Enterprise and Employability

  • The thought expressed here is that we need to revise our understanding of enterprise if we are hoping to increase the number of enterprising students leaving educational establishments. The thought. arose from discussions with several university departments struggling with how to embed enterprise in curricula already filled to overflowing. The same problem is being faced in schools. This note presents a definition of enterprise designed to broaden our understanding of enterprising behaviour from which position new approaches to enterprise and employability might be developed and enterprise cultures created within larger organizations and communities.

    The background

    Back in 1990 or so, the UK government’s Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative was introduced to increase the employability of new university students, and not, as the title suggests, student entrepreneurs. This arose out of an earlier project called Higher Education for Capability (Stephenson: 1988), a Royal Society for Arts and Manufactures report about increasing a student’s fitness to practice on first employment. Now, of course, enterprise is just about starting a business, something only a few students are interested in, and usually not something they wish to pursue on leaving.

    The recent and very radical developments  in the shape of the Lean Startup Movement could help change current views of enterprise and employability education across school and universities. The Lean Start model has been taken up very enthusiastically by some forward thinking universities across the world such as Stanford and Imperial College, London. My personal view is that the philosophy and methodology used in Lean Startup helps to reveal the essence of enterprising behaviour, which is about ‘doing good’.  The key to this understanding is a much broader definition of what enterprising behaviour is, one that merges with developments in what might be called the philosophy of business. I will explain this below.

    Enterprising behaviour and doing good.

    Despite a mass of evidence to the contrary, there is plenty more to suggest people are intensely loving, cooperative, mutualistic, and even altruistic. This is what it means to be social, and being social leads to wanting to do good for others. We get a buzz out of benefitting others and when we do, we want to do it again, and again, and again. Achieving good could even be addictive, because it is associated with an experience of positive emotioning. In exactly the same way, some people get a buzz from inventing solutions to a problems and it happens that the Lean Start up model of enterprise formation is firmly based on finding problems to solve. The Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ruth Richards (Richards, 2007), and colleagues, says, not only are we all naturally creative (I prefer to use the word inventive), being creative/inventive makes us feel good. It contributes to our ‘wellness’. Without the opportunity to be inventive we would not survive. We need it to cope with the flow of problems faced every day, at work, at home, and everywhere in between. Problems need solutions, and solutions are the foundation of new enterprises. As I shall attempt to show later, although implicit, our natural tendency to do good and be creative (inventive) is at the heart of the Lean Startup approach to new enterprise formation. It is, however, explicit in the corporate philosophy of the Honda Motor Company as explained by strategic management gurus Ikujiro Nonaka and Ryoko Toyama (2007). Here they talk about the three joys, the principles of doing business expressed by Honda’s former Chair.

    Another principle that expresses Honda’s fundamental beliefs is The Three Joys. These are: the joy of buying, the joy of selling, and the joy of creating. The joy of creating things from one’s own, original idea is important at Honda. Employees are told to create what gives them joy to create, based on their own values. Still, they are told that the product should not be something that only Honda engineers can enjoy. Those who sell the product, and above all, those who buy the product must enjoy it as well. This viewpoint sets the value standard for Honda employees to act for the common good. (Nonaka and Toyama, 2007 p 380)

    They go on to say: Money is not goodness in itself, but a means to achieving a goal (p381), which is benefitting others, often in a way that delights.

    This is, obviously, a somewhat different take on being in business, but one that encourages one to take a new look at what it means to be enterprising. This has led to the following interpretation of enterprise.

    Enterprising is an accolade applied to someone who has achieved ‘good’ through personal initiative. It’s given by the person(s) experiencing the benefits of the enterprising act, and/or an observer of the act’s positive impact. The description becomes part of a social identity if repeated, but is only given following success—not for failure. What really constitutes enterprising behaviour is initiative taking leading to a positive result in the form of a common good. If ‘good’ is achieved by novel means, beneficiaries and observers might express delight or even astonishment. So being enterprising elicits emotional responses. Moreover, being enterprising is essentially a social act. It emerges from an innate desire to achieve a mutual good.  Doing good is the basis of all (legitimate) businesses from making a house smell better than it does naturally, making a car that does less miles to the gallon, and a floor cleaner so effective children can eat their meals from it without harmful effects. Although no legitimate company means to do harm, sometimes they do, but this should not deter anyone from attempting to do good.

    Encouraging enterprise and increasing employability

    Earlier I mentioned a report called Higher Education for Capability on which the later employability initiative Enterprise in Higher Education was to be based. The capabilities employers were looking for in the 1980s were much the same as they are looking for today in their graduate students. It’s entirely reasonable to say this same set of employee characteristics would be welcomed by any employer. They are:

    i) being continuously prepared to learn and adapt

    ii) being self-critical

    iii) being self-starters

    iv) being able to communicate  [sell, persuade, convince…..] in speech and writing

    v) being able to work cooperatively as a team member

    vi) being able at problem analysis and solution making

    vii) Show initiative, empathy, self-awareness, commitment, ambition and a sense of purpose

    Someone who might be described as enterprising, someone who took personal initiative to benefit others, and who recognised and accepted the risk and responsibility for achieving good, would, I think, have developed the characteristics above. To promote enterprise, to produce enterprising and thus employable people in general not just students, will require the following.

    i.      Encourage and support the taking of initiative by all.

    ii.     Create opportunities for people to engage in initiative taking.

    iii.   Encourage people to seek and accept responsibility for the results of their initiative taking—to be aware of and shoulder risk.

    iv.    Help would-be enterprising people to appreciate the need to know, sometimes intimately, the proposed recipient of good (i.e., know your customers by getting close to them ).

    v.     Help them to recognise doing good is a social service.

    vi.    Help them to recognise that doing good is a social process, that more often than not is a joint enterprise needing to be organised, coordinated, and managed.

    In sum, at this moment in time, there is an opportunity to do ‘enterprise’ differently, and in doing so reconnect with employability drives. Enterprising people are needed as much in established firms as they are needed to create new small firms.


    Edwards, R (ed) (2007). Everyday Creativity. American Psychological Association. Washington DC.

    Nonaka, I., and Toyama, R. 2007. ‘Strategic management as distributed practical wisdom (phronesis)’. Industrial Corporate Change, 16(3): 371-394

    Stephenson. J. (1988). Higher Education for Capability: The Challenge”. Mimeo. RSA.

    West, S. A., Griffin, A. S, and Gardner, A., 2007, ‘Social Semantics: Altruism, Cooperation, Mutualism, Strong Reciprocity and Group Selection’, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20: 415-432

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