Recently my colleague Kate Barker and I visited the Sultanate of Oman: an Arab state on the Arabian Peninsula the economy of which strongly, if not exclusively depends on oil. Sunshine, great mostly middle-eastern cuisine and impressive souks aside, we were to take part in a high level policy workshop on ‘Entrepreneurial Higher Education for Sustainable Development’.
More specifically, our tasks were to review a policy report on developing entrepreneurial universities in Oman (sponsored by The Research Council of Oman), to present at the workshop and generally enable a discussion on these issues. Our key note was one of several and many interesting messages – about the situation in the Asian countries in general and in Oman in particular – emerged. A key message was delivered by Ms. Sharifa Al Harthy, a PhD researcher supervised by Kate and me.
Oil is finished – it will either literally run out or it will end like the stone age; the stone age ended not because we run out of stone!
Under this circumstances, developing entrepreneurial environments and encouraging creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship seems to be an obvious path for development.
Where is the problem?
Well, it seems to me that there are at least three problems.
- The first of these lies in the complex and difficult to manage, govern and predict nature of entrepreneurship and creativity. By their very nature, these are highly unpredictable, risky and uncertain events.
- Second, and related to the previous issue, there is a problem of selection and efficiency. Most current policy making is about achieving high efficiency which is ensured through selection, evaluation and accountability and financial control. Because of the highly uncertain and unpredictable nature of entrepreneurship and creativity early selection is problematic, evaluation is likely to be in-effective and strict financial control can stifle rather than encourage developments.
- Last but not least, the issue of enabling entrepreneurship and creativity in Oman (and many other countries around the world) is not one of analysis (which academics have made into a research field and career choice) but one of transformation (for which consultants have not the tools).
This made me consider what will happen were we to forget about the 700,000 or so hits on Google Scholar when searching for ‘entrepreneurship’ and try some old fashioned thinking from ‘first principles’. And this is what I came up with.
Entrepreneurship can be defines as
The ability to see opportunities and act on these.
Working from this ‘definition’ it is possible to distinguish between two part to entrepreneurship:
- Being entrepreneurial as a personal attribute; and
- Creating the organisational and institutional conditions for ‘entrepreneurship’ as personal characteristic to be enacted.
There are many aspect in which the two are linked; but the important thing to remember is that policy can’t do much about the personal apart from creating the different conditions for it to blossom.
These conditions are likely to be different depending on context – national, organisational, cultural and personal. Working from the first two issues with entrepreneurship mentioned above I would venture that the two key characteristics of entrepreneurial environments are:
- Variety; and
Variety refers to organisations, knowledge, funding sources and other kinds of opportunity. Combined with flexibility of governance, structure and management, this is likely to have the following effects:
- Provide the environment for organic selection of ideas thus dealing away with the need for early selection (which in the case of entrepreneurship and creativity is problematic);
- Send a message that entrepreneurship is actively encouraged and creativity sought.
- Provide the ‘play-ground’ for risk taking – an essential ingredient of both entrepreneurial cultures and entrepreneurial spirit.
- Help raise entrepreneurs.
For entrepreneurship to blossom, however, variety and flexibility ought to pervade all areas and aspects of society. There is little point, for instance, to aspire to develop entrepreneurial university in a social, political and funding environments lacking variety of opportunities and flexibility of structures. Similarly, a university cannot be entrepreneurial – neither can be its lecturers and students – if it is riddled with hierarchical and centralised governance structure, inflexible rules, promotion structures that take close to a year, accounting arrangements where processing a claim for £5 costs the organisation £75, and where student assignments are rigidly specified and approved.
At the level of the individual things are also not that difficult: just open your mind so you can learn and spot opportunities, and be flexible enough to be able to ‘take it as it comes’. Oh, and do, don’t only think!
Do you see now why I believe entrepreneurship is no rocket science? Because to enable it one needs only two things at many levels: variety and flexibility.
What do you think?