If the U.S. economy is to get back on track, schools need to do a better job of teaching innovation and entrepreneurship. That means putting pros in the classroom
By Paul Bauer and Shadi Farhangrazi
How should the U.S. educate future entrepreneurs and create exceptional educational programs? Answering this question will give us far more than improved educational tools. It could help make us again the preeminent world economy—and as a byproduct, solve our unemployment problems.
Roger Schank, a retired university professor and pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, wrote an allegory for what he called a “story-centered curriculum,” featuring a delightful, if somewhat irreverent, tale of a town plagued by a dragon. In it, the prestigious local university quickly puts together a graduate curriculum on dragon slaying, producing 20 graduates in the first class. Various distractions derail many of the graduates, but one team eventually encounters the dragon.
“Unfortunately,” Schank wrote, “they had never really tried to fight a dragon before, and the dragon was much faster and its flame much hotter than any of them had anticipated. The dragon chased one of the members of the team off of a cliff and then proceeded to melt first the weapons and then the body of a second team member. The last two team members had no idea how to engage in a battle between just the two of them and the dragon, so they negotiated a truce. They are now doing public relations for the dragon. What went wrong in the dragon-slaying curriculum that the faculty worked so hard to build? For one thing, there was no actual dragon slaying in it. Teaching actual dragon slaying can be very difficult because among other things, it requires access to an actual dragon.”
Reinventing an Economy of Innovation
The dragon story is an apt analogy for the state of entrepreneurship in higher education today. Our dragon today is the reinvention of an economy of innovation, which then produces high-quality employment. Innovators—people who redirect resources from what they are currently doing to activities that produce higher value—are the people who create new jobs, new markets, and new industries. While colleges and universities have taken various approaches to teaching innovation and entrepreneurship, we propose the following programs, classes, and workshops, which we believe would greatly affect the training of all business students, not just those who are thinking about starting their own companies.
Turning Geeks Into Suits. Many times throughout the process of creating technology companies, people within a company have difficulty communicating the information to the business world or managing the company as a profitable venture. Successfully transferring and commercializing technology requires an understanding of business practices. What we’ve found is that one of the best ways to create new curricula is to produce programs that are tailored to technical groups. This approach would combine business courses and workshops that specifically teach business practices to engineering and science students, who are working on very specialized technical degrees. These classes and workshops could be taught in formats that offer students basic concepts, as well as minors in such areas as innovation and entrepreneurship.
Learning entrepreneurship from entrepreneurs. Many entrepreneurs complain about the lack of mentors as well as difficulty finding good advisers. Business programs could provide the perfect environment for entrepreneurs-in-training to meet seasoned pros. Classes and seminars in which students spend time with entrepreneurs, who discuss their business practices and experiences, could be a great resource for innovators. Similar programs could create additional opportunities to expand on the initial introductions so that experienced entrepreneurs could continue to act as mentors for new entrepreneurs.
Business skills in small doses. In the future, companies will require a workforce that understands how to manage technology and how to innovate within companies. New technologies and emerging industries give tantalizing glimpses of what our economy could look like. More important, they point the way to what today’s education needs to be. More business programs could offer short workshops and non-degree training programs that allow students who are not interested in obtaining degrees opportunities to learn more about business practices and to develop new skills. These workshops and training programs might be the perfect outlet for technical people such as engineers and scientists to learn more about the innovation life cycle and challenges of taking their ideas to market.
Perhaps the most effective way to create training and educational programs with long-term impact is to offer specific degree programs focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. The key is that such programs should be taught by teams that include faculty members who understand the subject matter and can convey the cognitive knowledge alongside experienced entrepreneurs.
We need experienced dragon slayers who are knowledgeable about different aspects of real dragon slaying. Entrepreneurship is truly as much about doing as it is about knowing. That is the element often missing in the ivory tower approach. It’s why products of academic programs are not as effective as they might be at producing the economy of the future.