Can you really learn to be an entrepreneur? New research offers fresh insights into how successful Chinese business players teach themselves to become better and better at making money
Successful Chinese entrepreneurs are small-picture people who constantly examine their business operations from every angle. They pay attention to the finest details and agonise over past mistakes with a view to not repeating them in future.
They are voracious learners: from textbooks as well as business mentors. In particular, they fastidiously study what their opposition is up to with a view to copying best practices.
Top Chinese entrepreneurs also spend much time listening to other people: to their customers and staff – including those who have left the business. This is so that they can continually improve their business activities.
These are some of the key characteristics identified in a new, in-depth study of the learning behaviours of a dozen Hong Kong entrepreneurs who started up and developed their own highly profitable companies.
The research, conducted by entrepreneurship and business education specialist Thomas Wing Yan Man, PhD, of The University of Nottingham Ningbo China’s business school, focused on developing a model of entrepreneurial learning.
The average age of entrepreneurs included in his study was 45, about a third were women and most were university graduates.
Most had built businesses from scratch into organisations with at least 500 employees. At least one-third had more than 1,500 people working for them and one individual had as many as 5,000 employees. One entrepreneur is head of a company that recently listed on Hong Kong’s stock exchange.
Three entrepreneurs who participated in the research were in the catering industry, one in book retailing and one in management consulting, while all the others ran successful companies in the manufacturing sector, producing a range of items from clothes to electrical motors.
Man’s study cuts to the heart of that perennial question about whether you can really learn to be a successful entrepreneur.
His findings lend weight to theories that entrepreneurs do indeed learn to become entrepreneurs and are continually working on improving their entrepreneurial prowess through an active process of learning and reflection.
“Learning is a key characteristic of a successful entrepreneur. They are highly motivated in seeking learning opportunities. They learn selectively and purposely and they learn in depth,” said Man.
Many believe that successful entrepreneurship is largely a combination of growing up in an environment that provides opportunities to observe successful business operators, street-smart intelligence and luck.
But, it seems that some of China’s best business players look to textbooks for advice.
“Successful entrepreneurs involved in our research actively participate in training courses and look for management practices and ideas from others and from text books. They analyse how to apply certain management theories in their own businesses,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the work environment is a central element in the learning style of Chinese entrepreneurs.
“First-hand experience is critical in the learning process. Learning is selective, based on actual experience,” said Dr Man, who is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
All entrepreneurs involved in the study spent much time carefully evaluating their own successes and failures in order to reinforce successful practices and avoid repeating mistakes. In addition, they put much effort into understanding every aspect of their business and its environment.
“They participate in daily management and acquire hands-on experience about the business operations, rather than taking an investor’s perspective. They learn the technical details about the business,” said Man.
“In a nutshell, Chinese entrepreneurs in our study were continuously improving their business activities by actively learning from their past actions as well as competitors’,” said the head of the Master of Science in Entrepreneurship programme at Nottingham University Business School China.
Hong Kong was chosen as the field work location because entrepreneurs there are seen as better educated with higher expectations for growth. The researcher is originally from Hong Kong and was able to better access top entrepreneurs there through his network of personal connections.
Man said his research objective was to develop an empirically based model of entrepreneurial learning focusing on learning behaviours.
He has identified six main patterns of learning common to Chinese entrepreneurs: they actively seek learning opportunities; they learn selectively and purposely; they learn in depth; they learn continuously; they improve and reflect on their experiences; and they transfer their learning outcomes to current practices.
The practical implications of Man’s findings include that education and training for entrepreneurs should be situated at work or within simulated contexts that provide them with opportunities to apply their new knowledge.
Source: The University of Nottingham Ningbo China
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