Entrepreneurial Universities can tackle the challenge of working with SMEs, Professor Allan Gibb OBE

During a recent Symposium which took place at the House of Lords on the subject of economic prosperity through enterprise education, we were honoured to be addressed by Professor Allan Gibb OBE with respect to the challenges of working with small businesses that are being  faced by Universities and support agencies.

Professor Gibb is Emeritus Professor of Entrepreneurship and Small Business at Durham University, and a world acclaimed academic and practitioner in terms of Entrepreneurship Enterprise and small business development.   He is well qualified to commentate on enterprise education:  he developed the first UK Centre for small business at Durham in 1971 which was eventually the largest in Europe and unique in its approach;   he developed the first UK small firms peer support agency in the 1970s – Enterprise North – which subsequently trained all the national staff of the Small Firms Counselling Service as well as directors of over 300 of the UK’s first enterprise agencies;  he is the pioneer of all the original enterprise education for primary and secondary which he insisted were made open source and copyright free in order to encourage the widest dissemination; he has worked all over the world in Small Medium Enterprise (SME) development; and he designed and directed the first Entrepreneurial University Leaders Programme (EULP) which has been recognised as a ground-breaking executive development programme for University leaders.

The support sector needs to understand where entrepreneurs learn

Professor Gibb’s presentation during the enterprise education symposium provided an opportunity for participants to learn of his experience of how ‘support for enterprise education’ was lacking, from a wide range of support organisations including the banks, and how we have lost the trust-based banking relationships that existed in the past.   He asserted that to be successful, any work directed at small businesses and entrepreneurs must now be based not upon theory but upon practice underpinned by sound concept.  He cited that the UK has “a very long undistinguished history of supporting SMEs”, and asked why, worldwide, we have to bribe independent businesses to use such services.  His hypothesis, based on many years experience and research, is that it is because, by and large, we use a corporate approach to working with business.

All those working in this sector have to develop an understanding of where entrepreneurs learn.  Professor Gibb spoke of  “A Dynamic Personal Contact and Informal Learning Field” which consists of a range of intangible assets including customers, suppliers, competitors, support agencies, family, employees funders to name a few.  “They are managing inter-dependencies with these key stakeholders amidst day to day uncertainty”.

Professor Gibb explained the tacit knowledge challenge which is being faced by Universities and all other agents of support, and suggested that the truly engaged University (and advisory agency) understands and engages with the entrepreneur’s key stakeholders; supports and understands these relationships;  recognises developmental boundaries and focuses upon reducing transaction costs.

The rules we shouldn’t ignore …

During his presentation Professor Gibb presented a summary of the rules of the ‘tacit knowledge challenge’ game that he believes tend to be ignored when Universities and other support agencies attempt to work with SMEs.

“Entrepreneurs”, said Professor Gibb, “learn best from doing;  have a lot of experiential (tacit) knowledge;  learn most from their relationships; learn best from peers; learn by solving problems and grasping opportunities; organise their knowledge holistically around the development phases of the business.  They live day to day with uncertainty in pursuing a ‘way of life’;  they are driven by a need to know, ’know how’ and by ‘know who’;  there is strong emotional thread in their learning.”

In response to these rules, he suggested that Management Development = Organisation Development = Business Development

What do universities need to do?

Professor Gibb suggests that first and foremost Universities need to value and honour the independent entrepreneur.  He recognises this as a potential societal challenge, but urges Universities to open themselves up to true knowledge exchange by becoming a “porous learning organisation”.  He also suggests the following positive courses of action:

  • Use entrepreneurial pedagogies and forms of assessment;
  • Engage holistic,innovative, street-wise and intellectual educators;
  • Engage more professors of practice;
  • Engage more in conceptualising practice and less in arms length research;
  • Design their own organisations as entrepreneurial organisations;
  • Avoid the corporate management delivery of business schools.

In response, to enable Universities to deal with all of these issues, Professor Gibb proposed that institutions could establish a specialist University as he did in Durham with much success in growing enterprise academics, teachers, supporters and practitioners from 1971 – 2005.