Four thoughts after Global Entrepreneurship Week (and ISBE and the National Enterprise Education Conference).

It’s that time of year again. Another Global Entrepreneurship Week has passed, and enterprise educators are reflecting on the 1589 activities that took place across the country (and the world). The GEW brand celebrates entrepreneurship through a week of ‘unleashing ideas’, ‘start up battles’ and changing the world.  Some will already be planning their programme for next year and some may be scratching their heads and asking: ‘What was that all about?’ Whatever your position, it’s undeniable that such sharp focus on entrepreneurship throws up all kinds of questions, possibilities and challenges. As well as GEW, the last three weeks included a National Enterprise Education Conference run by Enterprise Village and the 38th annual conference for the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship in Glasgow. Though the conferences stood 400 miles apart and accommodated educators from different phases and diverging terminology, common ground could be heard during the intense conversation of delegates from the two events. It’s a fitting tribute to both to try and round up some takeaways whilst a spotlight shines on enterprise and entrepreneurship in the wake of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

  1. Who wants to be an entrepreneur? Part 1…

Ivor Tiefenbrun started his keynote to an audience of academics at ISBE, an entrepreneurship conference, with the declaration: ‘I don’t like the word entrepreneur.’ This is despite the fact that Ivor is the founder and chairman of Linn Products, a business he started in 1972 and which is recognised as an industry benchmark in terms of high quality audio. His journey at Linn began when (dissatisfied with his stereo, and, with an unfinished mechanical engineering course behind him), he set about creating a top quality record player. What made Linn unique was the control over every aspect of production, and an obsessive attention to quality. So it was curious that someone with such a track record in product and company building rejected, or at least felt unease about, the label of entrepreneur. When I ask teachers what they think of when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ the initial response, 9.99 times out of ten, is: ‘Alan Sugar’. This sort of stereotype might be a reason why someone as entrepreneurial as Ivor rejects the label. Ivor’s take on company management (a pretty flat structure, working in ‘family size’ teams, putting people first) seems at odds with the on-tap egos, arguments and ‘you’re fired!’ shenanigans of the TV show. Maybe, ten series of The Apprentice later, the label ‘entrepreneur’ needs a detox.

2) Who wants to be an entrepreneur? Part 2…

Interestingly, and perhaps linked in some way, in the Enterprise Education track at ISBE, Professor Laura Galloway shared longitudinal research where she and colleagues revisited students who had been surveyed ten years previously. Given that a criticism of entrepreneurship education research is the dearth of empirical and longitudinal research, the idea was simple but effective: use the same survey given to a cohort of students in 2005 to survey a cohort in 2015 and compare the results. Result: two snapshots of entrepreneurial perceptions and ambitions, a decade apart. Interestingly, though students reported a perceived increase in their entrepreneurial skills, their entrepreneurial ambitions went down. They wanted to be employed in the public sector and charities more than they wanted to run a business. The study was a quantitative snapshot and, as Prof Galloway pointed out, participant’s experiences may have been shaped by graduating in a recession and being burdened with massive student debt as much as any courses which they might have experienced. But she also acknowledged that over the last ten years, the profile of entrepreneurs has never been so high. Responses to survey questions around ‘enterprise culture’ reflected that growth. Participants were more likely to say they had a family member, friend or partner running a business, and were significantly more likely to have experienced enterprise education before university. Prof Galloway concluded that the findings have important implications for research (What’s the real driver of entrepreneurship? What’s the value of entrepreneurship in other employment contexts), and teaching (What are we trying to achieve? What are the implications for pedagogy?).

3) The winner takes it all, the loser standing small?

Which brings me to a third thought, which may be a bit off message in the afterglow of GEW. It’s hard to start challenging widely held views about established enterprise education models, but I’d argue that we don’t know nearly enough about the effects that different approaches have on how young people think and do.  The last three weeks will have seen students of all ages undertake a blizzard of business competitions and challenges. It’s the ubiquitous enterprise education model – relatively easy to understand and deliver, plenty of off-the-shelf resources for educators, and participants apparently having to use and develop their enterprise skills through the process. But do we really know what the effect is? Imagine learning anything else through a model where you do a day-long challenge (or maybe longer if you’re lucky) and at the end of it 90-95% of the room or teams end up as (implicitly) losers. How do we know that what young people aren’t actually learning is that there’s no point in thinking about running a business because they won’t be successful at it? There’s a big difference between reporting you’ve used your team work skills, or thought of a business idea, or had fun, and then what meaning you take from the whole experience. There is an argument that it’s good to weed out over-optimism and put off those who wouldn’t have the skills to lead and grow a business. Perhaps that would be a tolerable view if business competitions were designed and delivered only to identify and support these unicorns of business. But they’re not. Business competitions and challenges are delivered in all phases of education now, from primary upwards, and this is likely to grow with recent moves to develop ‘Enterprise for All.’ Many young people, unicorns or otherwise, will have to make work for themselves at some point if they want to have a job, or if they want to have some job satisfaction. Learning that business ‘isn’t for them’ by repeatedly losing in enterprise challenges might have the same effect that competitive sport can have on pupils who don’t excel – they don’t want to, or think they should, take part.

4) Conscripts, mercenaries or volunteers…

It was great to see, after a few years of dwindling interest in enterprise education nationally, a good and enthusiastic turnout to the Enterprise Village conference at BIS in London. Amongst the sense of buoyancy and hopefulness, there was a theme in side discussions with teachers who described the struggle they can have ‘selling’ enterprise education to senior leadership and colleagues back at school. There were some teachers, tasked as ‘Enterprise Champions’, feeling as if they were at the base camp of Everest. Yes it feels exciting, but not a little lonely and dangerous. Having to ‘get colleagues on board’ always comes up in ‘embedding enterprise’ discussions, dependent as it is on wide buy in that crosses subjects and topics. Such an endeavour requires commitment and loyalty, and is achieved over time. In my experience, the best advocates in the early days are volunteers, the early adopters who help develop and test practice and have techniques and good news to share. Nothing will scupper the development of enterprise culture like forcing people into a role and then not giving them the resources to undertake it. Ivor Tiefenbrun had a nugget in this department – when everything is going great it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a conscript, mercenary or volunteer….but if things get difficult, you’ll know the difference. Interestingly, he attributed the success of Linn not to technology and innovation, but to people. ‘Anyone can spot a problem or an opportunity,’ he said. ‘I wanted my company to look after suppliers, customers and its people.’ He called the way people worked together the only source of sustainable competitive advantage: ‘We had great people who want to work together to build something more than they could alone, or by working with other people.’ No hard sell there, just the incredible pull of an important, shared endeavour. Sounds like a good strategy…

Four (initial) reflections after IEEC 2015…..

It took the appointment of an Entrepreneurship Tsar to prompt my first blog. It took three brilliant and thought provoking days at IEEC 2015 to inspire my second.

The International Entrepreneurship Educators Conference, held at Anglia Ruskin University last week, was a gathering of 200+ Enterprise Educators from across the UK and abroad. The keynote speeches, workshops and quick fire PechaKucha sessions provided rich food for thought and inspiration, as well as demonstrating an exciting range of entrepreneurial programmes and practice in Higher Education.

The long drive home from Essex provided a great opportunity for the sort of relaxed cognition Andy Penaluna described during one session. While sitting in my car, my neurons were a metaphorical oak tree, or a fir tree (I’m not sure which)…a tree at least, with squirrels running amok on the branches. I’m sure Andy and colleagues can better clarify what was going on at brain level, but below is a first attempt to organise my own initial thoughts after the conference…

  1. How we talk about our work matters…

Entrepreneurship Education is a field laden with technical language, theory and concept. Yamini Naidu’s  practical demonstration of ‘the curse of knowledge’ (how did I not guess that knuckle rendition of Happy Birthday?), showed that too much knowledge can thwart the ability to communicate in a way that engages, inspires and connects. Her inspiring talk was both a practical demonstration of the power of story-telling, and an education. Contrasting approaches to influencing (telling vs engaging, microwave vs casserole, push vs pull), she pointed out that when you are trying to get someone to do something they might not have to do, ‘hard power’ has its limitations. You don’t just want people to turn up, you want them to turn on. ‘Soft power’ rules, but it does take time and trust. The ability to connect with people through relatable story telling is crucial. Being able to describe what you do clearly was also a theme in Lyn Batchelor’s brilliant workshop. Those that were there enjoyed practising their verbal business card for the rest of the conference. As Lyn identified when she introduced the concept; it’s much more engaging (and easily understandable) to say ‘I help students become more employable or employ themselves’ rather than give a job title (or titles, in Lyn’s case). The verbal business card was an enjoyable activity with a serious message. Quickly communicating your work and its impact is important; we need to make it easier for people to immediately understand the difference we make, in our roles and as a field. Which brings me to my second thought….

2) It’s more than skills….

I’ve previously blogged here about the challenges of working to develop enterprise education in schools when there is no agreed curriculum. Repetition of activity, inconsistent progression and gaps in knowledge are rife. Donna Miller’s fascinating keynote demonstrated the problem which job-hunting students with an incomplete idea of what it means to be enterprising will face. As the Talent Acquisition Manager for Enterprise Rent-a-car, she gave a global-business-eye-view of what employers are looking for when they recruit young people. Donna shared some ‘must have’ qualities, and at the top of one list was commercial awareness. She discussed what recruiters might look for and when they might be looking for it. An interest and knowledge about current affairs and business, a clear idea of the recruiting business and its competitors, thoughts about where the recruiting company and its industry might be heading and trends in society and the economy that might be opportunities or risks for the recruiting company. Recruiters would be looking for evidence of this in answers at interview, in assessments, and even in chit chat over lunch. So in all the talk of transferable entrepreneurial skills and competencies, Donna’s presentation demonstrated that background knowledge and economic and business understanding is crucial (interestingly, this area – economic and business understanding – is identified by Ofsted as a persistent weakness in school provision too). A quick look at a KMPG’s ‘behavioural competencies’ demonstrates this prioritisation. ‘Career motivation’ is the number one competency, and is about demonstrating how much you know and understand about KPMG and the work you’d do there. The data I collect from schools at the beginning of our programmes reinforces a picture of this area as a gap. I’ve worked with Elena Ruskovaara at the University of Lappeenranta in Finland and adapted her pedagogical surveys to help teachers I work with reflect on the concrete practices that are included in entrepreneurial/enterprising learning. The surveys give teachers practical ideas of things they can do (‘use stories about entrepreneurs as teaching material’), but also identifies the frequency they perceive they deploy these pedagogies (daily/weekly/monthly/less often/never). Interestingly, results are relatively consistent across the country, and from different phases of education. Teachers generally identify that they already use pedagogies that increase learners’ independence, their team working, their problem solving skills. But they don’t often invite entrepreneurs into the classroom, tell stories about entrepreneurs or businesses, and (mostly) never take into account local and regional industry strategies when they plan enterprise education.  It feels wrong that young people in schools experience enterprise education as a practical activity (make and sell/bake and sell), that is entirely disconnected from the real economic opportunities that are out there. We’ve been developing ‘Industry Related Enterprise Learning’ with our schools to work on this area.

3) What unites us?

Which brings me to the request made during and after the last workshop I attended, led (heutagogically speaking) by Jones, Penaluna and Gibson. It included exploring differences in entrepreneurship activities and practice across universities, and then similarities in what unites entrepreneurship educators. Helping prepare students to find and make work and developing transformational learning which changed how students thought were initial inputs around ‘what unites us.’ It illuminated that despite differences in entrepreneurial programmes between institutions, entrepreneurial educators want them to achieve some of the same things. But differences in how to get there, what the programme of learning should be and how it should be taught was variable. Do you cover Schumpeter? Do you use a particular text book? Do you write your own? Are there elements of teaching and curricula that unite everyone? The workshop concluded with a request – feed-in to what a ‘scholarship of entrepreneurial learning’ should include. What should be taught and how should it be taught? This request was reiterated by Jones in the closing remarks: next year, he suggested, instead of sharing everything that’s different, why doesn’t the network look at what unites it?

4) Hang together and hang together for a long time…

My last thought comes from Simon Bond’s talk-through of the success story that is SetSquared, the number 1 high-tech start-up/accelerator in Europe, number 2 globally. He didn’t gloss over the time and effort it took to achieve this. In a master stroke of story-telling, he likened the journey to the Wizard of Oz – ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.’ Like the Wizard of Oz, everyone is on a different journey. The five universities, and all the researchers, students and entrepreneurs involved have different motivations and different needs. What was Simon’s answer to this? ‘Hang together, and hang together for a long time.’ It’s good advice – simple, but deep. It’s something (as a relative newbie to the conference – 3rd year as a delegate, 1st as an exhibiter), I feel is evident at IEEC. As outgoing chair of EEUK, Sheila Quairney said in her opening address, attendance and interest is holding. It’s not been the same journey in the schools sector; the lack of policy and the lack of resources has impacted on involvement and innovation. Until very recent changes in policy, the message to schools with regards to enterprise education could be summarised as this – ‘Yes, of course it’s a good thing, but you don’t have to do it, and you won’t be asked about it.’ New statutory guidance on careers inspiration and the latest iteration of the Ofsted schools inspection framework  (go to page 52 for the magic words ‘employment and self-employment’) does at least give some pointers to schools. Helping prepare young people find and make work and have the skills and knowledge to become productive, financially independent adults should be part of young people’s education. The documents above are start, but I’ve written here why they won’t lead to ‘Enterprise for All.’  A theme from the panel discussion, track chairs and from the closing remarks was that people are doing really good work. Elin McCallum’s background as a policy maker in Europe gives her extensive experience and examples to contrast with, so it’s heartening to hear that although policy hasn’t been as robust as European colleagues, she sees the UK as ahead of the game practice-wise. But as Keith Burnley, CEO of NCEE, said – there has been a disconnect between business and education policy. In my work, the priorities of schools are more influenced by the Department for Education and Ofsted than BiS, and even more so by the obvious and necessary pressure of ensuring pupil progress and attainment. Unless the conversation about entrepreneurial learning in schools mobilises around supporting and accelerating pupil progress through better quality teaching and learning, it won’t go very far. My ‘Steve Blank’ chats with conference attendees demonstrated this well to me (thanks for your time and experiences). With a couple of exceptions, everyone I talked to (if their university had an education/teacher training department), was either not working with them, or had been knocked back. There is opportunity on the horizon with the roll out of the Enterprise Advisor pilot and the advent of the Careers and Enterprise Company. Universities could use their knowledge and skills in entrepreneurial, enterprising and careers learning to develop or extend their valuable work in school outreach and make an impact in communities. But getting engagement with schools now depends on getting the story right and doing what works (scroll down for my previous blog which included some comment on the unintended consequences of some enterprise interventions). I enjoyed the concluding comments from the track chairs and the conference organisers which warmly appreciated the quality and passion of enterprise educators. It struck me what incredible expertise and brain power existed in that conference hall. I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference, which will be hosted at Liverpool John Moores University. Following on from the creative and entertaining genius of Jones, Penaluna and Gibson, there could be an extension to their request. Perhaps, as well as listen and learn and show and tell, there could be a ‘Do’ track, or a ‘Hack’ track, where interested parties could work on something tangible whilst they were at the conference. Unconferences, Innovation Camps and Hackathons use this method to good effect, leveraging the talent and time of attendees to create as well as learn. Whatever the plan though, without a doubt, I’m already looking forward to hanging together at IEEC 2016.

Five tips for the government’s new entrepreneurship tsar

I’m coming to blogging fashionably late, like when I bought a trilby hat four years after they’d had a moment. But I was inspired to write after last week’s government announcement of a new review into how to turn Britain into ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. This one is led by Michelle Mone, the lingerie entrepreneur, who is qualified by her achievements in rising up from her East End of Glasgow roots and building a business empire. As anyone doing it will tell you, running a business may be challenging and adventurous but it’s not easy, so a big trilby tip to Michelle for managing to create an empire. It’s not within the experience of most people. Whether her outlier perspective is a hindrance or a help on the path to wisdom is yet to be seen. I’d be fascinated if Lisa McKenzie, a researcher living in the sort of community Michelle left behind, was appointed as an associate reviewer and they could compare and contrast their findings.

Michelle’s review is focussed on barriers to entrepreneurship in deprived communities, and I’ll eat my trilby if the debate doesn’t eventually come round to education, and more specifically, how it could be adapted, or include experiences that could help young people be more entrepreneurial.

This happened with the APPG group on Micro Business, which went on to publish An Education System Fit for an Entrepreneur, and it happened with Lord Young’s small business review which published Enterprise for All, an exploration of the relevance of enterprise in education.

I was involved in the review that led to Enterprise for All, and think that Distilled Ginger Wisdom captured it neatly when he said that the recommendations and final document, though practical, didn’t reflect the nuanced solutions reviewers said would make a difference. So I could understand why #ented colleagues might roll their eyes at this latest announcement. The optimist in me hopes things will be different.

Michelle said in her BBC interview that she wants to learn about the barriers to entrepreneurship and what changes are needed, so I’ve got five tips to inform her thinking when the debate gets round to entrepreneurial learning in education.

  1. Brush up on the basics: Have a read of this background paper by Swedish researcher Martin Lackéus for a grounding in the why, what, when and how of entrepreneurial learning. His research helps conceptualise why entrepreneurial learning is an effective way of developing academic mind-sets and non-cognitive skills. But design is everything, students need to interact with the outside world, deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and have a team working experience if they are to develop entrepreneurial competencies.
  2. Recognise that mind-set gets fixed early. People’s ambitions, mind-set and imagination about what the future can hold for them can get fixed at a young age. The research that originally informed my work, Learning to Succeed, illustrated that some young people have made their minds up about the future when they’re still in primary school. That means, in terms of entrepreneurial learning in education, a few collapsed timetable days at secondary school and an annual Global Entrepreneurship Week is too little, too late.
  3. Don’t assume that an enterprise competition is the answer for young people from deprived backgrounds. I would argue that too many young people’s experiences in entrepreneurial learning are through ‘winners and losers’ type activity, which could have the unintended consequences of putting them off further exploration or involvement. Recent research explores the potential adverse impact for some students of the ubiquitous competitive, high stakes, win-or-lose business contest. Heilbrunn and Almor (2014), found that the design of entrepreneurial learning can reproduce social inequalities, rather than unlock every young person’s entrepreneurial spirit. The researchers investigated the impact of taking part in a competitive business contest and found that for middle and higher socio-economic students there was a very positive impact. However, for lower socio-economic students (the ones that Michelle is interested in), their self-efficacy and the desire and feasibility to be an entrepreneur went in the wrong direction. Post analysis interviews showed a complex mix of interacting factors, from less parental support, to less time spent on task, and interestingly the feeling at regional meetings and competitions of being ‘under privileged, backward and less capable.’
  4. Take a critical look at the system, not just the people. Have a read of Van Galan and Stahl and recognise what structural barriers young people face, as well as individual ones. Young people growing up in deprived communities aren’t protected in the same way that middle class children are. They don’t have the same access to knowledge, the support building confidence and skills, and the role models and networks that show them the diverse ways people make employment in a global economy. Recommendations that don’t propose some sort of entitlement to this, which kicks in as soon as young people start school, won’t have the impact Michelle seems enthusiastic about making.
  5. Move the conversation on from schools ‘doing’ entrepreneurship activities to entrepreneurial teaching methods impacting on motivation, learning and achievement. There are so many business and enterprise activities out there that even if an educator lived five lifetimes they still wouldn’t be able to take part in every competition, develop every challenge, link with every ambassador or download every lesson plan. In terms of reach though it’s like this: it’s the converted who are being preached to. Because for most schools, entrepreneurship is just a bit-part on their agenda, if it’s there at all. The game in town in schools is improving pupil achievement through better quality teaching and learning, so unless you can bring the movement together around that, then entrepreneurial learning will always be a fringe activity in education. Head Teachers involved in developing entrepreneurial learning as a vehicle for school improvement praise the energising effect on school culture and expectations, the innovation in curricula and pedagogy and the motivation of teachers and pupils. Put the focus on that and Michelle, you might just start a conversation more schools want to have.