Leadership Skills are at Risk from the Virtual University

Leadership Skills are at Risk from the Virtual University

A key set of skills needed in the industrial workplace of the future will be those which are characteristic of today’s successful entrepreneurs. By 2040, technology and the desire for efficiency will have combined and caused some universities to out-source their undergraduate teaching. Hopefully others will resist these pressures and will continue to provide the opportunities in which essential entrepreneurial skills can be learned.

Today’s industry is already seeing increased automation and fragmentation leading to a reduction in the entry-level and development roles through which its current leaders have passed. At the same time, as young professionals impatient for variety are pushing the trend for increased freelance working, employers see job rotation between supply chain partners as one solution to develop talent with the necessary breadth of industry experience.

Whether desired or not, a career in industry is likely to include frequent changes of employer, or client. It will still be necessary to use time and resources effectively and efficiently, to manage and motivate others, to be able to influence and to sell an idea, to build and maintain networks inside and outside the company to be ready and available when needed to come together to solve complex and uncertain problems. But increasingly valued will be the skills to work in, to lead, and to move between teams comprising different cultures, generations, physical locations and disciplines, employed or engaged by different companies, all working on the same project.

The Ent-Ex Entrepreneurial Skills Report1 featured a survey of 50 entrepreneurs by over 450 students across Europe from 2011 – 2015. The results showed that these industry leadership skills were very similar to those also exhibited by successful entrepreneurs. Common to all of the entrepreneurs surveyed were the skills, including:

  • Effective time and self-management
  • Project management
  • Leading a team, managing and motivating others
  • Effective influencing
  • Effective networking
  • Effective resource management
  • Creative problem-solving (demonstrating attitudes of resilience and opportunism)
  • Willingness and ability to learn from their experiences

The entrepreneurs recalled that these skills were mostly learned by practical experience. Almost all (48 out of 50) first had a ‘proper job’. They learned, or at least developed to a level they felt sufficient for a start-up, their entrepreneurial skills at their employer’s expense; usually through practice in a variety of jobs with increasing responsibility, often with in-company mentors, supported by informal in-company workshops.

But before their first job, whilst attending university, or high school, all had developed, through practical on-campus experience, some basics in these transferrable, entrepreneurial skills. And these basics had clearly been sufficient to differentiate them in the competition to be employed from those others who achieved similar academic qualifications.

Examples of practical learning experience were not just of small scale commercial ventures. Skills had been often been developed in sports clubs and scouting at school, and then at university. Our successful entrepreneurs weren’t just participants in things such as sports, amateur dramatic or music societies, they also took on the responsibility of running these volunteer organizations.

Universities generate and disseminate knowledge. On the other hand, skill, the ability to apply knowledge appropriately at will, is developed best by cycles of planned practice, and review. This process can be accelerated by the observations of action and input provided to the learner by a reliable third party.

I’m sure elsewhere in this Thoughtbook others have described the technology-led existential threat to the university as a place to go to in order to receive knowledge. Even today, exciting and engaging professorial performances are available online. If these can also offer employer-credible, remote evaluation and accreditation of students, then the ‘stay at home’ virtual university will thrive. In one efficiency-driven sweep, undergraduate teaching can be ‘out-sourced’ to the Americans, leaving our own universities to concentrate on lucrative research.

But take as an example any university, virtual or face-to-face, teaching an entrepreneurship class. Students might acquire knowledge of a variety of other entrepreneurs’ ventures and experiences packaged into case studies, tools and techniques. Markets will quickly decide how relevant such knowledge is to a successful entrepreneurial future (in my opinion, the current lucrative bubble will soon burst). Meanwhile to an employer, success in such a class is no measure of the entrepreneurial skills or capability which a graduate can bring into the workplace. Far more effective in developing these skills are the non-formal activities students engage in while at university.

Often for the first time in their adult lives, undergraduate students are faced with a transition from being a relatively big fish in their small school pond to being a much smaller fish in a much bigger multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary pond. Taking on a role in a student-led volunteer organization, where hierarchies tend to be flat, non-existent or maintained by strength of character, gives plenty of opportunity to practice team-working and persuasive skills especially where formal authority is lacking.

For those organizing events, a real, uncertain, market exists where real people will promise you their support one day only to get distracted by other choices the next, and you must survive this disappointment and be resilient to face the next challenge for your society. Budgets and resources are invariably tight and creative ways must be found to make these stretch. Those leaders who develop the (entrepreneurial) skills to successfully deliver extra-curricular activity for their peers in this environment, will be well-regarded by future employers – or investors.

But if physical universities are replaced by virtual, the on-campus population will disappear, and along with it the opportunities to practice the provision of these extra-curricular activities on which so many of today’s workplace leaders, as well as many successful entrepreneurs, cut their leadership teeth.

Therefore, whilst university 2040 must evolve, if it is to encourage the development of entrepreneurial skills, it must retain its ability to bring together large numbers of young adults with extra-curricular time on their hands to structure for themselves. The physical university campus which survives and provides reputable and reliable non-formal learning experiences will be of increasing importance to students, recruiters and talent managers alike.

1Price, S., Vandekerkhove, A., Lara Egli. (2016). Ent-Ex Entrepreneurial Skills Report 2016 – A Study of Entrepreneurs, their skills, and the importance of employment and non-formal education in their development. European Institute for Industrial Leadership.


Steve Price is a Chartered Engineer with a business education from Cranfield and Oxford universities. After 20 years in the chemical industry building new plants and new businesses on three continents, he has used the skills and networks he developed to create a unique not-for-profit industry association. Established in 2003 the European Institute for Industrial Leadership (EIIL) helps member companies in the process, plastics and engineering sectors, to research issues likely to affect their future leadership. The EIIL has published fifteen industry-wide reports on issues ranging from ‘The Shortage of Engineers’ to ‘Leading and Retaining the Connected Generation’. This research has been presented at more than 30 international conferences and feeds into programmes which help ‘next generation leaders’ develop the skills they’ll require in their future workplace. Steve has been an expert to the Consultative Committee for Industrial Change at the European Economic and Social Committee. For the last ten years he has also been a member of the advisory board of JADE the European Confederation of Junior Enterprises.


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