Have Universities got it all wrong?
Our students seem to really rate our annual enterprise ‘bootcamp’ - Spark - check out their feedback!
Our annual Spark programme is just about the best thing we do. It’s short, sweet, and gets amazing feedback. However it’s cost-effective only on the basis of the ripple effect it creates both in student engagement and staff morale, but it has become a lynchpin in the annual strategy nonetheless.
In 2012 and 2013 100% of feedback gave the course 4/5 or 5/5 for being ‘enjoyable’, ‘interesting’ and ‘useful’. The 5/5 rating has hovered around 90% for about 5 years. The feedback also highly rated the course for ‘motivation’, ‘inspiration’ and ‘skills development’.
In 2013 the students that attended Spark gained over 30% greater confidence in how to build a business around their own ideas. This has been a gradually rising statistic since 2008. Interestingly students initial levels of aspiration and confidence have dropped every year but they all end up at the same final level each time! We think this is because Spark is increasingly just one thing we do and some of the more entrepreneurial students now get their support by other means and Spark is more of an ‘entry-level’ activity.
Enterprise boot-camps and crash courses are hardly innovative these days, almost everyone seems to run one, but ours is around a decade old and I’m currently engaged in planning the 7th event of my tenure! It’s been held in seven different venues and has varied from a 3.5-day long weekend model to an almost 5-day week long model, but the basic structures and elements are pretty much unchanged.
Ours always starts with the Confucius Quote: “Do a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” and always ends with a Dragons’ Den finale with a cash prize and a reminder of that Confucius quote! We stress that good businesses are built on a passion and not on get-rich-quick motives. You’ll need a geeky level of passion to get through the tough times that no amount of money could bait you through.
We always the start the programme with a day or two of general enterprise introduction, with team-work exercises, values exercises, and a lot of brainstorming. Then we get all the participants to give very quick pitches and form up into teams for the remainder of the programme. The latter half of the programme is expert start-up guidance and interactive sessions developing ideas ready for the Dragons.
We have young entrepreneurs share their stories every evening, and we invite local professionals and entrepreneurial alumni to come back as Dragons and judge the entries on the final night. We used to just have pitches in the finale but we’ve moved to an exhibition model with the Dragons wandering the stalls and grilling the would-be entrepreneurs. This is more engaging for the entrepreneurs and more demanding on the teams to field all the questions!
We include some live challenges, some physical activity, and some challenges to go and ‘make stuff’ and ‘talk to a real customer’.
The ideas are usually a pretty mixed bag as most emerge in a very short time; but we do stress that Spark is just a practice run for the real thing. We get social and commercial ideas in roughly equal measure and we also get a pretty decent gender balance on the programme too.
The cost-benefit analysis will nonetheless always say we spend a lot of staff time and money on just 40 students for just 5 days. However, those students have had a fantastic record of joining enterprise societies and Enactus groups, of running those groups, and of being fantastic ambassadors and champions for what we do.
They have a ripple effect in a wider student population. It’s also a great way to involve our alumni and local business professionals and alumni who continue to give back and support our work. They love the intensive atmosphere and the energised students. It’s good for our own staff because it is so energising and helps us build genuinely engaged relationships with the students that encourage them to continue to work with us on their ideas throughout the year.
Its our passion, and it keeps our flames burning each year. It also genuinely seems to spark fires in others.
HEI enterprise education is a problem for Government
Since December I’ve been part of the HE ‘expert’ group for Lord Young’s Enterprise Education Review due later this year. Prior to that, I had a year representing the HE Enterprise Education sector to BIS on behalf of EEUK. My experiences of dealing with government have left me a little disheartened and frustrated of late.
When I first started visiting the halls of power I was simply pleased to be there! First visits to government buildings are quite exciting initially, but fundamentally there are lightless and tired meeting rooms the world over and the governments’ are no different.
What became apparent to me quite quickly was that actually most agents of government are, like the rest of us, trying very hard to look more competent than they are. It doesn’t help that they move civil servants around just as they start to know a portfolio, which has happened to me twice with BIS now. Just as good people really got their teeth into the issues and began to perceive what was fluff and what was critical to success they got moved!
One of the problems of this perpetual motion is that everyone is looking for quick wins – to have an impact before they’re moved on (and possibly up or down based on their recent wins). Similar is true for both ministers and mandarins, quick results are king.
There are two major problems with this; firstly that quick wins tend to be lowest-common-denominator and largely valueless or even retrograde to anyone who has solved the issue locally long before. Secondly, the first answer to any question is rarely the most creative, it’ll be a re-hash of something tried and tested and obvious. Somehow we’ve got a system which prioritises the least innovative and least sustainable solutions to the problems we have in delivering sustainable innovation!
Higher Education seems to be a particular problem for government as regards innovation; largely because we’re not only autonomous from government in a way that schools and colleges are not, but because we run very autonomous operations ourselves. Government genuinely struggles to understand HE staff when we say “we can’t just make things happen” in our institutions… which is why the ‘one-size-fits-all’ models that external agencies pitch to government both a) get funded because they look easier than what the sector itself says and b) ultimately fail to deliver embedded and sustainable change, because they fail to put down institutional roots or garner institutional buy-in. HEIs are complex bureaucracies, engineered to deliver a liberal learning environment for the most part, but that makes them difficult to herd around.
In my most recent visits to government we’ve talked a lot about how to embed enterprise and entrepreneurship education still deeper in institutions. I believe we have to some degree plateaued, business schools and enterprise societies will only get you so far, genuine cross-curricular embedding and institutional buy-in is still far from universal. To get to that next level of change we need to pull bigger levers to move senior managers to strategically commit – i.e. money and metrics. However, no-one seems to have the appetite for this in the halls of power – or not until after the 2015 election anyway…
The world is increasingly asking HEIs to dismantle their silos of research and their narrow degree programmes, but the narrow focus of academic work is resisting this passively and actively, unless the bigger levers of institutional behaviours start getting pulled we’ll be plateaued here for a while yet…
The Power of Generosity
The Playable City
I’ve blogged a couple of times now about my interest in civic entrepreneurship. Last Monday I went to a BBC-sponsored day of workshops on the theme of ‘Digital Bristol’.
The city-region is something of a powerhouse for creative digital activity with not just the BBC and it’s diaspora of associated businesses, but four universities (Bristol, UWE, Bath and Bath Spa), and a wealth of both creative and computing talent.
One session that really grabbed me was on a collaborative project around the 'Playable City' and I’m mainly going to use this blog to share a load of cool ideas and videos that certainly got me thinking.
The central idea was to use fun/play/games to create new relationships between citizens and their cities. These activities should not only be engaging, but also enhance and improve the ‘use’ of the city. The project is very much rooted in the use of technology and IBM’s interest in the future of cities. With more people worldwide now living in cities than not living in cities, finding new ways to enable and engage urban populations is a challenge.
We started off with a concept video from Microsoft about the speculative use of technology in 2020. It’s rather impressive - but also a bit cold and clinical! A good degree of human interaction seemed to be lost and some of the ‘fun’ of waiting/being lost in a new place was definitely missing.
Compare that with some of these ideas for using technology to improve urban life:
See also the much-cited 'TheFunTheory' site for several more wonderful examples of digital technology improving civic life.
This last project was particularly compelling for a variety of reasons:
- the ‘animation’ of existing street objects to explore how people interacted with the city
- the deliberate use of SMS rather than smartphone functionality to make sure this wasn’t just ‘the preserve of hipsters’
- the way that technology and inanimate objects actually recycled human experiences to one-another - you’d actually learn what other REAL people had previously told the lamppost!
A few people observed this ‘could only have happened in Bristol’ - we have a reputation for this kind of madness.
However, the team behind Hello Lamppost are going to take it out to Austin Texas in the new year. Supposedly Austin has a city mantra - ‘Keep Austin Weird’ - just amazing!
It’s definitely convinced me that Fun/Play and the use of digital technology ought to be amongst the provocations for my own civic entrepreneurship work with students.
I know - I’ve missed a week again! But I have in that time blogged for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services about the Witty Review - but I’ll also repeat it here for non-AGCAS people:
Not particularly Witty Review has implications for Enterprise and Employability Staff
Many colleagues will be aware of the Report for Government authored by Sir Andrew Witty this October – ‘Encouraging a British Invention Revolution’. It should be stressed from the outset that this is closely associated with the report authored by Sir Tim Wilson in February 2012 – ‘A Review of Business-University Collaboration’.
In an initial read as an educator or adviser working in enterprise or careers you could be forgiven for wondering where any reference to people and skills are in this report. It is very much a strategic technical paper that takes as its focus a revision of the ‘hard’ infrastructure of British innovation – how we encourage and fund high-tech innovations through to being sustainable businesses. Witty however suggests early on that the ‘people’ side of the argument has been covered by Wilson. Personally I think this is a missed opportunity to reiterate the significance of the vital capacity-building role that education and support services play in getting innovative people into the economy rather than just their ideas. The single most important output of universities remains bright young people – but that’s not obvious in this report.
I also believe an opportunity has been missed to discuss a wider base of outputs – not just high-tech innovation but social, civic, and cultural innovation too.
Nonetheless, there are some sections of interest and value to colleagues in enterprise and employability.
Witty’s 3 ‘philosophies’:
- Enabling better funding flows: revising how innovation is funded to reduce internal competition and help the UK compete in a ‘global race’ to produce innovation-rich businesses
- Creating ‘arrow projects’: identifying and supporting areas where the UK is globally competitive to translate more of those research breakthroughs into real businesses
- And most importantly for us… Strengthening the ‘3rd Mission’ of universities to engage in economic development – particularly through SME engagement and technology invention
Getting more high-tech ideas out of the research labs into production, and getting more connectivity between ‘innovative SMEs’ and universities dominate the remaining report. There are thus two big areas of importance for the enterprise and employability staff in institutions:
- Developing support for postgraduate researchers as future innovators (within start-ups, spin-outs, industrial research, and increasing impact-driven academic research). Whilst this report doesn’t stress the skills and people, they are critical to building innovation capacity and connectivity for institutions. This does also trickle down to undergraduates too – if we can skill them up for roles in innovative companies that will also support this agenda.
- Developing relationships with SMEs. Whilst Lord Young might be pushing the Business Schools to lead on this we all know that this agenda is actually pan-institution. We need to help our students better understand and connect with SME opportunities and we need to help SMEs navigate the university landscape to get the talent they need to succeed in scaling up. I do recommend reading the whole of Witty’s Chapter 4 on this subject (from Page 32).
In both these areas if your remit does not include postgraduates or SMEs then identify who does do it so you can collaborate to take advantage of a renewed focus in these areas.
So – some of Witty’s recommendations highlighted and digested:
Recommendation 1 includes a reference to universities reporting formally on their ‘3rd Mission’ activities (i.e. economic development engagement) each year. This could be something that enterprise and employability activity might use to highlight its contribution as a ‘capacity-builder’. In some institutions the majority of business engagement may well be through a Careers Service so watching how this recommendation is taken up will be interesting.
Recommendation 4 suggests expanding the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) from £150M per annum to £250M per annum. Given that most enterprise divisions and teams, and a good proportion of supporting activities in Careers Services, are funded from HEIF this is encouraging. Witty makes a point of saying that HEIF needs to be more secure. He doesn’t suggest broadening it back out again to include institutions that lost HEIF funding in the last round, but he does advocate a ‘sharpened’ set of metrics to encourage SME engagement. We will all watch this develop with interest.
Within Recommendation 4 he also suggests increasing ‘Impact’ as a percentage of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – from 20% to 25% for the 2020 exercise. This means that more academics will be looking to find ways to apply their research and drive innovative activity from it. This is an opportunity for enterprise educators in particular to highlight enterprise and SME engagement as a route to impact.
Recommendation 5 suggests creating a single point of entry for SMEs into an institution – to encourage engagement and reduce confusion for time-limited SMEs. There are suggestions of providing a ‘triage’ service or arguably even a ‘concierge’ service for SMEs. I do actually endorse this but I would stress the need for enterprise and careers staff to make sure they are involved in how their institution might implement this! If Lord Young is looking at Business Schools to take a lead here we need to make sure central services are not cut out of the loop.
Recommendation 6 suggests that much of the money for the above will come from the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) who will be spending European Structural Funds on this agenda. This means the money for some of our activities is likely to emerge through local bodies rather than national bodies. If you’re not already in touch with your LEP you really ought to be! In Recommendation 7 Witty suggests that universities should be co-chairing their LEPs to make sure connections are made. I fear a real patchwork effect here.
It should be stressed that this is only a set of recommendations and Government is by no means obliged to act to implement any of it. Supposedly the Secretary of State for BIS has already described the recommendations as “expensive”.
This is by no means an authoritative breakdown so I’d recommend reading the Executive Summary of the report for yourself – but hopefully I’ve picked out some key themes and trends.
Last night I found myself teaching enterprise to a group of Brownies (the junior bit of the girl-guide movement, not a group of pixies) here in Bristol. One of my work colleagues is a Brownie leader and had asked me for advice on a project and I ended up volunteering.
I volunteered because I like a challenge - and actually the prospect of teaching enterprise to 20 primary-school-age girls filled me with more terror than any number of undergraduates. How was I going to get the right messages across in a simple enough way? I couldn’t bear the idea of over-simplifying the message, but at the same time I had to engage the audience at an appropriate level.
It was great! I’d have photos but you can be arrested for taking photos of Brownies I suspect! But after an hour we had incredible levels of noise and a half-dozen flipcharts covered in ideas - including some really really good ones! There was one in particular I won’t share as I wouldn’t want to infringe the possible patent!
It really showed me that even very young people can have great ideas for businesses. Whilst they might struggle to deliver on those ideas commercially the ideas and insights are still impressive. And this is enterprise as a means to an end - education through enterprise.
I used three of the products from Concentrate Design who I remembered from TV’s Dragons’ Den as a product designer for schoolchildren. I used the rucksack-seatcover, lunchbox, and anti-smell sportsbag as printed case studies and asked the girls in groups to answer these questions:
- what problem does it solve?
- who is it for?
- would you buy it? if not why not and if so why?
This went really well and we got to discuss the basis of new businesses as solving problems or filling gaps, target markets, and customer decision-making - just because it exists doesn’t mean you’d buy it because there are alternatives.
Then we asked them to answer another set of questions about their own ideas:
- Think of some problems and gaps in the market - silly as you like - just lots!
- Think of some ideas that solve the problems and fill the gaps - again silly as you like!
- Give each idea one tick if it actually might work, two ticks if you actually know how to make it, and three ticks if you are able to make it yourself.
- Pick the most ticked idea that you all like the most and answer these next 2 questions:
- Who is going to buy it?
- And how can you test it before you spend lots of time making lots of them?
Basically we did some ideation, focused on solutions for problems, highlighted some feasibility issues and even used a little ‘lean start-up’ practice!
I suspect some of the pattern was lost on the audience but I felt satisfied I’d not grotesquely distorted the theory for the audience!
Some of the ideas were more imaginative and insightful than my undergraduates have come up with - maybe something here about trying to be creative rather than trying to be right!
I’ve got a bit of a thing about serendipity and it’s role in creativity. I’ve always believed that we largely make our own luck and I love a phrase my Director uses - “engineered serendipity” - how do we create situations in which we are more likely to be lucky? New ideas come from new connections and new resources which enable new combinations to arise.
I’ll just use one quote from the book: “you won’t get far by cloistering yourself away from the world and waiting for inspiration to hit you. Chance favours the connected mind.”
Serendipity arises from connections - lots of diverse connections. Those connections give you access to resources (knowledge, people, ideas, concepts). Innovation arises from new connections between existing building blocks - the process of innovation is an assembling of spare parts.
The biography of entrepreneurs and inventors is the biography of people who succeed in connecting up diverse ideas to access the ‘adjacent possible’.
So, if connections drive serendipity then networking is critical. However, this is usually where people (including me) start to baulk at the value of serendipity because we notice the opportunity cost involved…
Networking, and other processes of gaining access to often random and diverse ideas, takes time (and patience!). Do we have the time and will to indulge the conversational dead-ends and sometimes tenuous meetings to find the gold hidden in these unexpected locations? There is a reason why real innovations aren’t everyday - it’s because they take time and persistence, and a willingness to look beyond the obvious responses.
A colleague and I at Bristol get a regular ‘frowning at’ by another colleague for the time we spend indulging in serendipitous activity - the “why are you wasting your time with THAT?” look…(although I should stress they’ve rarely said it out loud) and this is from someone who does actually subscribe to engineered serendipity. They clearly feel that my colleague and I are not getting the opportunity-cost equation right. Fair enough - it’s a personal thing.
My colleague and I are, I think, regarded as amongst the more pioneering and inventive staff in the division - is that because we network so much or a result of being inventive anyway? It’s a bit chicken and egg - but they’re definitely related!
One tenuous meeting this week involved a whole afternoon spent with the University’s IT Services division - talking about infrastructure for innovation - this could have been a pretty dry meeting but actually it threw up (at least) two interesting ideas:
Firstly it reminded me of NESTA’s Randomised Coffee Trials which is basically a great way to network big groups. I’d been mulling this over for ages as a way to get PGRs together and to increase interdisciplinary activity. Thanks to IT Services I may now have an offer to build a simple software platform to deliver it…
Secondly it introduced me to Random Hacks of Kindness which is basically a hackathon movement for problems facing humanity. I’m now wondering if this isn’t a novel way to do some civic entrepreneurship in my role as a Town Councillor …
Just what I needed…MORE ideas… (sigh)