What would-be entrepreneurs need most is experience

In 2010, when I became dean of Nottingham University Business School, I assumed responsibility for and oversight of more than 5,000 students at campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia. From day one I accepted that most of these bright young souls might regard me as a bit of a dinosaur.

That they should hold such a view was in many ways entirely understandable. After all, most undergraduates are in their late teens – a privilege, alas, with which I am nowadays only distantly familiar. To whatever extent, anyone who has spent decades in business education runs the risk of edging ever further away from the very cutting edge of technology and development and so becoming “out of date”.

I very soon came to realise, though, that this is by no means a problem confined to academics of advancing years. Throughout my deanship, which lasted for half a decade, I was struck by how everybody is susceptible to the relentless pace of transformation that characterises our age. Crucially, it is a challenge even students must face.

Perhaps nowhere is the issue more relevant than in the sphere of entrepreneurship. With the forces of “creative destruction” raging ever more fiercely, those students who are determined to build on their own ideas and plough their own furrows need an especially strong grasp of the “real world”. Would-be entrepreneurs cannot afford to find themselves in a business environment that bears little or no resemblance to the one about which they have supposedly learned.

It is for this reason, I believe, that we have to recognise and make abundantly clear the enormous difference between “know-about” and “know-how”. The former is part and parcel of every business education; the latter should be a vital element but is too frequently overlooked. We can start to examine the significant distinction between the two by considering some potential evolutions of the business school curriculum, each representing a fanciful extreme.

The first of these evolutions would see us concentrate exclusively on the underlying principles of business. These longstanding tenets would remain set in stone, their universal applicability unquestioned even in light of the most dramatic events beyond the cosy confines of the classroom and the lecture theatre.

The second evolution would see us adopt an equally unwavering focus on change and uncertainty. In this instance business schools would accept that the unrelenting churn of trading conditions awaiting students upon graduation would inevitably render immaterial the imparting of any factual information or content.

Each of these scenarios may appear faintly ridiculous in isolation, but together they underline the direction in which the business school curriculum might usefully travel. In short, what is urgently required is a move that takes us away from the first extreme and significantly closer to the second.

Of course, such a shift is far simpler to propose than it is to achieve. The incorporation of a perpetual state of disequilibrium is hard enough to say or write, let alone implement. Yet the basic exigency at the heart of the desired approach can be encapsulated in a single word: experience.

Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi coined the phrase “tacit knowing”, observing: “We know more than we can tell.” Many business-related skills, particularly those most associated with entrepreneurship, are tacit in nature: they cannot be learned from a book, downloaded after a quick Google search or digested, memorised, used to pass an exam and then all but forgotten again. It is only through experience that tacit knowledge can be gained; and it is this same experience that narrows the gap between what would-be entrepreneurs are taught and what they actually need to know.

There is another word that fits the bill and which may even have a more compelling ring to it: immersion. Business school students need to be thoroughly immersed in genuine change, genuine uncertainty, to appreciate where “know-about” ends and “know-how” begins. Just as someone learning to swim has to get wet, someone learning to be an entrepreneur has to plunge into the choppy waters of the “real world” at every opportunity; and it falls to business schools to help facilitate those opportunities.

It is well worth remembering that we are on the cusp of an era in which a swipe across a smartphone’s screen could be sufficient to download the sum total of humankind’s knowledge. This is both awe-inspiring and frightening. It is awe-inspiring because it reinforces the extraordinary pace of change mentioned earlier; and it is frightening because all the facts on Earth are meaningless unless we know what to do with them, how to use them and how they might be combined to produce new facts.

The notion of experience, of immersion, of “know-how”, is the innovation I would champion above all others in striving to devise a business school curriculum that truly readies the entrepreneurs of the future for life after graduation. I do not mind students thinking of me as something of a dinosaur, but I cannot abide the thought that they themselves might all too soon be deemed comparably Jurassic.

Professor Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.