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Teaching Corporate Venturing: An Experiential Exercise.

By Dr. Jeroen Kuilman

How to provide students with practical experience in corporate entrepreneurship? Theories, models, concepts and ideas in the area of corporate entrepreneurship can easily be discussed in the classroom on the basis of academic articles and textbooks. The practical relevance of these can be illustrated by providing real-life examples and case studies. However, to take things a step further and provide students with an experiential exercise is far more challenging.

In the fall semester of 2016, we created an assignment for bachelor students to gain practical experience. In this assignment we asked students to develop a corporate venture for the university. We found higher education to be a fitting industry for our assignment. After all, it is an industry with increasingly emerging, potentially disruptive, innovations that challenge the traditional methods that universities have employed for centuries. One example of this is the website Coursera. Here, students can take courses on any subject at a wide range of universities around the world, including Stanford and Harvard. These massive open online courses are generally of high quality and are offered for free, making the competitive threat to traditional university teaching substantial.

We specifically challenged students to set up a venture around an application or platform that allows Tilburg University to be more competitive in higher education .The assignment was designed in cooperation with the EuIn, the European Institute for Innovation and Business Model Redesign, which provided coaching to students and offered workshops (for instance on validation and pretotyping).

Students were split up in teams. Some teams developed the product (a cell phone app that provided easily accessible information on corporate entrepreneurship), some teams developed the content for the app, and others worked on the marketing of the product.  In addition, project management teams were needed to make sure all teams worked together effectively.

What did students learn from this exercise? First of all, students learned that exploration of new ideas is certainly not easy. Innovating and exploring new capabilities in an unknown area involves a lot of trial and error, as students cannot rely on their existing capabilities (like reading an academic paper or preparing for an exam). For some students this exercise invoked some level of anxiety and uncertainty, while other students truly enjoyed the fact that they had the opportunity to showcase their talent. Second of all, students experienced the complexity of setting up a corporate venture in which many disciplines come together: from marketing and public relations to technology. Time management and leadership skills are critical in molding these interrelated parts into a single venture. Third of all, and related, students learned that even though time management skills are important, imposing strict deadlines and deliverables can also impede the development of potentially disruptive innovations. As Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has pointed out, the often used stage-gate system may not be as useful for managing innovation as many practitioners would think1. Strict deadlines can lead to inflexibility in projects, which may stifle out-of-the-box thinking.

Did the students succeed in creating a corporate venture? Yes and no. In a time frame of about six weeks (admittedly a very short time frame) students were able to develop a prototype of an app which looked very promising. But as a corporate venture, the teams still had a long way to go before it would have had commercial value. From a didactical point of view however, this is of little relevance. The fact that students had the opportunity to showcase their creative and innovative capabilities, while learning about the practical complexities of setting up a corporate venture, is far more important. This type of experiential learning is impossible to achieve through a standard textbook on corporate entrepreneurship.

1 Christensen, Kaufman, and Shih “Innovation Killers: How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things” Harvard Business Review, 2008, pp. 98-105