Durham University Business School
Durham DH1 3LB
Between 1986 and 1992, 140 graduates, selected when still students, were helped to start businesses in a country-wide government sponsored scheme. Some 40 of these individuals continue to run businesses locally at some level of activity between survival and high growth. A few individuals have ceased trading by choice or force of circumstances. Acquisition of entrepreneurial skills has been observed. Precisely what these skills are, and how learned, has been examined and related to the typology of the business start-up situation.
The graduates have been observed ethnographically in a business context in a set of exploratory case studies. The actuality of their progress towards trading, survival and growth is documented in written accounts. Evidence of learned entrepreneurial skill has been observed at different stages of the process of business formation, from original idea formulation to an established business with profitable sets of accounts. The nature of this learning is described and characterised. It is then related to the kind of business chosen, and the kinds of activity necessitated by the choice of business. Available models of learning in the literature were surveyed in order to provide an explanation of what appears to be observed. The most relevant description of learning found is that of situated learning, defined as legitimate peripheral participation. It is a generalisation from anthropological accounts of apprenticeships over a wide range of different apprenticeships. This description of learning provides an analytical framework with which to comment on any learning situation. Here it is applied to the case of the learning entrepreneur.
A consistent view of what the entrepreneurial learning process emerges. Certain important aspects of entrepreneurship can be defined as practices which can be learned and mastered. The level of success achieved depends to a large extent on the entrepreneurial learning situation, with motivation to learn linked strongly to the degree of awareness of, and contact with, relevant business communities. One of these is the community of entrepreneurial master practitioners. Another is the community of young entrepreneurs who have been in business for a relatively short while and may be viewed as a "near peer" group. For some of the young entrepreneurs in the sample, their situation leads to barriers to contact with relevant communities and learning is proportionately inhibited. A second finding is the benefit for learning of situations which are akin to the apprenticeship model. In a situation which is favourable to learning this means having access to real business practices, but at a minimal or partial level, preferably mentored, before proceeding to a larger scale or more comprehensive range of business activity.
Facilitators aiming to assist in the business start-up process can aim to optimise their support in relatively precise ways. Two complementary areas of support are crucial?the design of the overall framework of support for would-be entrepreneurs and the guidance given to them. Firstly, the means should be available to provide access to relevant communites at every stage of the process as well as access to entrepreneurial practice within the community of entrepreneurs. Secondly, guidance for the would-be entrepreneur should help him or her steer towards that type of business activity which is most relevant to the stage of entrepreneurial learning so far achieved. A model programme of support is proposed.