March 2, 2017, by Academic contributor

It shouldn’t all be about the money

The logic guiding the career choices of many business school students is often comparable to the infamous American hold-up man Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks – an activity reported to have earned him approximately $2m before his final arrest in 1952 – allegedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Unsurprisingly, students are attracted to multinational blue-chip companies, as they seek to maximise the reward for their efforts and talents. However, for a good number the dream will remain precisely that. Many of the most dynamic students will launch their own businesses; others will work in small or medium-sized companies. In short, their destinies will lie in the confines of the local economy.

Problematically, business schools frequently remain reluctant to recognise this phenomena. For them, the Willie Sutton philosophy also holds a similar charm. As Sutton realised only too well, changing a tried and tested formula that is so lucrative seems incomprehensible.

Yet this ethos risks neglecting the most important duty of any business school i.e. to prepare students for the challenges likely to confront them post graduation. Developing skills that bear little relation to the issues they will face in their professional lives has restricted value, hence business schools must acknowledge that theories almost exclusively rooted in the art of thinking big are of limited use when practice turns out to be in something altogether more modest but equally worthy.

It is this reality that makes initiatives like the Small Business Charter so important. Historically, business schools’ collaborations with small businesses have been rare and typified by one sided  – when the goal should be to build relationships from which everyone gains.

The benefits for students are clear. They receive a proper grounding in small business life and thus better equipped to handle the decisions, risks and pressures present in their careers.

In parallel, many within the small business community welcome the expertise business schools are able to impart, often taking the form of helpful insights into issues such as effective administration, professional credibility, the ability to survive and thrive and other everyday concerns.

At Nottingham University Business School we talk about the “co-creation of local knowledge”. The phrase encapsulates many of the outcomes of our collaborations with the small business community.

For example, consider the case of a couple working in the floristry trade in a provincial town. They attended an executive education workshop we hosted 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 innovative ways of differentiating themselves from competitors; and at the same time our students enhanced their own understanding of the day-to-day problems of life beyond the blue-chips.

Regrettably, myopia and snobbery may well prevail in some quarters. There will always be those who find little to admire – and less still to study – in companies with a handful of employees or firms with six-figure turnovers.

What these people overlook, of course, is that every big business began as a small one and that even the most celebrated entrepreneurs are likely to have started out with a dream or an idea and not much else. Our own Growth 100 scheme, which encourages local owners and directors to participate in practical sessions designed to help them expand their operations, was founded on these truths, which are too routinely disregarded in the blinkered pursuit of “masters of the universe” status.

The “real world” tends to catch up with everyone in the end. It even caught up with Willie Sutton. To ignore this is to imperil one’s judgement. There will always be those who insist big is better, but we should never forget that small can also be beautiful.

This blog first appeared on the Small Business Charter website – ‘There is life beyond the blue-chips’

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).

Posted in Personal and Professional Development