Many business founders have encyclopedic knowledge about how their organizations work, as well as how to gain and to retain profitable customers. Why? Founders have probably either designed or done all of the major tasks at one time or another and may have played a role in attracting almost all of the key customers. Doing so was just part of what was required for their businesses to succeed.
When it comes time for founders to replace themselves, one of their most difficult challenges is finding someone with the right experience. Starting new employees in entry-level jobs and rotating them through as many other kinds of jobs as possible can help, but it's a slow process and most ambitious people don't want to invest the required time and effort.
By contrast, business education originally focused on teaching just a few skills such as accounting, quantitative analysis, and what was then called industrial organization. Such skills were often helpful for understanding how a business was performing, as well as for identifying and assessing alternatives.
A key drawback of this educational approach was that the overall perspective of a business founder couldn't be gained from learning just these skills. What could be done instead?
In response, business schools began to think about ways that people could much more rapidly add relevant experience. One method of accelerated learning emerged that has continued to be important to this day: Document case studies of actual business decisions, ask learners to analyze the situations, and assign them the tasks of identifying and choosing what to do. When the learners are ready, engage them in Socratic dialogues about the case and their conclusions.
It was hoped that by grappling with these difficult challenges learners could gain opportunities in just a few months to consider many more important decisions than they might normally be involved in over several decades. Would mature business judgments be far behind?
When learners had to explain and defend their choices orally and in writing, they also gained some experience of what it is like to operate in an organization. In addition, learners benefited from objective reactions to their views. With such perspectives, business learners could potentially avoid some future mistakes by improving on their ways of thinking and deciding.
The concept of using case studies for learning through Socratic dialogues was originally drawn from how Harvard Law School taught about appellate-level judicial opinions. The business cases subsequently written at Harvard Business School soon became the backbone of many curricula for graduate-level business programs at many highly regarded universities. Ways of writing and using such cases began to proliferate in useful ways.
Wise educators also realized that experience still provided some lessons that just studying cases couldn't. As a result, business educators encouraged learners to gain some business experience before trying to add more advanced management skills in classroom experiences. Most business schools also required students to work on real-life projects for existing businesses from time to time, to provide more relevant learning.
A few business educators also realized that skill development needed to be closely aligned with a theoretical understanding of what the overall organization needed to accomplish. From teaching such insights, the business disciplines of management and corporate strategy emerged.
As a countertrend, more and more business subjects became specialized, so that less and less of any learning was focused on gaining a founder's kind of perspective and knowledge. To respond, evening and online business school programs were developed for mid-career businesspeople to flesh out whatever it is that they hadn't yet learned that was needed to do their jobs better... and to prepare them for taking on bigger responsibilities, especially in general management.
Instead, many businesspeople in the last two decades decided to bypass formal education and simply worked with coaches who had such knowledge and asked for practical advice about their most pressing concerns and issues.
Clearly, all these ways of learning more about business have their good points. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they could all be combined?
That hope isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. Some of today's leading business scholars are as drawn to gaining insights into how others can learn more about business as they are to obtaining more knowledge about business for themselves.
Whenever I think of combining new knowledge with better learning for businesspeople, I'm reminded of one of my colleagues on the Rushmore University faculty who also earned his Ph.D. in Management Accounting/ Strategic Management from the university. While many people imagine all professors as being ivory tower types, that view doesn't fit my colleague. He's just as likely to be seen scoring a goal or earning an assist for his ice hockey team as he is to be found reading in the library.
His students learn more because he applies more teaching methods than most other business professors do: In addition to online teaching that emphasizes helping business practitioners to learn and to apply theory, he is highly effective in a bricks-and-mortar classroom setting while leading many sections of management accounting classes for BBA and MBA candidates at a highly esteemed North American business school.
To make those online and classroom classes more valuable for learning about business, this professor has researched and written two business case textbooks, the first including some cases developed as part of his doctoral studies.
In addition, he provides executive coaching and education through his personal consulting practice.
While teaching people with widely varying amounts of experience and knowledge, my colleague gains understanding about what works best for individual students and his mind is opened to opportunities for teaching business more effectively through using the many available methods and resources.
Curious about what insights he had gained about business learning just from online teaching, I asked him to describe how this method differs from other ways of learning about business. Here is what he told me:
"Although I also teach extensively in the traditional bricks-and-mortar university setting, I notice that online learning is effective because students are interested and engaged, and they retain this learning far greater than with a preset menu of courses.
"Determined and self-driven students will always surprise you. Students who are committed to self-learning are willing to listen, take constructive criticism positively, and always push their boundaries. I appreciate students who can do this and keep their personal lives in balance."
He also offered this advice for those thinking about online business learning based on both his student and his teaching experiences:
"It is not easy. A great deal of self-discipline is required to stay the course. Find your moments of greatness through research and writing. Establish a bond with your faculty advisor and draw from his or her experiences. Engage in something you are passionate about, aided by one-on-one mentoring without a preset menu of courses. It's a very powerful and rewarding way to learn."
So what's the right way for you to learn more about business and become as successful as a flourishing founder? The more of the proven learning methods you can apply to what you want to accomplish, the more effective you will become. In that regard, be like this professor and place as much emphasis as you can on using all of the methods that apply to your learning needs.
What are you waiting for? Let's get started!
Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit