Learning in the round

Rowena Young

Are social entrepreneurs born or made? Is their success more a feature of their attitude and behaviour or of a specific set of knowledge or skills? Is the role of formal learning to deepen their instincts or to deliver teaching supported by a robust knowledge base? To date, the debate about learning for social entrepreneurs has tended to be polarized.

In reality, social entrepreneurs recognize the value of both traditions – and more. They inhabit a much richer learning ecology than that of any classroom, curriculum or learning set. Good providers of more formal learning will have to design their interventions to take due account of this need for ‘learning in the round’.

If you asked a successful social entrepreneur how they learnt their craft, it’s my guess they might shrug their shoulders, or utter something vague about working it out as they went along. Finding the words to describe personal development is difficult. It doesn’t help that early accounts of social entrepreneurship, like their commercial counterparts, have emphasized the heroic qualities of dynamic individuals, thereby shrouding their success in mystery.

However, it has been my experience, both working as a social entrepreneur and providing practical and academic programmes in social entrepreneurship, that the pursuit of learning is key to the success of effective social entrepreneurs and – the good news – can be accelerated by well-designed structured programmes and supports.

The right support at the right time

Finding the right support at the right time is at present no easy task. Where there has been a positive response to social entrepreneurs from governments, it has concentrated on legal and financial reform and ‘creating an enabling environment’. But while all these measures remove barriers, they don’t in themselves stimulate demand. They don’t let would-be social changemakers know how viable social venturing has become, or how to go about it. They don’t provide direct support to the people who put their all on the line and shoulder the risks alone.

In less favourable settings, social entrepreneurs find that others don’t even have the language – literally or conceptually – to recognize their work or frame support. They have to piece together disparate learning opportunities just as they piece together other sorts of resources for their ventures.

Yet social entrepreneurs have one of the highest and most unceasing learning loads of all the professions. Supporting them in finding the tools to better resolve the challenges they face must form an important part of the picture.

Social entrepreneurs need the networks and confidence to challenge the status quo. They need to be part social and political scientist and to understand social change and how to influence it. At the same time, they must exercise the business acumen to design and build thriving organizations through which to realize their visions. They need to take ownership and be bloody-minded enough to persist during sometimes sustained periods of hostility, yet be able to mobilize others in order to make a real difference. Very often they are developing new hybrid models, for example, employing long-term drug users to run competitive businesses or democratizing scientific innovation with open-source methods. They have to be highly creative and synthetic thinkers as well as undertaking a huge range of other activities. These processes and their results are themselves weakly understood and undervalued.

Social entrepreneurs’ attitude to learning

The second issue for social entrepreneurs is their own attitude to learning. By definition, social entrepreneurs favour action and need encouragement to reflect on their work. They also need to recognize that passion for a cause is neither an automatic route to effectiveness nor an excuse for gaps in knowledge or the subsequent waste of resources.

During the few months I have been at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University – where we currently deliver an MBA for social entrepreneurs – it is a sorry fact that I have already been approached by several funders who lament their inability to invest in good ideas because social entrepreneurs have not been able to develop or present credible plans. Like any new phenomenon, social entrepreneurship is presently riding on high levels of rhetoric and the good will of a few believers; if it is to become a mass movement, it will need the knowledge and skills to deliver on the promise. Fortunately, I also see new levels of demand for learning from social entrepreneurs themselves.

Learning in the round

The third issue for social entrepreneurs seeking help is that learning is a suppliers’ market. As mentioned above, the debate has tended to be polarized. On the one hand, the advocates of developmental models (action learning, peer learning, mentoring, coaching, or learning-by-doing) assert that social entrepreneurs are born not made and that their success derives more from their attitude and behaviour than from any specific knowledge or skills. On the other, growing numbers of academic or technical assistance providers assert the value of delivering teaching that is underpinned by a robust knowledge base. Their proposition? Knowledge is power. There is usually no room in their repertoire for the developmental approaches, in no small part because they don’t lend themselves to conventional measurement or accreditation.

In reality, social entrepreneurs experience no such polarity. Even where they have pronounced learning preferences, they recognize the value of both traditions and more. By nature, they scan broadly, often drawing connections that others don’t see. Importantly, and in some parts of the world – like India, crucially – this includes input from friends and family. They can provide perspective and help with self-management. Networks act as sounding boards and fora in which ideas can be refined and attuned to the interests of other stakeholders. They offer opportunities to model others’ behaviour and learn the registers used by different social actors. Not least, the social venture itself provides a context for improvisation and for group-based learning derived from activities such as evaluation (learning about the past) and scenario planning (learning about possible futures).

Lessons for the learning providers

These descriptions are partial, but they begin to point to the social entrepreneur’s world. Good providers of more formal learning will design their interventions to take account of this context. They recognize that social entrepreneurs will make use of different learning activities at different points in the life cycle of their ventures. They acknowledge there is no neat mapping of any one type of programme onto any one point of this life cycle, since prior learning and experience vary so much.

At the Skoll Centre, the understanding of social entrepreneurs’ learning set out above guides all our work. We have added mentoring and developmental tutorials to the MBA and are beginning to design shorter, more flexible programmes which draw together skills building, knowledge and reflection as needed. Practitioners contribute directly to all we do. We are developing a research programme to plug gaps in the knowledge base. This year, this will comprise an analysis of venture philanthropy, new forms of social equity, asset-based approaches to transforming communities, stimulating public markets for social enterprise, and governance.

Finally, we are developing a ‘hub’ function, through our leading global gathering, the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, and a web-based resource which will ensure our already considerable networks are perennially enriched. In these cross-cutting ways, we aim to create a learning resource which will help the social entrepreneurship movement graduate from short trousers to significant player in the quest for more socially and environmentally resilient societies everywhere.

Rowena Young is Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. She can be contacted at Rowena.Young@said-business-school.oxford.ac.uk

For full details of the Skoll Centre’s learning programmes, scholarships, faculty, research and events, see http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk

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