Intense learning in any context, and particularly the business start up community, is often referred to as a Boot Camp. It’s an entertaining metaphor as it conjures up images of drill sergeants shouting instructions into the faces of some hapless recruit who has to stand stock still whilst receiving a volley of verbal abuse, all in the name of building character and mental resilience.
We hear frequent anecdotes about initiation rites which involve subjecting said hapless recruit to various degrading and dehumanising activities, none of which will be repeated here for the fear of encouraging you to throw up in public. No doubt you can use your own imagination when it comes to combining images of bodily fluids, kitchen utensils and small furry animals.
Boot camps are frequently correctional too: taking to its bosom cohorts of wayward youth, correctional boot camps are focused on righting behavioural wrongs and leaving the recipients under no delusion that if they continue in their erroneous ways, their guts will be traded in for garters and there’ll be no discounts for multiple offending and mass apologies.
The boot camp is a seductive metaphor in business start up circles given its promise of rapid growth, profit generation and economic impact which is irreversible, sticky and worth the pain that’s inflicted on its happy campers. But there’s a major problem with the metaphor which is not just about whether entrepreneurs should subject themselves to volleys of abuse and cattle prods to steer them towards their economic nirvana.
The problem at the heart of all boot camps – the military, correctional and business – is their emphasis on increasing procedural knowledge (I.e. skill acquisition) at the expense of increasing their propositional knowledge (I.e. subject knowledge) and building their personal knowledge.
The boot camp regime doesn’t concern itself with why you should learn new skills, just that you should; it doesn’t equip campers with the ability to ask questions about those skills or to consider the power of their own knowledge in their learning and development. Neither is it the slightest bit interested in asking whether the skills it values are appropriate: its sole mantra is skills, skills and more skills, coupled in many cases to a zeal for testing personalities to destruction.
Now this is fine up to a point: no-one is going to seriously dispute the value of learning skills when it comes to improving your life or business chances. If you can’t read or write for example you might as well be living in a foreign country for all the sense you will be able to make of your environment.
But skills alone are not enough. You might be a perfectly competent sales person when it comes to performing a sales script over the phone but when it comes to understanding how the market is formed and how it operates, how your product might be modified to generate a stronger emotional connection with your customer, how your behaviours influence others and what other people have learnt from similar challenges in similar contexts, then as an entrepreneur you need access to other types of knowledge, namely your personal knowledge and propositional knowledge of the field you operate in.
Without access to those knowledges, your skill base, your procedural knowledge – is likely to condemn you to repetitive behaviours which may rapidly become obsolete. Without those other types of knowledge, your skills turn you into a performing dog: entertaining in the short term but ultimately useless when the world decides it has no need for performing dogs any longer, which, given the rate of change of the global economy is likely to happen sooner rather than later.
So, a skills driven bootcamp for entrepreneurs is misguided in many ways: as a metaphor it’s inappropriately aggressive; as a model of learning for entrepreneurs who need to develop their full learning complement of knowledge types and wisdom within a rounded personality it’s painfully lacking.
So what might be a suitable alternative? What might be a more powerful metaphor to gather motivated entrepreneurs who have expressed a desire to improve but who may be suspicious of places which traditionally impart propositional knowledge and on a good day, enhance their personal knowledge? The Greenhouse? The Bakery? The Holiday Camp? All come with their own fair share of metaphorical limitations. As Alfred Korzybski once said, the map is not the territory.
Starting from the basis that a developmental programme needs to embrace all three kinds of knowledge – personal, propositional and procedural – if it’s going to improve the effectiveness of the entrepreneur is at least a step in the right direction away from the wilderness of the boot camp and towards something richer, more complex and ultimately more economically effective.
Suggestions on a postcard please…