you will have at the end. A process is quite predictable.
Entrepreneurship, however, is not predictable.
To deal with this unpredictability, I recommend teaching an entrepreneurship method rather than a process. There are four complementary techniques for teaching entrepreneurship as a method, and each requires students to reach beyond their prediction-focused ways of knowing, analyzing, and talking. This shift positions them instead to create, apply, and act.
Technique 1: Starting Businesses
Starting businesses as part of coursework has become more mainstream over the past few years. Babson College, for example, started its Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME) course in 1996, requiring first year undergraduate students to start a business. The focus of FME is on opportunity recognition, resource parsimony, team development, holistic thinking, and value creation through harvest. The vehicle of learning is a limited-duration business start-up steeped in entrepreneurial thinking and a basic understanding of all functions of business.
Many business schools today have incorporated the real-world practice of business creation into their entrepreneurship curriculum. For example, the 2010 United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship winner for model entrepreneurship course was Monmouth University for its capstone experience where students work in teams to start businesses. However, as we talk about a pedagogy of practice within the entrepreneurship method, we are advocating for real-world venture creation courses to take place at the beginning, rather than at the end of entrepreneurship programs. We suggest this because at the undergraduate level, students have little business experience. To truly develop empathy for the entrepreneur, one must experience new venture creation before he or she can study business management or other disciplinary areas.
Furthermore, students develop a level of insight and confidence from practicing methods for navigating unknown territories and from experiencing success and failure. Specifically, in our first-hand observation we see that students:
- Experience the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and learn about the sweat equity associated with a start-up
- Gain knowledge of the importance of leadership yet struggle with finding and developing their own style
- Practice entrepreneurship and through experience, learn about the power of human agency, yet effectively managing and utilizing human resources is more art than science
- Feel defeat after making poor decisions and experience elation over small wins
- Underestimate in hindsight the role of trust between managers and employees and learn delegation is not a choice
On top of these five insights, students learn that the best opportunity in the world is of little value without a strong team that can execute. Such strength is derived from open and constant communication, challenging but shared goals, and the ability to adapt in uncertain environments.
Technique 2: Serious Games and Simulations
To play or not to play? That is indeed an increasingly important question for educators. The influence of computer games and gaming on the rising generations is now undeniable, with more and more educators and corporate trainers looking for applications in both the academic and professional worlds.
There is a large variety of definitions of serious games, with most sharing two common grounding assumptions. First, there is an element of “game” usually defined as having rules and a sense of “gameplay.” Second, there is the expectation of fun. Gaming aligns learning, play, and participation while exposing students to real challenges in a virtual world. Today’s games require 50–100 hours to master, which equals the amount of time a student spends on a semester-long course.
There is indeed a rising use of games in spaces where simulations were prevalent but with that added expectation of the gameplay and fun elements. For instance, I attended a Serious Game Summit as part of the annual Game Developers Conference, and heard the presentations on how Hilton Garden Inn is using games to train its staff on customer service. I learned how Intel uses games for network training, and for one of the most far-reaching examples, how the U.S. Army and the Canadian Army each use computer games and alternative reality games for recruiting and training purposes.
Babson, similar to a few other schools, has been investigating and experimenting with the use of serious games in our entrepreneurship curriculum for some time. To date, our focus has been on three main areas. First, we developed and tested a social media alternative reality game for teaching social media to faculty members. The intent was to help faculty understand what is available, how it can be helpful to entrepreneurs, and how it can be useful in teaching entrepreneurship. The framework of the game was an elaborate treasure hunt that required the faculty/students to not only visit social media sites but to use each one of them in a way that would benefit an entrepreneur (or entrepreneurship student). The ultimate treasure was a hidden chest containing what was labeled “Roger Babson’s Secret Entrepreneurship Curriculum” and was in reality a list of resource materials for teaching serious games.
Another one of our game experiments was the use of an off-the-shelf computer game: The Sims, and the expansion packet, Open for Business. The purpose of the game was to compact the business creation process in order to map the creation of organizational culture, particularly through the way the student/ entrepreneur/player used his or her time and his or her money in relation to the business, the employees, and the community. The course is based on a combination of institutional- and resource-based theories to provide guidance for students in creating culture as a resource. (Ironically, in my experience, one of the biggest challenges in using this approach is getting students to stop playing the game.)
Finally, we developed a video game to support learning about how entrepreneurs think under conditions of risk, uncertainty, and unknowability. The game is based on the theory of effectuation and is designed to replace a case study for an in-class discussion on entrepreneurial thinking. Overall, the use of serious games is part of the method approach; it allows students a different environment to practice entrepreneurship. It is a playful approach for creating serious results.
Technique 3: Design-Based Learning
Entrepreneurship is an applied discipline, yet we are teaching and researching as if it were part of the natural sciences. Furthermore, the impact of entrepreneurship research is not clear with little research performed to assess the effectiveness of entrepreneurship education. Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon argued that applied disciplines are better served by design-based curricula. Design is a process of divergence and convergence requiring skills in observation, synthesis, searching and generating alternatives, critical thinking, feedback, visual representation, creativity, problem-solving, and value creation. Teaching entrepreneurship through a design lens can help students identify and act on unique venture opportunities using a tool kit of observation, fieldwork, and understanding value creation across multiple stakeholder groups.
At the core of entrepreneurship is the identification and exploitation of opportunities, yet the majority of entrepreneurship courses assume that the opportunity has been identified. In the process world, we talked about case studies and business plan writing. The majority of entrepreneurship case studies focus on opportunity evaluation, but little attention is given to how the opportunity was identified beyond a surface-level discussion related to the life history of the entrepreneur. In a traditional business plan course, very little time is given to practicing tools of creativity and idea generation. Overall, very little is done to train a student to think more entrepreneurially and creatively participate in opportunity discovery. We argue that such a discovery process should be grounded in fundamental design principles so students are equipped with tools to not only find opportunities, but to also make opportunities.
Technique 4: Reflective Practice
The idea of encouraging reflection is certainly not new, and, if anything, is regaining its currency as a critical component of the overall learning experience. From Socrates to Thoreau to the present day, the emphasis on taking time to think often resonates and yet seems difficult to inject into an action-based curriculum in an overarching and meaningful manner. For many of our students, simply sitting still and thinking does not come naturally or easily, and yet, the power of the potential outcome—“being aware of our actions so we can evaluate them” seems clear.
Reflection is an important process by which knowledge is developed from experience. When reflecting, one considers an experience that has happened and tries to understand or explain it, which often leads to insight and deep learning—or ideas to test on new experiences. Reflection is particularly important for perplexing experiences, working under conditions of high uncertainty, and problem-solving. As a result, it should not be a surprise that reflection is an integral component of entrepreneurship education and also a way of practicing entrepreneurship.
Donald Schön coined the term “reflective practice” while studying applied university programs such as medicine, law, and architectural design. He argued that the knowledge acquired through coursework, what he called propositional knowledge, was limited in its impact because it did not take into consideration the reality of practice. Yet, he discovered that professionals graduating from applied programs were still effective despite how they were taught.
Schön learned that professionals enhanced their practice through engagement and developed “practice experience.” He distinguished “reflection-on-practice” (do–learn–think as a process) from “reflection-in-practice” (do–learn– think as a behavior). Both are important and represent a continuous cycle of learning. Schön found the teachers and students engaged in reflection on emergent practice that was to underpin their learning and therefore enhance their practice. Putting it more simply, students learned by listening, watching, doing, and by being coached in their doing. In addition, they would take with them that reflection on their previous actions as a piece of knowledge or learning when they went into action the next time. Thus, in the next action they would be bringing all their previously acquired understanding and practice and be able to reflect in the action as they did it, particularly if a new circumstance came up.
Given the nature of entrepreneurship as a continuous cycle of action, learning, testing, and experimenting, developing students as reflective entrepreneurs requires reflection-on-practice and reflection-in-practice as part of a pedagogy portfolio. A primary objective of reflection is deep learning. Marton distinguished between surface and deep learning in 1975. Surface learning is associated with a more passive approach that is premised on a model of education that is dependent on learning, absorbing, and regurgitating. Deep learning is associated with a more active approach characterized by a desire to grasp and synthesize information for valuable and long-term meaning.
Learning a Method
An entrepreneurship method is teachable and learnable, but it is not predictable. Starting businesses help students “feel” what it is like to assume the role of an entrepreneur. Serious games and simulations allow students to play in virtual worlds that mirror reality. Designed-based learning encourages students to observe the world through a different lens and create opportunities. Finally, reflective practice gives permission to our students to take time, think, and absorb the learning of their practice-based curriculum.
Feeling, playing, observing, creating, and thinking are all important components of the entrepreneurship method. Learning a method, in my opinion, is often more important than learning specific content, and it requires practice. In an ever-changing world, we need to teach methods that stand the test of dramatic changes in content and context. At the end of the day, perhaps we do not teach entrepreneurship the discipline. Perhaps we teach a method to navigate the discipline.