Resolving the Disconnects Between Academics and Practice in Entrepreneurship
Dr. Suresh U. Kumar (email: email@example.com)
During the past few years, as an entrepreneur and a doctoral researcher, I had the unique opportunity to straddle the worlds of practice (founding Inc 500/5000 ranked firms) and academics (education research, and outreach) in the field of entrepreneurship. In mid 2008, driven by intellectual curiosity and the excitement of new learning, I went about exploring what lay at the intersection of the worlds of academics and practice. Since the United States has been the leading economy in the world for several decades now, prior to my study I had assumed that there would be a high degree of interplay between the world of academics and practice. To my great surprise I discovered how loosely connected (or disconnected) the two worlds were from each other. While there are many parts and players, large and small, involved in the complex yet highly evolved entrepreneurial eco-system of the United States, this article highlights some of the gap that exists between the worlds of academics and practice in the field of entrepreneurship.
The Entrepreneurial Eco-system in the United States: For those who are not fully conversant with the entrepreneurial eco-system in the United States, it will help to get an overview of the key players. Among the well-known government agencies and organizations that have entrepreneurship development as one of their primary objectives are the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the state/county/township level Economic Development Authorities (EDA’s). There are several well known foundations such as the Kauffman Foundation and the Coleman Foundation that play important roles in promoting entrepreneurship. There are hundreds of reputed universities, business schools, community collages, and centers of entrepreneurship all over the United States that teach, conduct research and promote entrepreneurship. The premier associations that represent academic institutions include the Academy of Management (AoM), the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) – the U.S. affiliate of the International Council of Small Business (ICSB), and the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE). Advocacy organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, various state and city chambers, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) play important roles in the formulation of policy related to small business and entrepreneurship. The more recent and fast growing part of the eco-system is represented by social and professional networks of successful minority and immigrant groups such as the Indus Entrepreneur (TIE) for South Asian Americans and the Monte Jade Science and Technology Association of Greater Washington for Chinese Americans. Popular national and regional media outlets such as Inc. magazine and Entrepreneur; publishing houses, and a host of blogs/ social media outlets are heavily invested in supporting and promoting entrepreneurship. Put together all these organizations, along with thousands of others that has a secondary focus on entrepreneurship, play vital roles in the development, education, research, advocacy, outreach, and in provide networking opportunities for entrepreneurs.
The Disconnect: As previously stated, I limit my observations to the world of academics and practice in the field of entrepreneurship. Many major academic and practitioner organizations such as AoM, USASBE, INC, and TIE conduct large annual conferences for their members. My experience attending some of the events has been that, barring a few exceptions, there is very little by way of strategic dialogue and sustainable partnerships between academic and practitioner organizations that tie in practice, research, education, advocacy and policy in meaningful ways. I have found that organizations charged with fostering the practice and education of entrepreneurship, at least for the most part, operate in silos that separate entrepreneurs from educators and researchers. For example, academic conferences that are focused on entrepreneurship organized by USASBE and ICSB are attended just by a handful of practicing entrepreneurs, usually those who have a recent success story and have been invited to speak. The reasons? (a) there is hardly any outreach by academic conferences to entrepreneurs, (b) entrepreneurs have busy schedules and select events where they can get proven and practical ideas that could address they immediate concerns and have can be applied to their businesses, not abstract research finding, and (c) entrepreneurs and the organization that represent them often lack the training to find and see the relevance in academic research that could contribute to better decision-making. The disconnects are amplified as you go down the line to state and local organizations.
I have invited some of my entrepreneur friends to attend academic conference and the response almost every time has been some version of either “How will it benefit me?” or “I don’t know anyone there”. Having being part of the doctoral consortia of USASBE and ICSB, I can testify that there are plenty of excellent mentoring and learning opportunities for researchers at academic conferences. However, the value proposition for practitioners is not the same as for the majority of the papers presented at academic conferences the practical applicability is suspect. Why? As was brilliantly argued by William Bygrave, Ph.D., (2007), professor emeritus of Babson Collage, one of the most highly regarded expert in entrepreneurship in the United States, I found that the primary reasons are the use of improper datasets (examples: mom and pop business thrown in with high-growth businesses; or findings from VC funded firms, which are relatively few in numbers used to make broader generalizations), widespread use of secondary data, research models based on weak theory, research questions that are irrelevant, and use of esoteric quantitative techniques that is for the most part far removed from the reality of what actually happens inside the complex and chaotic world of start-up’s. According to Dale Meyer, Ph.D., (2011), professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, the academic field of entrepreneurship is “stalled” due the use of econometric methodologies and secondary databases that “distance researchers from actual people and behaviors that catalyze entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship” (p. 7). Truth be told, having sat through over 25 research paper presentations, including many award wining ones, barring a couple of notable exceptions, there has not been many ’takeaway’s’ that I could apply to my business. And remember, I was the one who went to the academic conferences actively seeking research findings I could apply to my study and practice.
On the practitioner organization side, over the years, I have attended many events and annual conferences such as the Americas Small Business Summit organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Tie-con of TIE, and the annual Inc. 500/5000 Conference by Inc. magazine. At each of these events I was hard pressed to find well respected experts from research and academia. The reasons for this missed opportunity? (a) there is hardly any outreach by practitioner organizations to the entrepreneurship educators and researchers, (b) majority of the organizations representing practitioners stick with a narrow agenda that is designed get the immediate attention of their membership at the cost of addressing long term systemic issues that are supported and validated by painstaking research, (c) educational institutions do not give tenure credit to researcher who conduct workshops, do research, or speak at non-academic conferences, (d) universities and business schools do not reimburse researchers the fee and expenses for non-academic conferences. So why would a researcher with limited time and resources who has the tenure sword hanging over his or her head, attend a practitioner conference? The irony is that practitioner conferences are attended by large numbers of entrepreneurs and has the potential to be rich sources of collection of raw data and can serve as excellent testing labs for theory.
Some Suggestions for Bridging the Gaps: Based on my personal experiences, I propose a few recommendations for bridging the gaps between academics and practice in the field of entrepreneurship: (a) practitioner conferences should take the lead in shifting the paradigm of conference agendas to incorporate cutting edge research and by inviting academic experts and organizations, (b) academic conferences should have more workshops devoted to practitioner oriented research that emphasizes field studies and case studies of entrepreneurs and their ventures, (c) given the applied nature of entrepreneurship a strong case can be made for the presentation of a workshop or research paper at a practitioner conference counting towards tenure credit. I cannot think of any thing more important that a researcher can do than informing and improving practice and in fact, given the opportunity, many researchers I have met really want to. This of course is easier said than done as it will necessitate getting various accreditation intuitions onboard so that the proposed changes are credible, systemic, and sustainable, (d) reserving few seats at national conferences and other events at discounted fees on a reciprocal basis so as to encourage participation from both sides, (e) practitioner and academic institutions can work together to co-develop specially tailored experiential learning programs for entrepreneurs and educators, that incorporates critical contextual factors like human capital, nascency, ethnicity, minority/immigrant status, industry expertise, culture, and social/professional networks, and (f) more applied approaches to developing research-based knowledge that team researchers with entrepreneurs with the objective of making research questions and methods grounded in reality and therefore more relevant to policy and practice.
Entrepreneurship Education: Challenges and Solutions: A related area of concern is about how entrepreneurship is being taught at schools and universities to students who have an interest in the topic, some of who would eventually end up as practitioners or educators or policy makers. Several experts have raised questions about the effectiveness of teaching methodologies currently used in the classroom. Carl Schramm, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, one of the foremost thinkers on entrepreneurship and economic policy, has questioned the usefulness of business plans and case studies as teaching tools and has contended that what is being taught at our schools and universities has very little relevance to the real world in which entrepreneurs work. Schramm (2011) has called for a “New Learning in Entrepreneurship” that will entail re-thinking what is taught, how it is taught, and to whom, when, and where. The widespread use of education models that are based on entrepreneurship as a linear process has been called to question by Norris Krueger, Ph.D., of Entrepreneurship Northwest, one the pioneers of research into entrepreneurial cognition. According to Krueger (2007) education should focus on constructivistic methods such as field studies and teaming with real entrepreneurs.
The applied nature and the social impact of entrepreneurship education demand a close collaboration between educators, researchers, practitioners and policy makers. Acknowledging the limited utility of current approaches to entrepreneurship education in an unpredictable world, Heidi Neck and Patricia Greene (2011) of Babson Collage has recommended new approaches that emphasize methods that involve applying, using, and acting. According to Per Davidsson (2002), entrepreneurship professor at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, putting research-based knowledge in business to better use requires academics who care about practice in the ways they source their research questions and disseminate their results. My research on high-growth Asian American immigrant high-tech entrepreneurs (Kumar, 2011) indicated that successful entrepreneurs have an intuitive way of learning from prior experiences and gaining entrepreneurial expertise quickly. Entrepreneurs, especially those with high human capital, if equipped with the proper theoretical foundation using online and just-in-time learning programs (Schramm, 2011) made available by business schools and centers for entrepreneurship, working in collaboration with researchers, could play an important role in finding solutions to some of the challenges discussed in this section.
Conclusion: Despite the rapid growth experienced by the academic field of entrepreneurship and the practice of entrepreneurship as two distinct endeavors, the challenges faced at their intersection are deep and multifaceted. It can be reasonably argued that the primary focus of academic and practioners organizations is different. My response is that if the end goals of organizations, regardless of academic or practitioner focused, are more or less similar, then organizational leaders have the responsibility to ensure greater collaboration. While there may not be a one size fits all solution, it is critical for academic and practitioner organizations and their individual members to explore avenues for collaboration to find out what works and what does not. To advance the field of entrepreneurship the internal disconnects discussed have to be addressed.
The good news is that the solutions to some of the challenges highlighted in this article are already emerging from institutions that have leaders who think like entrepreneurs do. Some examples that I have come across are: (a) Kauffmans practitioner oriented programs such as Labs and Education Ventures, where carefully screened entrepreneurs who are ready to start their ventures are mentored and provided with the coaching and tools needed to grow rapidly scaleable firms; (b) the Startup Weekend – a 54 hour hands-on iterative experience that brings together aspiring entrepreneurs with experienced mentors to share ideas, build teams, and launch startups; (c) Babsons flagship Symposia for Entrepreneurship Educators’ (SEE) that pairs educators and entrepreneurs in cross disciplinary teams that combines entrepreneurship theory and practice in teaching; (d) the Experiential Classroom organized by Oklahoma State University which retools teachers new to entrepreneurship with the best educational practices; (e) the 3E-Learning exercise run by the George Washington University that is designed for educators, practitioners and researchers to collaborate on new ideas, new knowledge, and new skills. In particular, some of the initiatives taken by Kauffman and Babson Collage to collaborate directly with well run and highly networked practitioner organizations such as Inc. and TIE hold great promise and must not only be enhanced and accelerated, but also reciprocated.
In order to capture the richness and the subtle intricacies of a complex, nonlinear, and disjointed social phenomenon such as entrepreneurship, a broad nationwide policy framework is needed that promotes collaboration and information sharing. A need exists for the cross-pollination of ideas and best practices between the various government agencies, foundations, universities, chambers of commerce, media outlets, and other independent organizations that represent and promote entrepreneurship. I am greatly encouraged by the creation of such as forum at the Future of Entrepreneurship Education Summit (feesummit.com) sponsored by Kauffman Foundation and organized by Extreme Entrepreneurship Education which is scheduled to be held at DC in November 2011. For an applied field such as entrepreneurship that some experts think is still in its infancy, a need exists for collaborative approaches that will further the understanding of the antecedents of successful entrepreneurship and how it is practiced. For the framework to be relevant to practice, the individual entrepreneur must have a central role within it.
Note: Dr. Suresh Kumar is the founder of INC 500 ranked firms Green Earth LLC and NexAge Technologies USA Inc. His doctoral research study titled “The Linkages Between Cognition, Behavior, Culture, and Opportunity Among High-growth Asian Indian Immigrant High-tech Entrepreneurs” has been presented at various international academic and practitioner conferences. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website www.drsureshkumar.net
Bygrave, W. D. (2007). The entrepreneurship paradigm (I) revisited. In H. Neergaard and J. P. Ulhoi (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research methods in entrepreneurship (pp. 17-48). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Davidsson, P. (2011) Putting business research to practice. Brisbane Business News, 2011 Annual Edition, Brisbane, Australia.
Krueger, N. F. (2007). The microfoundations of entrepreneurial learning and education. In E. Gatewood & G. P. West (Eds.), The handbook of university wide entrepreneurship. Cheltenham, UK: Elgar.
Kumar, S. (2011). Linkages between cognition, behavior, culture, and opportunity among high-growth Asian American immigrant entrepreneurs. Accessed online on July 25, 2011, from http://www.drsureshkumar.net/suresh/DoctoralStudy.aspx
Meyer, G. D. (2011). The reinvention of academic entrepreneurship. Journal of Small Business Management, 49, 1-8.
Neck, H. M., & Greene, P. G. (2011). Entrepreneurship education: Known worlds and new frontiers. Journal of Small Business Management, 49, 55-70.
Schramm, C. J. (2011). The “new learning” in entrepreneurship. Ninth anniversary address, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Kansas City, MO. Accessed online on July 30, 2011, from http://steveblank.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/kauffman-9th-anniversary-speech-041511.pdf