Business schools and small businesses need to speak the same language

One of the most challenging paradoxes at the heart of enterprise education, as has been touched on previously on these pages, is that students are routinely encouraged to think big when the reality that awaits a good number of them is likely to prove somewhat less grand in scale. This contradiction gives rise to several uncomfortable problems.

The first and most fundamental is that we risk failing to ready our students for life after graduation. In some instances the chasm between what we teach them and what they actually need to know might just be sufficiently gaping to render much of the exercise essentially pointless.

The second threat, which is directly related to the first, is that we may end up conditioning students to believe there is nothing beyond corporate culture. By way of illustration, consider how we challenge them to compose business plans and to give thought to equity finance for IPOs, MBOs, acquisitions, international expansion and other highfalutin concerns.

Such an outlook, at least if applied relentlessly, flies in the face of continued efforts to recast business schools as institutional anchors capable of enhancing the competitiveness of the small business community. After all, it is hard to square the needs of small businesses with the notion of global domination.

Several years ago, as part of research at Nottingham University Business School, we were able to highlight this disconnect. Questioned for an ethnographic study of micro and small enterprises (MSEs), only a tiny proportion of business owners spoke in terms even vaguely relevant to the high-growth organisations that still dominate so much of the average curriculum.

Instead they were far more likely to express the market-based view that launching, maintaining and building a small business represents a means of creating personal wealth for oneself and a limited band of employees or family members. Some discussed distant and more ambitious goals, but IPOs, MBOs and acquisitions were very seldom even specks on the horizon.

Perspectives such as these may well be comparatively modest, but they are also profoundly sensible. By direct contrast, it is the attitudes of those business schools that remain reluctant to promote their ability to groom graduates for anything less than multinational superstardom that are both arrogant and, it must be said, rather silly.

This is why initiatives such as the Small Business Charter have so much value. They play a significant role in creating the space in which the dialogue between business schools and small businesses can take place and in which the many latent synergies between these two worlds can be discovered and fully exploited.

Granted, the provision of a thorough grounding in the sphere of small business might not be a curriculum component likely to spark a mass influx of eager scholars. But make no mistake: there will be many aspiring entrepreneurs who might one day be extremely grateful to know something about it.

MSEs account for a growing and increasingly vital proportion of the wider business community. Logic and common sense alone dictate that the careers of many business school graduates will therefore be spent in part or entirely within such organisations; and logic and common sense further dictate that business schools should do everything possible to prime students for just such an experience.

The aforementioned business plan is only one example of the very opposite philosophy in action. It does little or nothing to develop the practical entrepreneurial knowledge crucial for anyone working in, founding or transforming a small business. It is rooted firmly in “masters of the universe” territory, ignoring the seemingly unpalatable truth that life beyond the blue-chips not only exists but is both eminently worthwhile and no less noble.

The fact is that we cannot always reflect what we would like to happen: instead we have to reflect what is happening. Harsh economic reality alone is enough to tell us we should be striving for a much tighter integration between theory and practice; and it is enough to tell us we should be doing everything possible to encourage academics, students and small business owners to co-produce entrepreneurial knowing and learning that will help the next generation of business owners to prepare for the future and the current generation to prosper in the present.

As I concluded after completing my ethnographic study, business schools and MSEs have an enormous amount to learn from each other. We just need to make sure we are speaking the same language.

Andrew Greenman is an Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship and Small Business at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.