Can entrepreneurship be taught?

February 3, 2014 | Hamilton, Ontario
Contributed by Benson Honig, Professor, Teresa Cascioli Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership

benson-honigEntrepreneurship education and training (EET) is growing rapidly in universities and colleges in Canada and throughout the world. This trend is fuelled, in part, by recognition that entrepreneurship can play an important role in economic growth and claims that entrepreneurship education can play an important role in developing more and/or better entrepreneurs. As chair in entrepreneurial leadership at McMaster, I am frequently searching for opportunities to advance the field of entrepreneurship education.

People often ask me if I think entrepreneurship can be taught. My stock reaction is to say ‘no’. It can’t be taught in the sense that everyone is a potential entrepreneur. However, I do believe that certain skills can be taught that develop that potential into a more effective entrepreneur. I also believe that individuals can be taught how to support an entrepreneur or a start-up business. In that way, even people who do not have the inclination to take major career risks can learn how to help those who do. Just as not everyone can learn to be a great artist, musician or dancer, not everyone can learn to be an entrepreneur. However, there are many supporting careers that are connected with those professions – and those activities can be taught. While I might not have enough talent to make great music, I should be able to learn the necessary skills to help market and ‘sell’ a great musician. Thus, there are many reasons to support and develop effective entrepreneurship education.

People often ask me if I think entrepreneurship can be taught. My stock reaction is to say ‘no’.

While courses in entrepreneurship continue to be popular, the lesson and theory behind entrepreneurship education lacks enthusiasm. For example, most entrepreneurship courses rely on the teaching and development of a business plan. The goals of business planning education, however, remain poorly understood.

Recently I was pleased to be awarded a $350,000 five year SSHRC grant to study the impact of entrepreneurship education world-wide (along with my co-investigator, a former graduate of McMaster, Jeff McNally at UNB). The research of business planning, some of which I have conducted, leads to question whether business plans lead to entrepreneurial success. There is a huge range of topics commonly taught through case studies, readings, lectures by guest speakers, and skill building courses. Topics include negotiation, leadership, new product development, creative thinking, venture capital, entrepreneurial personalities, student business start-ups, computer simulations, interviews with entrepreneurs, field trips, and video and film. Each topic requires a specific measurable output and corresponding education, which should vary considerably depending on the circumstances. However, these have not been examined in the literature. With all these activities to consider, we believe our research will help identify what works best, and what are some of the best ways to share important entrepreneurial information.

…taking an entrepreneurship course helps individuals expand their range of possible career options.

One new approach we’ve begun to focus on includes issues related to career guidance and career satisfaction. Entrepreneurship is certainly not for everyone. However, taking an entrepreneurship course helps individuals expand their range of possible career options. I’ve found that my course provides individuals with guidance and information that helps them make future career decisions. Learning that entrepreneurship is not a viable alternative given one’s personality, skills, or life goals is yet another important awareness to be gained from a successful entrepreneurship course.

We’re very excited by the opportunity SSHRC has provided us to study, over time and systematically, entrepreneurship education. Our goal is to help other lecturers, community programs, and instructors develop and refine effective programs. I look forward to sharing our results with this community as they unfold over the subsequent years of study.

benson-thumbBenson Honig is the Teresa Cascioli Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership and a professor of human resources & management. He is lead editor of the handbook of organizational and entrepreneurial ingenuity, Edward Elgar press, due for release in February 2014.

One thought on "Can entrepreneurship be taught?"

  1. Ramona Gallagher says:

    I would have to agree that entrepreneurship cannot be taught – but the skills to be a more successful entrepreneur can and most certainly are in a variety of forums – my own business being one. I truly believe though, that it is the practical experience or experiential learning that is important and not the theoretical book smart type of teaching. As states ‘just because you can search it doesn’t mean you can do it”. In today’s society of information overload and information access at your fingertips – new entrepreneurs are inundated with information on creating business plans, strategic growth, social media and marketing – it is only by balancing that out with practical example/experience (specific to an industry or business stream) that the information becomes ‘real’. I was a facilitator with the Ontario Self Employment Benefit program funded through the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and what always surprised me by the top-down organizational thinking and bureaucratic pencil pushing was the belief that because entrepreneurs attended some classes on entrepreneurship and were assisted in completing a business plan (that was approved by the Ministry) that all entrepreneurs should immediately go out and be successful. Don’t I wish. Entrepreneurs may know how to create the good or service they are proposing or even have a great concept – what they don’t necessarily know is how to promote it, get it out to market and sell it at a profit and sometimes just a book or class can’t take someone outside their comfort zone to just do it (hence the need for additional mentoring or coaching). I also believe that with the teaching should come the realization that there are things that as an entrepreneur you will not be good at or know and you should admit it and find strategic alliances that you can work to take that over – sell what you know – buy what you don’t and it is this part of the equation that is sometimes missing – entrepreneurs don’t have to be able to do everything they just have to be able to spot and recognize their own strengths and weakness and network to get the rest. For business start-ups the other lesson that needs to be taught is scalability – learning how to start small and grow the business – most of the biggest FORTUNE 500 companies of today started in someone’s basement. Yet in most cases start-up entrepreneurs look not to grow their client base and sell – but focus on where they can find investors and lenders to finance their businesses right from the starting gate. But in the end, I do believe that entrepreneurs need to learn to step away from the books and the research and do something with their business – as most of us know, there will never be a time that our marketing materials are perfect, our websites don’t need some tweeking and in the end we find that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

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