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Just What The Doctor Ordered A Dose of Entrepreneurial Metalearning from China

February 2012 | Servcorp

Entrepreneurship is a subject under intensive study at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, and a friend in the school's communications department recently sent me a summary of a research project about entrepreneurial learning. Reading through it got me thinking about the relationship between building a business and self-education, in particular as it relates to China.

The Nottingham Ningbo study was performed by the university's Dr Thomas Wing Yan Man, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Study subjects were successful entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, mostly in the manufacturing sector, but also included individuals in retail, food service and management consulting.

In his study, Dr. Man confirms that effective learning is a key characteristic of the successful entrepreneur, and he identifies six main patterns of learning common to the Chinese entrepreneurs in the study group:

    1. they actively seek learning opportunities;
    2. they learn selectively and purposely;
    3. they learn in depth;
    4. they learn continuously;
    5. they improve and reflect on their experiences;
    6. and they transfer their learning outcomes to current practices.

Entrepreneurs in other nations surely share these learning habits to varying degree. One might even argue that they're self-evident, that it's obvious entrepreneurs need to learn, and learn actively, selectively, purposefully, and so on.

But I think Dr. Man's findings might be valuable precisely because they seem a bit self-evident. We often overlook the obvious to our own peril. Hence medical authorities need to constantly remind people that obvious symptoms like shortness of breath or persistent pain in one's left arm signal heart attack, and require immediate action.

It might be obvious to an entrepreneur that learning is key to her success, but I suspect that few entrepreneurs actually ask themselves whether their daily learning is sufficient, efficient and suitably targeted. Success or failure may pivot on these very questions. Low enthusiasm for learning is a signal of trouble and requires immediate action.

Everyone likes to use the prefix “meta” these days to indicate a higher level of abstraction of the subject being prefixed. Metadata is data about data, for example. I suspect many entrepreneurs could benefit from a good dose of meta-entrepreneurial-learning.

In China, there is definitely great enthusiasm for entrepreneurial learning, and it is part of a more general enthusiasm for simply making money. Owning your own business was forbidden just thirty-some years ago here, and when the reform and opening up movements started three decades ago, entrepreneurial knowledge was scarce, and opportunities everywhere. Learning how to grasp those opportunities became a subject of intense focus for society, and still is to this day. That healthy enthusiasm for entrepreneurial learning, and more generally high entrepreneurial aspiration, has been a key driver of China's amazing growth.

With China's economy continuing its expansion and the economies of the west continuing to stagnate, perhaps there is something the former can teach the latter in terms of entrepreneurial learning. Maybe what the west needs is a good dose of meta-entrepreneurial-learning, from people like Dr. Man in China.