Learning through doing, being and becoming: living entrepreneurship…

“We don’t really understand it but we know it’s important and we want more of it!”

Could be used to sum up a lot of what’s said and written about Entrepreneurial Learning. There is a desire to see more entrepreneurial success in the UK right now and surely if we learn how to do it better then more successful entrepreneurship will follow.

So then, how can we learn more as entrepreneurs and how can we make that happen in more people more often, must be the question?

But..how well have we articulated what we mean by “entrepreneurial learning”?

What is entrepreneurial learning, what do entrepreneurs learn and how do they do it? Are important questions to ask here, as well as why it is important.

Learning for doing

We might simply look at learning as the assimilation of factual information, finding something out, knowing something that we didn’t know before and we can therefore act accordingly. So we might do things as a result of this knowledge or not do them. In beginning their entrepreneurial life  the entrepreneur learns a lot about what works and what doesn’t, what has to be done and when.

Then there is the learning of transferable skills, understanding how to do something and then transferring it to another situation. In this sense an entrepreneur might learn the skills of negotiation which they can then employ, and develop, from situation to situation. Or they might learn how to motivate a particular staff member and see this as a transferable skill.

Learning to do can be learnt “on the job”. By working “in the business” the entrepreneur learns a great deal about how their business operates and the environment within which they operate. They learn key skills and are constantly practicing them and, hopefully, improving on them.

Perhaps some of these skills can be practised and developed more easily in training sessions and so on, however, the opportunity to learn how to do, afforded by just getting on with the running of the business, is a rich one.

Learning for being

However, not all staff are the same, not everyone is motivated by the same things, and sometimes a negotiation really doesn’t go as planned. Here the entrepreneur can become confused.

“Why isn’t this working? It always did before?”

Unpicking this requires learning that is the product of reflection and the questioning of established ways of doing things and underlying values and beliefs. Engaging in this form of critical reflection is the heart of a deeper learning that goes beyond learning to do. This learning might be a product of the entrepreneur exploring possibilities to do things differently and innovate, it may be that the entrepreneur understands more about their personality and that of others and therefore adapts their behaviour as a leader.

This learning may lead to the entrepreneur becoming a more effective entrepreneur, and a better entrepreneur, not only developing skills and abilities for the act of entrepreneuring but also becoming a different type of critically reflective learner.

However, if learning for doing can be achieved on the job, what about learning for being? This is much harder amidst the craziness of the day to day actions and reactions of entrepreneurial life. This kind of learning requires the opportunity to reflect and question the assumptions and beliefs that hold us to and define our current being.

We need time and space to achieve the critical reflection and consideration that leads to the development of our leadership capacity for example. As well as the opportunity to go out, practice and then return to a space of exploration and insight.

Questioning from peers and the ability to voice, articulate and explore our current ways and potential new ways are all a feature here. If we can create those times and spaces then entrepreneurial and learning expertise can be developed and grown.

Learning for becoming

“Learning is not preparation for life; learning is life itself.” (John Dewey)

This learning is the learning that changes us, develops us and is the kind of experience I think we refer to when we discuss entrepreneurship being “a journey”.

Not only a journey through an external landscape, rather a journey of our selves, our identity, values and beliefs.

When discussing with entrepreneurs what the entrepreneurial experience has led to for them, I often here people offering a narrative of personal growth and development, as the result of their efforts as entrepreneurs. This learning is the learning that takes us through life to become a changed and developed person.

How does this happen and when? If we are talking about the journey here, then we can’t see this as something that has a start and finish or that is necessarily a linear process and clear set of stages. It is continuously happening at a conscious and sub/unconscious level.  However, it is worth attending to I feel. Or, at the very least, it is very easy not to attend to.

Yet our entrepreneurial experience is not always just something we do, or something we want to be good at. Those things are very important and should be worked on of course.

Our entrepreneurial life is a huge part of who we are. How that story unfolds and develops is, in part, down to our authoring of it. Stopping once in a while to contemplate who am I, who am I becoming, is this going the way I want to go is also part of the opportunity for learning than entrepreneurship gives us.

So it is clear to me that entrepreneurial learning is a rich and diverse topic and getting a better understanding of what it is and how to do it is not only important for successful ventures but also for meaningful lives.

Toby Lindsay is a Researcher for the Centre for Employment, Competitive and Growth at the Kent Business School, University of Kent.

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