13th September 2018

The ambitions of business school students preparing for the “real world” are frequently dictated by something akin to the ice-cold strain of logic that guided the career choices of infamous American hold-up man Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, a niche vocation reported to have earned him approximately $2m between the late 1920s and his final arrest in 1952, Sutton allegedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”

It is only natural that students also want to go where the money is. They want their efforts and their talents to be rewarded as handsomely as possible. This is why so many dream of working for blue-chip companies, usually in the multi-tentacled milieu of the multinational.

It is vital to acknowledge, though, that for a good number the dream will stay precisely that. Many of the very best and most dynamic students will follow the path of entrepreneurship and launch their own businesses; others will work in small or medium-sized companies. Their destinies will lie in the comparatively cosy confines of the local economy.

The trouble is that business schools too frequently remain reluctant to recognise as much. For them, too, the Willie Sutton ethos has a certain appeal. As Sutton appreciated only too well, it is difficult to change your modus operandi when the way you have always done things almost invariably delivers financially; and it is hard to look beyond the bottom line when, not to put too fine a point on it, you are raking it in.

Yet such an ethos risks neglecting the most important duty of any business school, which is to ready students for the challenges likely to await them after graduation. There is strictly limited merit in saddling them with a skillset that bears little or no relation to the issues they will confront in their professional lives. And this is why business schools must acknowledge that theories almost exclusively entrenched in the art of thinking big are of decidedly finite use when practice turns out to be rooted in something altogether more modest yet no less worthy.

It is this reality that makes initiatives such as the Small Business Charter so valuable. Historically, business schools’ collaborations with small businesses have been not only rare but characterised by the wrong sort of give-and-take – they give, we take – when the goal should be to build relationships from which everyone gains.

The benefits for students are clear. They receive a proper grounding in small business life and are therefore much better equipped to handle the informed decisions, calculated risks and myriad pressures liable to punctuate many of their careers.

In tandem, many of the people already within the small business community welcome the expertise that business schools are able to pass on. This most often takes the form of helpful insights into issues such as effective administration, professional credibility, the ability to survive and thrive and other everyday concerns.

At Nottingham University Business School we talk about the “co-creation of local knowledge”. The phrase encapsulates many of the corollaries of our collaborations with the small business community.

By way of illustration, consider the case of a couple working in the floristry trade in a provincial town. They attended an executive education workshop we hosted to seek advice about how to compete in a market with low profit margins. In due course they were able to put into practice solutions based on the more efficient use of resources and novel means of differentiating themselves from the competition; and at the same time our students enhanced their own understanding of the day-to-day problems of life beyond the blue-chips.

In some quarters, sadly, the twin curses of myopia and snobbery may well endure in perpetuity. There will always be those who find little to admire – and less still to study – in companies with a handful of employees or firms with six-figure turnovers.

What these people overlook, of course, is that every big business began as a small one and that even the most celebrated entrepreneurs are likely to have started out with a dream or an idea and not a lot else. Our own Growth 100 scheme, which encourages local owners and directors to participate in practical sessions designed to help them expand their operations, was founded on these truths, which are too routinely disregarded in the blinkered pursuit of “masters of the universe” status.

The “real world” tends to catch up with everyone in the end. It even caught up with Willie Sutton. Trying to ignore it is not just pompous but, perhaps worse still, potentially self-defeating. There will always be those who insist big is better, but we should never forget that small can be beautiful.

Simon Mosey is a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Nottingham University Business School and Director of its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE).