Mastering the Transition to a Modern Working World Thanks to Entrepreneurship Education

Young founders’ initiative teaches innovative thinking and entrepreneurialism

Disruptive changes resulting from the digital revolution do not just have an impact on business processes and business models, they also change working practices. There is an opportunity for Germany to go its own way in the long term by managing these historic changes in industry. A key factor in making the transition a success will be the people, who will need the tools to actively shape digital business and working practices, plus the confidence to do so and the right skills. It’s never too early to start training in this area. One of the key issues is which specialist and personal skills we should hand on to the next generation to prepare them for “Working World 4.0.”

The important point is that this is not just about focusing school education on business needs, or making schools “available” to the economy. Education is not about cramming people full of knowledge, it’s about skills, attitudes, and behaviors of the modern world. It’s about acquiring such know-how for oneself and others. When the world changes – which is does more rapidly in times of disruptive innovation – then the education offered by schools has to react to this.

If change could be based on a standard counting system from 1 to 4, then Working World 1.0 was the beginning of industrialization and the first organizations of workers. Working World 2.0 was then the onset of mass production and the beginnings of welfare states in the late 19th century. Working World 3.0 saw a consolidation of the welfare state and workers’ rights based on the social market economy. Since the 1980s, production has undergone further automation through IT and electronics, with a sharp rise in service provision and an opening up of domestic markets as a result of Europeanization and globalization. Working World 4.0 is more closely networked, more digital, individual, and adaptable. Broad-based skills are becoming more important. Accordingly, Work 4.0 not only requires qualified and motivated people, it’s especially important that they can work independently and become capable “controllers” of digital processes. The ability to train oneself – and assimilate what one has learned creatively in a way that adds value – is becoming a key competence. It is also important to use smart sources of knowledge, to pull out the essentials, to then use knowledge practically, share this with others, and work systematically.

Entrepreneurship education plays an important role in this area. According to the authors Kirchner and Loerwald, it is “all education processes that promote entrepreneurial creativity, the ability to innovate, a conviction in one’s own effectiveness, the drive to perform, a rational approach to risk, a sense of responsibility, and sharing such business and generic competences, which are required to set up, realize, and reflect on entrepreneurial initiative.” This raises a question: How can this be achieved in schools? According to studies, young people have specific expectations of the working world, for example that it will offer challenging, meaningful, and socially responsible tasks; personal freedom; responsibility; and a collegial, minimum-hierarchy, project-related working environment with a strong identification with tasks. Such expectations are clearly compatible with self-employment and largely congruent with the personalities of entrepreneurs. As a result, a foundation can be laid for training people on such personality factors. The aim in doing so is not to adapt to business needs, but to make education about holistic personal development. As such, entrepreneurship education fits in well with contemporary general education. At its core lies learning through research and the kinds of projects that can be offered at all kinds of school through a variety of subjects. This is unlike classic classroom- based lessons – people do things. The approach to learning is based on giving students tasks to work on so they can apply what they have just learned independently, if possible as part of a team. They learn to analyze tasks, gather information and evaluate it, make decisions as a team, implement these, and monitor their impact. Developing creative solutions, planning, deciding, implementing, checking if targets have been met – these are the classic activities of entrepreneurs, and people can be trained on this. It’s also important to engender a matching culture of individual feedback: Which skills were needed? Who in the team has which strengths? Where does the emphasis lie for each individual? What can we do to work on these? What does this mean for subsequent career choices?

A specific example of all these issues in the world of business is Young Founders (German: Jugend gründet), a competition sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The contest has taken place nationally since 2003 under the coordination of the Steinbeis Innovation Center for Business Development at Pforzheim University, and until now over 44,000 young people have participated in the program. The competition starts by focusing on finding an idea, or brainstorming. The aim here is to develop an innovative business concept in people’s minds and a number of creative techniques are provided on the Young Founders website to help come up with ideas. Students are encouraged to work in teams. Once they have an innovative business concept, the next task is to work up a robust business plan. To help with this offline process, there is a special business plan canvassing poster. Around 600 business plans are submitted each year and these are evaluated by special judges. All teams are given online feedback on different aspects of their business plan. Once the plans have been assessed, the best teams are invited to one of three events in different parts of Germany to present their business ideas. The mixture between online elements of the competition and the physical events is an extremely important feature of the sustainable learning experience.

The next part of the competition is a business simulation in which the students go through a virtual launch of their own company. The timeframe for the startup is the first eight years after the startup. The students decide the product price and have to hire and train workers. They make decisions regarding marketing budgets and have to make strategic decisions on each of the simulation periods (financial year), covering HQ location, type of business, certification etc. All of these factors are influenced by ups and downs in the economy and the students experiencing the simulation have to adapt to the situation again each time. The competition is also simulated. The outcome is judged by the cumulative value of the business. With Jugend gründet, this is not just based on short-term factors such as the operating profit, but also other factors such as product quality, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction. After each phase of the simulation, the ten overall best teams from the two phases of the competition are invited to the final. At this point, they have to design a trade show booth and present their project to the expert judges. The main prize is a trip to Silicon Valley sponsored by Steinbeis.

Experience has shown that these teaching and learning methods are extremely well received by the young entrepreneurs, thus providing a unique vehicle for sharing specialist and personal skills in a learning environment that fits in well with the younger generation. Business simulations allow young people to place themselves in the position of an entrepreneur. They learn to make decisions, even in situations that are not entirely clear due to the interplay between different variables. They quickly discover the impact of their decisions and learn to draw conclusions from them. This gives young people an understanding of issues from an entrepreneur’s and employer’s perspective as they experience first-hand how much room there is to maneuver in business and how fascinating it is taking personal responsibility – almost “incidentally” gaining important insights into the world of business.

With every new school year, the judges are surprised by the innovative flair of the young people and the business concepts they submit. They are often a reflection of the zeitgeist and show how passionate young people can be about their projects, their creativity, their drive, and how much they can identify with projects that allow them to research and learn new things under their own responsibility.


Prof. Dr. Barbara Burkhardt-Reich is director of the Steinbeis Transfer and Innovation Centers for Business Development at Pforzheim University. Her Steinbeis Enterprise offers products and services to a number of target groups. These include running entrepreneurship education projects, support with youth career planning, websites, marketing intelligence solutions, and integrated communication.

Professor Dr. Barbara Burkhardt-Reich
Steinbeis Transfer Center Business Development Pforzheim University (Pforzheim)

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