Daniel Shapiro, Dean of SFU Business, talks to the Globe and Mail in an extensive feature on what Canadian businesses need in order to thrive in the fast-evolving global economy.
Globe and Mail, December 9, 2010
The fifth in an eight-part series of solutions to challenges facing Canada’s foreign trade. This week’s challenge: Bench Strength
Building up Canada’s talent base, from managers to scientists, entrepreneurs to salespeople, is a key challenge as Canadian business aims its sights beyond the United States, its traditional trading partner, to make the most of the world’s burgeoning opportunities.
One answer is to spend far more energy on the study of entrepreneurship, from elementary school to post-secondary, and to rethink how and to whom entrepreneurship is taught. The study of how to create new products and meet consumer needs should not be reserved for business students, according to educators and businesspeople. It should be taught to arts and science students, too.
“I think we have to start educating people from the youngest ages about business and entrepreneurship,” says former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, now the deputy chair of TD Bank Financial Group. “I really had very little exposure to business until further on in my life. It’s about exposing people to another life choice. You don’t have to grow up to be a professor or teacher or lawyer. Entrepreneurship is a choice in itself.”
Daniel Shapiro, dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Business Administration, stresses the value of bringing technical skills in science and engineering, together with the business knowledge and decision-making skills that characterize entrepreneurship.
“If we believe that future innovation and products are going to be increasingly scientifically oriented, it’s reasonable to assume we’re producing scientists for a partly different purpose,” he says. “Some of them will be the innovators and entrepreneurs of the future.”
Canada has a long way to go to bring entrepreneurship education to non-business students. A 2009 survey by Industry Canada found that nearly 40 per cent of post-secondary institutions don’t have a strategy for teaching their students to be entrepreneurs. Only a minority of non-business students graduate with practical experience in entrepreneurship.
Students from the arts and sciences are, however, enthusiastically taking up entrepreneurship programs where they are offered. “The demands we get for business education in almost every new and innovative program created is astonishing,” Prof. Shapiro says. “Nobody wants to create a program in managing the environment, in digital arts, in community economic development, without building in some business education.”
Hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship training is the notion of “experiential education” – learning not from textbooks alone but from immersion in real-world situations that require individuals to make tough choices. A planned “incubator” program will bring business students and engineers together to create and bring to market commercial products. “They think about customers, markets, market opportunities,” says Prof. Shapiro. The school is also hoping to set up an entrepreneurial “boot camp” – five days of intensive training for PhD students in computer science to develop skills that will enable them to work in high-tech companies “or better yet, to commercialize ideas they encounter in their research,” he says. Simon Fraser has applied for a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to create the training unit.
These boot camps will include training in cross-cultural communications, with an eye to the international marketplace. Why is that important for scientists? Because at SFU, a majority of PhDs in science do not go on to academic careers. “That means they are likely going on to industry or starting their own,” says Prof. Shapiro. “Giving them entrepreneurial or business training makes sense. It’s also true that, particularly for digital-based products, these companies are often born global from the outset.”
Learning through experience is the best way to develop the critical thinking skills that increasingly will be prized, especially in the many “astonishingly small” firms in British Columbia (and elsewhere) that compete globally, says Prof. Shapiro. “Globally competitive firms will be comprised of surprisingly small numbers of people and each one of them will have to carry a fair amount of decision-making power. They’re going to have to be more entrepreneurial. What I relate to entrepreneurship is the ability to think critically and make decisions at the right time.”
So, for instance, when studying poverty in India, rather than have a classroom session, “we would have students to go India, interview people and actually develop products. Or more locally, rather than say how do you eradicate poverty in Vancouver, we would have students working with a known group with a specific problem and help them to solve it through processes that effectively force them to make decisions that confront the reality of resource scarcity, of constraints on behaviour. That kind of thing that allows people to be more critical in how they think.”
Entrepreneurship can be taught, business schools say. At the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, five full-time faculty work in the area of entrepreneurship. “In some ways it’s like medicine,” says faculty member Eric Morse. “You have to have people practice. You have to come back and debrief and say, what have you learnt? You have to work with people who have been successful. There’s a pretty heavy classroom component as well. How do you generate ideas? How do you screen those ideas for something that may be a viable business? How do you set the business up? How do you grow the business?”
There is still no replacement for the “school of hard knocks,” he acknowledges, but “we can shorten the path, help you not to hit your head against the wall so many times.” Traditionally, many entrepreneurs were not university-trained, but “just a couple years ago, for the first time, more entrepreneurs had university degrees than not. As the complexity of business grows, you’ll see more and more of that.”
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