Blue chip or SME for students?
The ambitions of business school students preparing for life in the “real world” are often dictated by the sort of ice-cold logic that guided notorious American hold-up man Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, a career choice that netted him an estimated $2m between the late 1920s and his final arrest in 1952, Sutton allegedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Students also want to go where the money is. They want their efforts and their talents to be rewarded as handsomely as possible. That’s why the majority dream of working for blue chip companies, usually in the sprawling milieu of the multinational.
For many the dream will remain just that. Some of the very best and most dynamic will launch their own businesses; others will work in small and medium-sized companies. Their destinies will lie in the comparatively cosy confines of the local economy, and there’s no disgrace whatsoever in that.
The trouble is that many business schools are still reluctant to recognise as much. For them, too, the Willie Sutton ethos dominates. Why change your modus operandi when the way you’ve always done things almost invariably brings immense financial success? Why look beyond the bottom line when, to put it bluntly, you’re raking it in?
The co-creation of local knowledge: good for students…
The truth, though, is that business schools should reconsider the relevance of much of what they teach; and they should do so with the best interests of not only their students but employers in mind. Theories that are almost exclusively entrenched in the art of thinking big undoubtedly have their place, but something else is required when practice turns out to be rooted in something altogether more modest.
As one of my colleagues, Professor Martin Binks, has argued elsewhere on these pages, our task is to prepare the managers and leaders of the future for what actually awaits them rather than to encourage them to graduate with a skillset that may well bear little relation to the challenges they confront when they embark on professional life. The glamour and appeal of “masters of the universe” status is hard to deny, but so are the inescapable exigencies of reality.
A greater focus on the local offers a compelling solution for all concerned, not least because it should lead to the co-creation of useful knowledge. Historically, business schools’ collaborations with small businesses have been both infrequent and defined by the wrong sort of give-and-take: they give, we take. The objective should be to build relationships from which everyone gains.
It’s easy to see how students would benefit if more business schools were to adopt such an approach. They would get a proper grounding in small business life and so be much better equipped to handle the informed decisions, calculated risks and assorted pressures likely to punctuate many of their careers. Granted, it might not sound like a curriculum component to set pulses racing; but a significant number of graduates would surely find it of huge value.
… and good for employers
In tandem, many of the people already within the small business community would welcome the expertise and experience that business schools are able to pass on. Delivering helpful insights into issues such as effective administration, professional credibility, the ability to survive and thrive and other everyday concerns should be key to our side of the deal.
By way of illustration, take the case of a couple working in the floristry trade in a provincial town. They attended an executive education workshop hosted by Nottingham University Business School 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, students got a valuable taste of the day-to-day problems of life beyond the blue-chips.
Let’s not forget, too, that every big business began as a small one. Nottingham’s Growth 100 scheme – which each year invites a hundred local owners and directors to participate in practical sessions designed to help them expand their operations – was founded on this irrefutable fact, which is too routinely either conveniently overlooked or deliberately ignored.
Sadly, in some quarters a certain snobbery will probably endure in perpetuity. Flower shops, companies with a handful of employees, firms with six-figure annual turnovers – some people will always find such stuff too dull and parochial to contemplate. But the real world tends to catch up with everyone in the end – even Willie Sutton – which is why trying to ignore it is not just arrogant but, perhaps worse still, potentially self-defeating.
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). [email protected]