By Tobias Pret and Aviel Cogan
There has been vigorous debate about the nature of opportunities and whether they are created by entrepreneurs or exist independent of them, waiting to be discovered and exploited. Part of the reason why scholars have struggled with the concept is that opportunities can only be known to exist once entrepreneurs have successfully pursued them. Thus, the concept of opportunities does relatively little to enhance our knowledge of entrepreneurial processes that lead up to (un)successful outcomes. Indeed, the retrospective nature of the study of opportunity has limited our understanding of entrepreneurial practices. In an effort to provide a more forward-looking perspective that also bridges theory and practice, Henrik Berglund, Marouane Bousfiha, and Yashar Mansoori conceptualize entrepreneurship as a form of artifact-centered design in their recent Academy of Management Review article, entitled “Opportunities as Artifacts and Entrepreneurship as Design”.
As Berglund explains, “When I talk to fellow entrepreneurship scholars, they often experience a disconnect between research and teaching. Their research mostly describes processes, correlates variables, identifies causal effects, and things like that, but when teaching an MBA class they tend to pull out the Lean Startup or the Startup Owner's Manual book from the shelf … because that is what people want to learn about—how to experiment, talk to customers, work with prototypes, and so on. There is this kind of angst that their research and teaching are not related.” Based on this realization and inspired by Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial, the authors decided to try “to conceptualize entrepreneurship not as a descriptive science ... but more as a prescriptive or pragmatic design science—more engineering than natural science!” As Berglund notes, “I think the design perspective can be a valuable complement to what is already out there … not least because it's going to be more practically useful in teaching situations.”
According to Berglund, the paper has “been in the works for a long time. It is written with two of my PhD students … and we have been working on these ideas for many years. When we submitted it to AMR, it actually had a huge literature review as well … to ground the ideas in existing research. We went through all 1100 or so papers published in [the top entrepreneurship journals] going all the way back to 2000 when the Shane and Venkat paper was published. From the abstracts we identified those that talked about these different levels and the interfaces between them: the individuals, the firms or artifacts, and the environments … So that was part of the original paper. The reviewers liked the basic idea, but thought that the review didn’t fit with the AMR style and convinced us to focus on developing the conceptual part of the paper instead. And, I must say both reviewers and the editor Allan Afuah were excellent during that process!”
During this review process, Berglund was amazed by “how many interesting implications you can draw out of a design perspective on entrepreneurship.” He noted that “I think it goes beyond entrepreneurship. I mean, the way I like to see management in general is as a design-oriented discipline … and when you start thinking about things from that perspective, lots of practical, conceptual, and methodological issues are brought to the fore, which I think are really interesting … And even though I had thought of these things in more general terms before, the process of writing a paper like this forces you to interrogate them a bit more deeply. I just think there's lots more to be done with this perspective!”
Note: Henrik Berglund has organized a symposium on this topic, “entrepreneurship and design” with Raghu Garud, Dimo Dimov, Saras Sarasvathy, Kathleen Eisenhardt, and Roberto Verganti, and you can see the recorded video here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoLo3hfMgtA&list=PLuHecLLLtnPUAAMnxFuTQlYiyg_xAAngd