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Building Entrepreneurial Literacy: Small Groups, Large Rewards

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  • 1. Building Entrepreneurial Literacy: Small Groups, Large Rewards John Kennedy Haner, University of California, jhaner@writing.ucsb.edu ABSTRACT Entrepreneurial literacy projects, such as the development of a business plan by a small group of students, allow groups of students to share in a cooperative learning engagement that facilitates growth in multiple categories essential for sound business thinking: creative development, competitive strategic analysis, strategic communication, and organizational management. Along with cognitive development, students advance practical skills in business communication: speaking, writing, graphic design, research, small-group communication, and intercultural communication. This paper discusses how to generate, through business plan projects, the entrepreneurial and intercultural literacy that will lead to holistic growth in student communication competence. INTRODUCTION A clear imperative for maintaining a vigorous national economy is the capacity to bring new ideas to a successful birth in the marketplace. New ideas, new business models, new kinds of products, new ways of generating clientele, and new avenues toward market access, all play vital roles in creating new economies and new jobs. For students, fostering entrepreneurial literacy can lead to raising the bar on the objectives of their careers, by giving them fuel for designs on capitalistic prosperity, which serves as a strong motivation to develop the cognitive and practical competencies necessary for professional success. Entrepreneurship is a field governed by the expression: where there is a will there is a way. However, if there is no way then there is no use for will. People can only walk down the paths they are able to perceive. This is not always a limitation of the ability to imagine what is possible, but of the ability to perceive the next steps along the path. This is where education can play an integral role in fostering a culture of possibility that leads to entrepreneurial ingenuity. Everyone has ideas about new businesses. The trouble is how few seem to know what it takes to turn an idea into a project and to take a project into its initial stages: to articulate a business concept in a way that is meaningful to potential investors, to map out a plan for getting a project off the ground, Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 1
  • 2. to validate the profitability and viability of a concept, to perform credible analyses of risks and opportunities within competitive environments to make a successful pitch to a potential investor. The role of education, therefore, should be to help students understand that entrepreneurial efforts are possible, that there are fairly consistent processes for starting new ventures, and that those processes require a fairly consistent complex of skills and knowledge as well as the communication competency necessary to convince others, both in writing and speech. THE BUSINESS PLAN AS COURSE PROJECT The business plan as a course project is generally a 20 to 60-page document that utilizes graphic media to create a highly polished visual and written presentation of a business concept. Commonly the business plan project will be realized in a 10-20 minute student PowerPoint presentation that is targeted to an audience of venture capitalists. In a manner that is credible and persuasive, students will be required to communicate: the general business model the specific product or services the marketing goals and strategy the means of access to customers/clients the company organization of divisions and personnel the financial risks and rewards the competitive advantages and weaknesses a thorough financial plan the investment opportunities An Ideal Group Project Because the business plan requires such a wide variety of capabilities, groups are required to rely on individual strengths to perform specialized functions with the objective of creating a cohesive, detailed presentation and document . In this way it mimics a real world scenario where groups rely on individual strengths and individual specializations to create efficiency. Equally importantly, the sharing of strengths allows groups to overcome individual weaknesses. All of this creates an excellent format for exploring issues of interpersonal and small-group communication, including the handling of conflict. A Learner-Driven Project Due to the nature of the project, students handle the bulk of all effort outside of class. Since the teacher is not able to guide students in the completion of most aspects of the business plan, it is incumbent upon the students to learn on their own how to complete their required sections of the plan. Students follow their guidebooks, and they spend a lot Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 2
  • 3. of time in the library, or online, researching answers to questions that arise along the way. A teacher can give general guidelines, schedules, objectives, and examples, but the majority of the work, by necessity, must be left to the initiative of students. A Project Easily Administered and Easily Assessed A group project of this size helps to streamline assessment obligations for large classes. Furthermore, since each group will have a project manager, the teacher can serve something akin to a corporate CEO who designates goals, timetables, and objectives, but who leaves the details to the project managers to administer. This not only diminishes the content obligations of teachers, but also creates efficient lines of communication via project managers. THE VALUE OF THE BUSINESS PLAN AS A “HOLISTIC” COMMUNICATION PROJECT It is often the practice of “business communication” courses to break down the categories of communication into independent specializations (e.g. public speaking, interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, visual communication, mass communication, marketing, technical writing, and so forth). Although this practice is necessary, it is also important to remind students that “communication” is, in fact, the sum of its parts and that all “parts” conspire to achieve or to undermine the objective of the communication. Failure in any aspect could result in the failure of the whole. The business plan is a great example of a “holistic” communication project, as it requires achievement in a vast range of communication categories, including: audience analysis small group communication public speaking intercultural communication marketing visual communication technical and persuasive writing leadership communication Failure in any aspect could easily undermine the project as a whole. Consequently the project requires commitment to development of communication competency across the spectrum of categories, even if those categories are not specifically addressed in course lectures and readings. Additionally, such a broad range of categories allows for great flexibility in curricular emphasis, depending upon the objectives of the course and the expertise of the teacher. For example, a teacher with a background in marketing could easily make marketing a dominant emphasis in the project, and the same could be said of nearly any aspect of the business plan and presentation. This flexibility is valuable. Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 3
  • 4. HOW THE BUSINESS PLAN PROJECT IS ORGANIZED Regardless of the number of pages or minutes of the presentation assigned, the business plan is a substantial project that takes a lot of time to go from initial stages to delivery. Therefore, the initial stages of the project should be started at the beginning of the term. Stage One: Explaining the Project The teacher spends a good deal of time explaining the project, its objectives, and the schedule of production. It is very useful to go through the workbook with students, and to give students examples of business plans to give them a conception of the work involved. It is also important to explain the target audience of the project: potential investors. This is a necessary starting point for thinking about business concepts. Without audience analysis, students will typically choose small, “lifestyle” businesses that are unlikely to appeal to venture capital. Stage Two: Establishing Groups and First Tasks Groups should be established at the beginning of the term, usually consisting of 4-5 members. Once groups are established, they need to decide on a project manager as well as the specific roles for each member. Roles should be established based on who is best suited to produce the various sections of the business plan (e.g. Marketing, Operations, etc.). Each group needs to establish the business concept quickly. As a first task, it is a good idea to assign each student to bring in three unique business concepts, with explanations and examinations of each. Stage Three: Establishing a Schedule for Production Since this is largely a student-driven project, it is good to let groups establish their schedule of production of the plan. This makes them responsible for creating a manageable schedule, which mitigates student negativity and encourages student motivation. The schedule is a good assigned task that incorporates a progress chart (e.g a Gantt chart) that illustrates their means of meeting milestones. Stage Four: Monitoring Student Progress Project managers should play a strong role in monitoring and communicating student progress. This helps to create efficient communication to the teacher. Students should be expected to provide evidence of meeting teacher-assigned milestones, such as the production of first drafts of various sections. A progress report can be a useful assignment. Stage Five: Preparing for Completion The final weeks of the term are devoted to pushing the projects toward completion. Students should be focused on completing a draft of the entire business plan, as well as the visuals for the presentation. Once these are completed, they can be analyzed and Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 4
  • 5. feedback can be offered to assist with finalizing the project. Stage Six: Delivery Delivery of presentations is likely to occur in the last week or two of classes or can be scheduled as a final exam. Since students are likely to consider the finalizing of both the plan and the presentation as separate acts it can be useful to schedule the due dates on different times. Sometimes teachers have final plans due on the day of delivery, but this can create a bottleneck of activity for the students that can be eased with staggered due dates. TEACHING OBLIGATIONS Teaching can be largely focused on elements that will be assessed in grading. This gives the teacher a good deal of flexibility in deciding what content to deliver in classes and how that will shape the final product. However, there are some general categories that should be addressed if students are to create a comprehensively sound project: Target audience of venture capital investors: the kinds of businesses supported and their investment expectations Small-group dynamics, including distribution of workload, handling of interpersonal conflict, and establishing group priorities Development of progress plans and progress reports Information literacy: how to research content for business plans Solid page design for a large documents, and visuals for business presentations Revision of the business plan document Preparation of presentations, including guidance with presentation choreography and development of professional stage presence Many libraries provide course consultation in information literacy. Coordinating with librarians to help students with issues of research pertinent to starting a new business is extremely helpful. ANTICIPATED PROBLEMS A teacher can expect to contront several areas of difficulty in the production of the group business plan project. Resistance to a Learner-Driven Format Many students are accustomed to having precise assignment instructions , methodically laid out by a teacher, which can be useful for many kinds of projects. However, because every business is different, every plan must also be different. It is not realistic to think that a teacher can micro-manage production of the plan and produce good results. Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 5
  • 6. Small-Group Leadership and Interpersonal Dynamics Nearly every group will have organizational difficulties that may stem from leadership or interpersonal issues. Addressing interpersonal communication can assuage all of these issues, so it is useful to designate at least one lesson to addressing such concerns. Technical Roadblocks Generating financial statements, risk assessments, or the graphic design of the document and presentation can create technical challenges for students and a desire for expert consultation that the teacher may not be able to provide. Students will have to do their best to find answers from library and online resources, and other teachers or staff members who may be willing to answer specific questions. It can be useful to establish relations with colleagues from other disciplines (such as Accounting or Finance) for the purpose of getting challenging questions answered. Research Roadblocks Research presents daunting challenges. Market analysis, operational costs, and manufacturing processes are a few of the examples of information that may be difficult to find. The only answer to these kinds of challenges is for students to do the best they can to support their claims with the best information available. Lacking detailed information, they should rely on their most conservative estimates and assumptions. ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES Although two alternative approaches stand out as useful efforts, any component of the business plan can be singled out for emphasis to create a significant lesson for students learning. Market analysis and marketing strategy are just two of the components of the business plan, for example, but it is easy to imagine ways for this to become a dominant lesson Such subsections of the business plan could be emphasized to become dominant lessons guiding the whole course project, involving complex analysis of many factors. This flexibility allows the teacher to adapt the project to meet particular course objectives, whatever they may be, or to exploit teacher expertise. This is particularly useful when applying the business plan to multiple sections of the same course taught be a variety of teachers who are likely to have differing professional backgrounds and consequent expertise. As an Exercise in Intercultural Communication The business plan can create an elaborate exercise in intercultural communication and intercultural interaction. An easy way to do this is to ask students to create a business that targets an international audience as its primary customer. This task requires a thorough analysis of the potential problems that may exist for the product or service provided within another culture. Additionally, students have to analyze persuasive communication approaches to create marketing communication that works for the target audience, they must forecast potential distribution problems, and they must analyze the intercultural challenges associated with personnel management of operations within the target country. Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 6
  • 7. As a Project for ESL Students As a language-learning project, the amount of growth possible in a project of this kind is enormous. Even for intermediate-level English speakers, a short business plan can yield good results. The heavy reliance on peer-partnership creates an excellent vehicle for lateral learning of language, which is known to be one of the better modes of transference in language acquisition. In addition to the two alternative approaches described above, the business plan could be modified to emphasize a variety of other important components: Business presentations Graphic design for visual rhetoric of documents and presentations Marketing communications Small group and interpersonal communication Technical writing Research for business and marketing Analysis of market trends, financial forecasts, risks and rewards, and etc. ADDING REAL WORLD MOTIVATION Business is competition, and the world of venture capital is by nature highly competitive. An excellent motivation, therefore, is to create an annual business plan competition that allows students to compete for honor or prizes with their best work. Furthermore, it is generally not too difficult to get local business leaders to donate their time to serve as judges of the contest, and in doing so to give the students the opportunity to present their business ideas before real investors and managers. At the Writing Program of The University of California Santa Barbara we have been lucky enough to host an annual business plan competition that is judged by a panel of local venture capitalists. We are also lucky enough to have been awarded a grant of $80,000, by a local businessman interested in promoting entrepreneurial literacy, to be used to fund annual prizes for students. This grant was achieved through long-term efforts to cultivate relations with local entrepreneurs in support of a program designed to advance entrepreneurial literacy amongst university students. Such entrepreneurs seem very willing to serve as advocates to the youth of the value of entrepreneurship as a career objective, and are willing participants in the judging of our annual contest, and are often happy to speak in classrooms and ceremonies. It is fortunate that these successful professionals know as well as anyone that successful development programs require proper funding. What is more important, however, is that bringing in such “real world” advocacy of a course project is a tremendous influence on the motivations of students to set high standards for achievement on a very difficult project. Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 7
  • 8. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION Student production of a business plan satisfies the criteria of a holistic communication training activity as well as a project that promotes entrepreneurial literacy. This is an excellent project for a number of reasons: It is an ideal group project, as it requires utilization of student specializations to perform particular roles in a cooperative production. It helps to generate competency in a wide range of practical communication capabilities, from research and information analysis to strategic writing and speaking It helps to generate competency in business thinking, from risk and competition assessment to organizational management It is a project that is largely learner-driven, requiring substantial student initiative It is adaptable to various timeframes and a variety of specific pedagogical obligations It is a project that is easily administered and easily assessed. The business plan project is a challenging and rewarding effort that has proven to be manageable for students and teachers alike, while giving students exposure to a wide variety of the challenges of strategic communication for business purposes. It is a lesson in language, a lesson in thinking, a lesson in the challenges of multi-media communication, and a lesson in interpersonal dynamics. The business plan project addresses hurdles that students must learn to overcome on their own, relying on their own resources. Students learn what it takes to communicate in writing, speaking, and through visual media credibly and compellingly, which can help them in all aspects of their professional lives. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the empowerment that comes from learning that entrepreneurial efforts are viable career objectives , given the right business concept and the ability to convince potential investors to take the risk of funding dreams with a great deal of real money. REFERENCES Allen, N., Atkinson, D., Morgan, M., Moore, T., & Snow, C. (1987) What experienced collaborators say about collaborative writing. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 1, 70-90. Altbach, P. (2001). Universities and globalization: Critical perspectives/ the globalization of higher education, Journal of Higher Education, 72, 254-256. Arkebauer, J.B. (1995). The McGraw-Hill Guide to Writing a High-Impact Business Plan: A Proven Blueprint for First-Time Entrepreneurs. Boston, MA: Irwin McGraw-Hill. Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 8
  • 9. Bechard, B. (1998). Using writing in the business department to pursue excellence. The Writing in the Curriculum Journal, 9, 95-104. Bovee, C.L., & Thill, J.V. (2005). Business communication today (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. Chaney, L. H. & Martin, J. S. (2004). Intercultural business communication. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. Cross, W., Richey, A.M. (1998). The Prentice Hall Encyclopedia of Model Business Plans. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. Guffey, M. E. (2003). Business Communication: Process and Product (4th ed). Mason, Oh: South-Western. Lawrence, S., Moyes, F. (2004) Writing a successful business plan. The Deming Center Business Planning Website, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder. Retrieved August 15th, 2006, from http://leeds- faculty.colorado.edu/Moyes/bplan/Plan/Writing%20a%20Successful%20Business %20Plan%202004v4.pdf O’Donnell, M. (1991). Writing Business Plans That Get Results. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Contemporary Books. Peterson, R. (1988). Understanding and encouraging entrepreneurship internationally, Journal of Small Business Management, 26 (2), 1-7. MacMillan, I.C., Narasimha, S. (1987). Characteristics of distinguishing funded from unfounded business plans evaluated by venture capitalists. Strategic Management Journal, 8 (6), 579-585. Shapero, A. (1985). Why entrepreneurship? A worldwide perspective. Journal of Small Business Management, 23 (4), 1-5. Vic, G. N. (2001). Doing more to teach teamwork than telling students to sink or swim. Business Communication Quarterly, 64 (4), 112-119. Proceedings of The Association for Business Communication 7th Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27-31 2007 Copyright 2007, Association for Business Communication 9