Reflections on the McQuinn Entrepreneurship Conference
| Peter Klein |
Last week’s McQuinn Center conference on entrepreneurship in Kansas City was a great success, with some 75 participants from places like Nepal, Norway, the UK, and Peru as well as the US and Canada. Keynoters Cornelia Flora, Pierre Desrochers, Sandy Kemper, and Randy Westgren challenged and inspired the group and the papers and discussions highlighted a variety of innovative entrepreneurship research topics, theories, and methods. Papers and presentations are now available on the conference website.
I had the pleasure of offering introductory and closing remarks, and I’ll share here some reflections about the state of the field and suggestions for moving forward.
1. Variety. To start with the obvious, there is tremendous variety within the academic entrepreneurship literature. The papers and presentations covered a broad range of theories (mainstream development and labor economics, Austrian and evolutionary economics, social-capital and social-network theory, complexity theory, etc.), academic disciplines (economics, sociology, geography), concepts of the entrepreneur (innovator, adaptor, discoverer, uncertainty bearer), research approaches (conceptual theory, econometric analysis of secondary data, quantitative work with survey data, qualitative case studies), and policy questions. Classic contributions from Cantillon, Schumpeter, Knight, Mises, Kirzner, Schultz, and others were considered and compared. The entrepreneur appeared not only as a proprietor, an inventor, or creative thinker (the most common conceptualizations in the entrepreneurship literature) but also as an investor (a venture capitalist, an angel, or even shareholder), a participant in a collective entrepreneurial venture (such as a patron of a new-generation cooperative), and a producer facing potential adoption of new technologies and organizational structures.
This variety captures nicely the range of perspectives and approaches in the research literature on entrepreneurship. Is this good for the field? Most participants seemed to welcome the diversity, but others expressed concern that the field is too fragmented to have serious impact on research and practice.
2. The entrepreneurship enterprise. I opened my introduction by asking, like Admiral Stockdale, “Who are we? Why are we here?” In other words, what is the point of the rapidly expanding portfolio of entrepreneurship-related activities on university campuses? Do we really believe that startups, venture funding, intellectual property, innovation, technology, etc. are more important for economic and social development than they were before? Are we driven by the increasing emphasis (at US universities, particularly land-grant institutions) on economic development as a fourth mission of the university (joining research, teaching, and outreach)? Are we dissatisfied with standard, non-entrepreneurial approaches in industrial economics, strategy, organization theory? Or are we simply following the herd, investing in an entrepreneurship-studies bubble that will burst as surely as the tech bubble of the 1990s?
3. Food and agriculture. The McQuinn conference focused specifically on entrepreneurship research in food, agriculture, natural resources, and rural development. What is unique about these sectors or areas? Do they demand particular research strategies, or can they be studied with the same tools as other sectors or areas? Food and agriculture is characterized by a biological production function, unique uncertainties associated with weather and seasonality, and a distinct regulatory environment, among other characteristics. Do these have implications for the study of entrepreneurship?
4. Problems and issues. What does entrepreneurship research need move forward? Consistency in definition and measurement seems an obvious requirement. More fundamentally, there is little consensus on the explananda of entrepreneurship research. What phenomena are we trying to explain? For Schumpeter, the entrepreneur is an instrumental construct needed to explain economic change. For Knight and Kirzner, the entrepreneur is a functional category, the economic agent whose return is profit, rather than wages or interest. Other entrepreneurship researchers seek to explain the personal characteristics of proprietors, the sources of sustained (firm-level) competitive advantages, differences in industry or regional organization and behavior, and the like. With so many questions on the table, how do we proceed? And what do we gain from invoking entrepreneurship in our explanations — knowledge about previously unexplained phenomena, or simply a new language for describing well-known, mundane phenomena? Inquiring minds want to know!
We hope to sponsor a follow-up conference next year; watch this space for details. Comments are welcome below, as always. . . .