Is funding a startup worth the risk? The answer may be found by looking in the mirror

Venture capitalists are sensitive to the halo effect, as they prefer to invest in startups led by physically attractive, male entrepreneurs. However, a new study finds this halo effect to depend in part on VCs own physical attractiveness. This pertains particularly to VCs of below-average attractiveness.

Author

Marc Bahlmann
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

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Marc D. Bahlmann (2024) Physical attractiveness, same-sex stimuli, and male venture capitalists’ financial risk-taking, Frontiers in Psychology, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1259143

23 February 2024

That VCs’ startup screening and selection decisions are biased by the attractiveness of the entrepreneur is well-established. Recent research found VCs’ subsequent capital allocation decisions also to be affected by the halo-effect. A new study, available as open access article in Frontiers in Psychology, now turns the spotlight to the attractiveness of the VC himself. The study’s results, which are based on data from 341 startup investments involving male entrepreneurs and male VCs, suggest that VCs of below-average attractiveness are more sensitive to entrepreneurs’ physical attractiveness when compared to VCs of average attractiveness. Also, the nature of this effect changes from positive in the first investment round, to negative in the second investment round. Risk-taking therefore seems to be partly driven by one’s own physical attractiveness.

Risk-taking therefore seems to be partly driven by one’s own physical attractiveness.

How venture capital funding works

Once selected, the startup entrepreneur and venture capitalist enter into a collaborative effort aimed at ensuring the success of the startup. This phase presents the VC with a myriad of uncertainties inherent to the startup ecosystem: questions concerning the startup’s ability to fulfill its potential, the entrepreneur’s competence and reliability, and the unpredictable trajectory of the market, among others. Consequently, capital allocation follows a staged approach, gradually disbursing funds as the startup progresses. This approach allows the VC to mitigate risks by retaining the flexibility to withdraw investment and minimize potential losses. Research suggests that the manner in which capital is disbursed reflects the level of trust and confidence the VC has in the startup. Higher levels of confidence translate to larger funding disbursements with longer intervals between investments, whereas doubts prompt tighter control measures, manifested in smaller funding amounts and shorter intervals between rounds. While traditionally assumed to be grounded in rational decision-making, balancing staging costs with monitoring expenses, VCs’ funding approaches may not be entirely devoid of biases.

How does physical attractiveness affect men’s financial risk-taking behavior?

Human behavior, shaped by evolutionary pressures, revolves around the fundamental goal of reproductive success facilitated through sexual selection mechanisms. This process encompasses both intersexual selection, where individuals choose mates, and intrasexual competition, involving rivalry among members of the same sex for access to opposite-sex mates. In this context, men exhibit traits and behaviors signaling mate quality, including physical attributes like facial hair and body shape, alongside behaviors like conspicuous consumption. Conversely, women prioritize physical attractiveness in potential mates, considering it a cue for underlying qualities such as masculinity and health, while also assessing signs of commitment and economic status. Moreover, women evaluate potential partners based on economic indicators, with men’s reproductive success being linked to their economic position. Men, cognizant of these preferences, may compensate for perceived deficiencies in attractiveness by enhancing their desirability through financial success, particularly when motivated by a need to increase their attractiveness to women. This is supported by research showing that men tend to take greater financial risks when exposed to attractive male stimuli. The signaling of economic status through conspicuous consumption further underscores the importance of mate value characteristics like attractiveness and ambition in male-male interactions. Thus, these evolutionary dynamics influence not only mate selection but also financial decision-making, as individuals navigate the complex interplay between attractiveness, status, and reproductive success.

This is supported by research showing that men tend to take greater financial risks when exposed to attractive male stimuli.

How does VCs own physical attractiveness matter to their risk-taking?

The study investigated the impact of VC physical attractiveness on financial risk-taking, hypothesizing two main effects. Firstly, it was anticipated that VCs with above-average attractiveness will exhibit greater tolerance for investment risks compared to their less attractive counterparts. This expectation is supported by prior research linking attractiveness to positive risk attitudes and higher self-esteem, which in turn correlates with increased trust, financial risk tolerance, and propensity for investment. Conversely, VCs with below-average attractiveness are expected to be more risk-averse due to lower self-esteem and a propensity to react negatively to ambiguous information. Secondly, VCs’ responses to entrepreneurs’ attractiveness are predicted to vary based on the VC’s own attractiveness level, with less attractive VCs showing heightened sensitivity to the attractiveness of the startup entrepreneur. This phenomenon is attributed to a perceived disparity in attractiveness, leading less attractive VCs to engage in compensatory behavior by taking greater financial risks and potentially experiencing threats to self-esteem. Overall, it was expected that while physically attractive VCs tend to take more risks in early-stage funding, they are less influenced by the attractiveness of entrepreneurs compared to their less attractive counterparts.

VCs, especially those with average or below-average attractiveness, tended to be positively swayed by the attractiveness of male entrepreneurs.

The study found that VCs, especially those with average or below-average attractiveness, tended to be positively swayed by the attractiveness of male entrepreneurs as evidenced by the first round of funding (see Figure 1). This confirms earlier research on how people assess risk in financial situations. However, this effect wasn’t seen in VCs of above-average attractiveness.

Additionally, the study looked at how this same-sex attractiveness dynamic played out over time by considering the second round of funding. Interestingly, as the funding process went on, VCs of below-average attractiveness seemed to become more cautious about attractive entrepreneurs (see Figure 2). This suggests a shift from initially positive impressions to later doubts, possibly due to what researchers call a “beauty penalty” effect. This beauty penalty idea suggests that highly attractive entrepreneurs might face extra scrutiny if they don’t meet the high expectations set by their looks.

As the funding process went on, VCs of below-average attractiveness seemed to become more cautious about attractive entrepreneurs.

What can we learn from this research?

Fundamentally speaking, this research’s findings suggest that VC risk-taking can be understood by using evolutionary explanations of human behavior. In more practical terms, the study’s findings may assist VCs in their risk-taking considerations. Particularly, this research may help VCs to understand the origins of their risk estimations and preferences.

Author

Marc Bahlmann
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Marc Bahlmann is an assistant professor at the Management & Organization department of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His research centers on the role of irrationality in the context of innovation decision-making. Research contexts include VC investment and innovation decisions by CEOs and TMTs. Learn more about Marc’s research here. A previous blog post by Marc can be found here.

I’m Not So Tough: Entrepreneurs’ Confidence After Hard Times

In these times full of crises, we ask how does a crisis affect entrepreneurs in the long run? We find that, years after a crisis, they still feel less secure in their job. Furthermore, their confidence is required for the daring decisions that can help their venture manage the next crisis.

Authors

Joeri Van Hugten
VU School of Business and Economics
Johanna Vanderstraeten
UAntwerp
Wim Coreynen
Zhejiang University (ZJU) in Hangzhou, China
Arjen Van Witteloostuijn
VU School of Business and Economics

download the full study

van Hugten J, Vanderstraeten J, van Witteloostuijn A, Coreynen W (2023) When the going gets tough, the entrepreneurs get less entrepreneurial? PLoS ONE 18(12): e0290253. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0290253

8 February 2024

The stereotype of the hardened entrepreneur

When asking entrepreneurs how they deal with crises, we often focus on the venture and how it is pulled from the brink of failure by some daring decisions. But we rarely ask how they, as a person, deal with their venture being on the brink of failure. By contrast, we can imagine employees’ fears when for instance AI threatens to replace their job. But for entrepreneurs we seem to assume the answer based on a stereotype.

That stereotype is of the entrepreneur as a tenacious go-getter in the face of adversity; a portrayal based on Silicon Valley success stories. However, for most entrepreneurs, such a stereotype can be difficult to live up to, and not fitting the stereotype can be difficult to live down.

Studying the soft side

Our open-access publication in PLoS ONE reports on our empirically study of this stereotype. We asked 300 leaders of small businesses in Flanders how hard the 2010 financial crisis hit their venture. We also asked them about their self-confidence in being an entrepreneur and about the job security they experience. By analyzing the connection between these answers we hope to promote a more empathetic view on entrepreneurs.

By analyzing the connection between these answers we hope to promote a more empathetic view on entrepreneurs.

The first thing to realize is that the financial crisis is experienced very differently by different ventures. Some ventures could hire workers and enjoy profits as they please, while others experienced years of hardship before recovering from the crisis, similar to how small businesses are still failing today due to not being fully recovered from the Covid crisis. These differences in experience of hardship for the venture could influence entrepreneurs as a person.

What further sets our study apart is that we look at the long-term effect of the crisis. Specifically, we asked entrepreneurs about their current feelings and beliefs about themselves when the crisis was about five to ten years prior. This means we do not study how some entrepreneurs regulate their emotions to prioritize what is best for the venture, but rather focus on how the experience of hardship permanently shapes their baseline attitude.

What does the data say

We found that entrepreneurs whose venture experienced harder crisis times, still experienced lower job security years later. Note that we find this effect even though we only study ventures that survived the crisis. The entrepreneur’s self-confidence was also weakened by harder crisis times, but only slightly so.

Furthermore, we asked ourselves, does this effect on the entrepreneur as a person also impact the venture; specifically, do the affected entrepreneurs still making daring decisions? We found that self-confidence and job security are needed for the venture’s risk taking, innovativeness, and pro-activity, but job security only slightly so.

Bringing it all together, we see that ventures’ hardship in crisis times slightly reduces their daringness to this day via reducing entrepreneurs’ self-confidence and sense of job security. The relation is only weak because self-confidence is most related to the daringness while job security is most related to the crisis. However, it is striking that entrepreneurs are so affected by the financial crisis that it is still observable five to ten years later. The question arises whether the affected entrepreneurs have enough daringness to face the next crisis.

Entrepreneurs are so affected by the financial crisis that it is still observable five to ten years later.

Accept not only the threat of failure, but also your fear of it

In sum, entrepreneurs are not so tough as the stereotype suggests. Do not be discouraged by people saying that you cannot be an entrepreneur if you are afraid to fail; the data show that many entrepreneurs are still affected by their past brushes with bankruptcy.

Image by Freepik


Authors

Joeri Van Hugten
VU School of Business and Economics

Joeri van Hugten is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the M&O department of the VU School of Business and Economics. He is interested in how entrepreneurs’ actions result from social constructions. ‪Google ScholarLinkedInPURE

Johanna Vanderstraeten
UAntwerp

Johanna Vanderstraeten works at UAntwerp as associate professor in (International) Entrepreneurship at the Management department of the Faculty of Business and Economics (FBE). She focuses on Ambitious entrepreneurship, International entrepreneurship, Organizational sponsorship (e.g., business incubators), and Student-entrepreneurship. LinkedInUAntwerp profile

Wim Coreynen
Zhejiang University (ZJU) in Hangzhou, China

Wim Coreynen is an assistant professor at the Department of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategy (IES) at the School of Management of Zhejiang University (ZJU) in Hangzhou, China. He obtained his PhD at the Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Antwerp (UA) in Belgium. He has previously also worked for Antwerp Management School (AMS) in Belgium as well as the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS), Free University of Amsterdam (VU) and Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands. His research focuses on service, technology, intellectual property, and entrepreneurship. ‪Google ScholarLinkedIn

Arjen Van Witteloostuijn
VU School of Business and Economics

Arjen van Witteloostuijn is professor and dean at the VU School of Business and Economics. He is an interdisciplinary and highly productive researcher who is also active in political debate. The question that runs through his work is why some institutions (in a broad sense) are successful while others are not. ‪Google ScholarLinkedInPURE

Three ways to get team members to value your proactive initiatives

Self-managing teams heavily rely on the proactive efforts of their members to enhance team performance. Yet, cultivating supportive reactions from team members is fundamental for the success of proactive initiatives.

Authors

Melissa Twemlow
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Maria Tims
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Svetlana Khapova
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

download the full study

Twemlow, M., Tims, M., & Khapova, S. N. (2023). A process model of peer reactions to team member proactivity. Human Relations, 76(9), 1317-1351. https://doi.org/10.1177/00187267221094023

18 December 2023

How do you respond when a team member initiates an improvement to your team’s work methods? Do you praise them for being proactive, or do you instantly roll your eyes when hearing about it? Initiating changes to improve the team’s functioning is often considered to be risky by proactive employees. Proactive behavior in a team has consequences beyond oneself – it also impacts your team members. Nonetheless, fellow team members might be unaware that their immediate response can affect whether proactive initiatives will become successful or fail to hit the mark.

Our research, published in Human Relations, reveals how team members respond to the proactive initiatives of their coworkers. The study showcases which – and why – certain types of reactions are more favorable for the team’s performance.

Proactive initiatives are more noticeable to team members than managers

With proactivity being central for organizations to thrive, managers are left wondering how they could best lend their support to their proactive employees. Particularly managers of self-managing teams receive fewer occasions to intervene or respond to their team’s proactivity. Since their teams take control of their own way of working, they often question whether their teams are proactive enough in dealing with their constantly changing work environment. According to the researchers, the decreased visibility of proactive behavior to managers requires them to accept an alternative standpoint. Managers should be more concerned about the evaluations and responses of team members instead of their own. In fact, they should not underestimate team members – the success of proactive initiatives hinges on the judgments of those who will be most impacted.

To unravel how proactive behavior takes place in a team, the researchers studied three agile software development teams responsible for improving their own performance. For five months, they observed their meetings and daily work in the office. Here, the researchers studied how team members perceived 69 of their proactive initiatives and examined whether they became successful or not. Also, they regularly interviewed team members to understand why they reacted in a particular way and what would make them change their minds.

Time for reflection

In contrast to the beliefs of their managers, the study revealed that the self-managing teams engaged in various forms of proactivity to improve their team’s functioning. For example, team members introduced additional feedback meetings with customers, set up knowledge-sharing sessions for developers, and initiated new team communication methods. Also, they proactively came up with methods to prevent (technical) problems from arising again or presented innovative ideas for a new app feature.

Getting team members on board for your proactive initiatives

While all these efforts sound valuable to the team, this does not automatically have to be the case. The researchers found that its success heavily depends on how fellow team members perceive the proactive efforts, as their involvement is usually needed to implement the ideas.

These three strategies appeared to be essential for making a proactive initiative successful:

  • Be visionary. Communicating the proactive initiative to team members with a visionary or promising tone helps to uplift team members. This was because they perceived its intentions to be genuine instead of selfish. When team members felt that the initiative was self-serving and intended to decrease their own workload, they would harshly blame and reject the proactive employee.

“Team members are more likely to support proactive initiatives when they sense that the intentions are genuine and when they can negotiate their input to the implementation”

  • Be innovative. Initiatives concerning innovative ideas are most likely to be instantly admired by team members. Team members were more willing to go along with implementing team innovations and would also feel more motivated to be proactive themselves in the future.
  • Be flexible. Seeing the added value is not enough for team members to appraise a proactive initiative. Proactive employees should allow their team members to negotiate changes to the initiative’s implementation. When team members felt they could fine-tune how and when they contributed, they were more willing to invest their time in implementing the change.

Positivity sparks proactivity

Proactive team members generally used team reflection meetings to communicate their initiative to their coworkers, who would immediately share their initial impressions. Afterward, the team would take action or refrain from implementing the improvement. When team members saw its effectiveness once implemented, they would feel motivated to share their own proactive initiative during the next team reflection meeting – a vicious cycle of proactivity. Thus, positive and encouraging reactions give team members the feeling that they can also make a difference and energize them to make proactive changes now and in the future.

“Managers should try to encourage their team members to respond more constructively and positively to proactive initiatives – coworker support takes away the risky feeling of suggesting improvements”

 

 

First impressions matter

These findings highlight that the success of initiatives to improve the team depends on how team members communicate, react to, and reflect upon the proactivity. When the first impression of team members is to criticize the initiative or blame the proactive employee, the proactive goals will not be realized. Such immediate reactions negatively shape the proactive process and withhold others from taking the ‘risk’ of being proactive in the future.

Authors

Melissa Twemlow
Erasmus University Rotterdam

Melissa Twemlow is an Assistant Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She obtained her Ph.D. (cum laude) from the Management and Organization department at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, for which she conducted fieldwork to observe the work of agile teams. Her main research interests include proactive behavior in teams, team behavioral dynamics, and self-organizing (agile) teams. She is particularly interested in studying how peers react to the work behaviors of fellow team members during their interactions.

Maria Tims
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Maria Tims is Full Professor at the Department of Management and Organization of the VU School of Business and Economics, the Netherlands, and holds a chair in The Future of Work. In her research, she focuses on proactive work behaviors, particularly job crafting, and she is also interested in work design, proactive behaviors in teams, and self-organizing teams. Her research is published in high-end international journals in the fields of psychology and management. She is Associate Editor of Organizational Psychology Review.

Svetlana Khapova
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Svetlana N Khapova is Full Professor of Careers and Organization Studies at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is Past Division Chair of the Careers Division of the Academy of Management. Her research focuses on contemporary issues related to individuals’ career and work. She is an author (together with MB Arthur and J Richardson) of the book An Intelligent Career: Taking Ownership of Your Work and Your Life published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Creating Community within Business Incubators

While global replication of business incubators seems effortless, incubators need to be adaptive to local contexts. Indeed, establishing a functioning incubator surpasses mimicking a Silicon Valley model, involving context-specific social practices. Our research finds that successfull incubators ensure creation of participation, flexibility, trust and reciprocity and balance between offering top-down support from management and adapting to bottom-up needs of members.

Authors

Amba Maria van Erkelens
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Neil Aaron Thompson
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Dominic Chalmers
Adam Smith Business School

download the full study

van Erkelens, A. M., Thompson, N. A., & Chalmers, D. (2023). The dynamic construction of an incubation context: a practice theory perspective. Small Business Economics, 1-23.

4 December 2023

Moving away from a recipe approach to collaborative and flexible incubation

People tend to associate incubators with coffee machines, printers and ping pong tables and often overlook the relational and intangible factors behind business incubation. While, these kinds of structural elements enable the replication of incubators, standardized solutions have been criticized for not being adaptive enough to local contexts. We studied how stakeholders build and reshape an incubator to be adaptive and meet the changing needs of its members. For our ethnographic study, published in the journal Small Business and Economics, we participated for four months in an incubator for social entrepreneurs. This helped us understand the details of the social practices that were central to the creation of an adaptive and collaborative incubator. 

The foundations of participation, flexibility, trust and reciprocity in an incubator

We found that entrepreneurs and incubator management perform four social practices – onboarding, gathering, lunching, and feedbacking – in which they try to find a sweet spot between entrepreneurial freedom and structured support. First, there’s onboarding – the initiation ritual that gets new members on the same page about the rules, values, and how things work around the incubator to foster participation. Second, incubator members and management come together to make shared decisions through formal gathering practice. This practice enables the incubator to flexibly adapt their services to the needs of their members. The third practice, lunching, is more than just grabbing a bite; it builds trust and fosters serendipitous encounters. And last, there’s feedbacking, where there is a purposeful co-creation of ideas, and a healthy give-and-take among members of the incubator is maintained (for a detailed description of the four practices, have a look at our full study). In other words, these social practices serve a range of purposes and have implications far beyond their surface meaning. They are foundational to the intangible, yet invaluable factors of a functional community: participation, flexibility, trust and reciprocity.

Finding the right balance

These social practices allow for multiple people involved in the incubator, from novice and expert entrepreneurs, to management and stakeholders, to shape and reshape an incubator. Ultimately, this helps keep the incubator aligned with members’ unexpected and changing needs and expectations. Each practice brings a balance between bottom-up needs and top-down structure. For example, in the onboarding practice, incubator management attempts to socialize newcomers into the incubator, but also provide space for entrepreneurs to share their stories and connect with the community. While in the gathering practice, entrepreneurs are given more agency to reshape formal support elements of the incubator. We suggest that this serves the function of preventing the incubator from being perceived as too rigid and formulaic. It’s all about finding the right balance, where the structure isn’t too strict and the freedom isn’t too wild.

Experimenting with social practices and reflecting on them

While the social practices work well for the incubator we studied, we don’t advise incubators to copy the social practices we’ve described in our study. On the contrary, we warn against the copying of practices developed elsewhere as practices need to be developed in context and in interaction with the people (their needs and desires) and the material world that are part of that context. It is important to experiment with different practices, and reflect on their effectiveness for creating desired outcomes such as participation, flexibility, trust and reciprocity. Furthermore, we hope to inspire incubators to reflect on the balance between bottom-up needs and desires and top-down structures, rather than copy them from a Silicon Valley context. We hope that this will help them to move towards a desired balance where entrepreneurs experience enough structured support, while having enough freedom to adapt the incubator to their specific and evolving needs.

Authors

Amba Maria van Erkelens
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Amba Maria van Erkelens is Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is a member of the Groene Brein, a network of scientists that supports entrepreneurs who aim to take steps toward a new, sustainable economy. She conducts research in the fields of Social Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Circular Entrepreneurship. (https://research.vu.nl/en/persons/amba-maria-van-erkelens)

Neil Aaron Thompson
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Neil Aaron Thompson is Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship and Organization Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His ongoing research covers topics about Entrepreneurship as Practice, Organizational Creativity, New Venture Creation and Sustainable Development. (https://research.vu.nl/en/persons/na-thompson)

Dominic Chalmers
Adam Smith Business School

Dominic Chalmers is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Adam Smith Business School. Dominic is principal investigator on a €1.2m European Union HIE project to support data-driven entrepreneurship across a consortium of European universities. His current research examines emerging digital entrepreneurship trends such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and multi-sided platforms. (https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/business/staff/dominicchalmers/#researchinterests,biography)

Bridging the Digital Gap: AI Consulting in Education

In a time of accelerating technological development, educational institutions fall behind in utilizing AI’s potential. Schools are at a crossroads: embrace the AI revolution or risk becoming obsolete as pupils seamlessly surf the digital wave. Are our schools equipped to take up the challenge?

Author

Bo de Jong
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
20 November 2023

In this day and age, the world is marked by rapid technological development. Subsequently, educational institutions face an unprecedented dilemma: how to tackle the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to stay ahead in the game. I had the opportunity to interview IT consultant, Bauke van der Weijden – who serves secondary schools as a client – to shed light on this matter. The conversation gave me new insights and created a clear picture of the current state of AI in education – or, perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof – as well as the elements that keep educational institutions from embracing and implementing game-changing innovation. This raises an important question: Are schools prepared and willing to educate and mentor students in this modern day of artificial intelligence?

Catching the AI Wave

One of the most striking findings from the interview was the blatant ignorance about digitalisation within schools. Many educational institutions appear to be behind in implementing AI, although this technology continues to transform sectors all around the globe. IT consultant Van der Weijden notes that “Educational institutions are very reactive”. This reactivity is demonstrated by how these institutions often play catch-up, particularly in the area of AI. This brings about a digitalisation knowledge gap since schools find it difficult to keep up with their technically proficient students. The gap in understanding places schools at a noticeable disadvantage, while educational institutions should actually be leading ahead of the curve in digitalisation and educating students for a future in which AI will undoubtedly be a crucial part.

One of the most striking findings from the interview was the blatant ignorance about digitalisation within schools.

Tackling Educational Apathy

Besides the lack of awareness, within educational institutions, there is also a reluctance that prevents the implementation of AI. IT consultant Bauke van der Weijden faces this a lot in his daily work. The staff at schools do not see the benefits of implementing AI, as they have other priorities. This lack of motivation is one of the biggest obstacles to integrating AI into educational institutions. Many teachers and other school staff appear uninterested in the notion of digitalisation, thereby also ignoring the opportunities that AI can bring to them. For IT consultants wanting to introduce AI into the educational industry, the apathy among school staff presents a significant hurdle.

This lack of motivation is one of the biggest obstacles to integrating AI into educational institutions.

AI as a Classroom Cop

Many educational institutions have yet to fully grasp the potential that AI provides in today’s quickly digital environment. Academic integrity worries have been a major factor in many institutions’ decision to introduce AI into the classroom. As a result, the widespread opinion within education is centred around employing AI as a safety precaution, a watchdog looking out for possible risks like plagiarism. Van der Weijden emphasizes that schools primarily consider AI from a security standpoint, utilizing technologies like ChatGPT to screen for potential violations of academic sincerity. But is this the real potential of AI in education? Hardly.

Exploring AI’s Potential

The application of AI in education goes beyond mere plagiarism detection. According to Van der Weijden, “There are also increasingly better AI tools,” not just for detection but also to completely alter how subjects are educated and evaluated. Schools need to be receptive to the opportunities that AI can bring. However, according to Van der Weijden, it is still unpredictable what AI will exactly bring in the future: “The applications are so versatile. All we know is that the ones who start using it first will be the frontrunners in what they do.” While students quickly adopt AI, schools frequently fall behind, behaving in response rather than inventing. Institutions of higher learning require a paradigm shift rather than just trying to “keep up with what the market will do.”

From Digital Guard to Guide

The interview with Van der Weijden sheds light on the need for educational institutions to close the digital gap. AI shouldn’t be viewed as solely a detecting tool. It should be seen as a collaborator with the potential to completely alter how we transmit and consume knowledge. The incorporation of AI into the curriculum is not only advantageous but also necessary given its capacity to offer individualized learning experiences, immediate feedback, and data-driven insights. Schools should begin educating staff members and students on the advantages and disadvantages of this disruptive technology as well as how to use it effectively to navigate and code a new curriculum.

AI shouldn’t be viewed as solely a detecting tool. It should be seen as a collaborator with the potential to completely alter how we transmit and consume knowledge.

Consultant’s Call to Action

What is the real problem? Reactivity versus Proactivity. Educational institutions can no longer afford to remain spectators in a world where AI is pervasive. Schools need to change from being reactionary institutions to becoming proactive ones. Consultants should also take on this proactive role. Before technologies like ChatGPT become commonplace among students, consultants should speak with schools about the possible uses and abuses of these platforms, as Van der Weijden accurately puts it. The difference between what students already know and what they need to know about AI might be bridged with a proactive approach. IT consultants need to do more than just share their technical insight and expertise to increase schools’ adoption of AI. They should take an active role in engaging schools in discussion about the revolutionary possibilities of AI, as well as providing practical learning approaches, like workshops and training. A practical approach will aid educational institutions in gaining the knowledge and confidence to effectively incorporate AI into their curricula.

Educational institutions can no longer afford to remain spectators in a world where AI is pervasive.

Broadening Horizons

Thus, to entirely tackle the power of AI, schools should change their perspective. It’s time to embrace AI as an ally, a tool that can not only discover errors but also improve the educational environment, rather than viewing it only as a danger or a gatekeeper. It’s an appeal to lead, create, and establish a standard for the future rather than merely keeping up with the times. The future of education with AI is not just promising—it is exhilarating—from where we stand right now.

Acknowledgement Statement

This blog is part of the student writing competition in Management Consulting Master Program at the School of Business and Economics.

Author

Bo de Jong
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Bo de Jong is a Master’s student in Business Administration with a specialisation in Management Consulting. She is interested in business processes, change management, and strategic issues along with innovation and digitalisation.

Is Generative AI ethically trustworthy to be used in consulting?

The popularity of Generative AI in Professional Service firms is growing. However, the use of language tools remains limited in taking over human responsibilities due to ethical considerations. Huge investments are made for the development of in-house language tools, but are their capabilities more extensive than a public tool such as ChatGPT? This article will provide you with a practical comparison.

Author

Maxime Majoie
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
13 November 2023

Disruption has been a fearful term that is used more and more often when talking about the transformative force of Generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) in Professional Service Firms (PSFs), under which Consultancy firms. Why fearful? The popularity of natural language processing (NPL) technologies – which is a type of Generative AI – is growing increasingly. It has the astonishing ability to generate novel content (images, text, etc.) to answer complicated questions and give solutions with such a speed that the human mind cannot match. GenAI systems make use of models that have been trained on extensive datasets to comprehend the patterns and relationships found in the data. This enables the tool to only produce solutions and answers that are similar to the training data. As a result of this fearful disruption, consultancy firms are increasingly adopting this state-of-the-art technology to assist them in their daily work. Certainly, this will have an impact on the status quo of consultancy firms and their corporate hierarchy. However, is this new technology so advanced that it will replace the trust in human expertise completely? Today, public and in-house language tools are progressively used in consultancy, but not all ethical and practical implications are yet overcome. To analyze this in more detail, a Senior Consultant operative in the Netherlands was asked to share her insights and point out what exactly is fearful using the two types of GenAI.

Public/Open Language Tools

Changing the status quo, is there a transformative paradigm?

The use of publicly owned and openly used language models such as ChatGPT, Bard, Quillbot or Agros Multilingual are growing for consultants’ daily tasks, such as paraphrasing, enhancing sentence structure, translations and the writing of introductions. Indeed, these technologies greatly help consultants do the same amount of work, in a shorter amount of time. You need less and less people to complete the tasks: The status quo of consulting is bound to change. The interview with a senior consultant confirmed this transformative paradigm: “Consultants will likely lose their jobs; as a result, layers of the corporate hierarchy will get thinner, but they won’t disappear.” Your level in the corporate hierarchy is a representation of your responsibility, based on your expertise and build-up trust, in the firm and by your clients.

Consultants will likely lose their jobs; as a result, layers of the corporate hierarchy will get thinner, but they won’t disappear.

The operational gap

Clearly, an operational gap should be identified between the rather simple and efficient tasks that GenAI is allowed to perform, and the tasks for which the human eye remains essential. Ethical considerations are the reason that this gap still exists. The use of GenAI remains an ethical uncertainty, as its trustworthiness cannot be determined or guaranteed. This is the reason that the public GenAI operates with a confidentiality risk. At the firm of an interviewed expert: “Open language tools, such as ChatGPT and Google Translate are not allowed to be used. Because it can give too much client information, even sharing the smallest bits, is not allowed.”

Open language tools, such as ChatGPT and Google Translate are not allowed to be used. Because it can give too much client information, even sharing the smallest bits, is not allowed.

All data you enter, you are giving consent to become available training data, on which other answers and possible solutions generated by that tool will be based. In addition, opacity is the lack of transparency that AI algorithms are able to provide, regarding generating operations and reasoning to their users. This contradicts directly a core responsibility of the consultant, being able to explain your sources and information at all stages of their consulting research. A connecting hazard to this is the mixture of factual and non-factual data that makes the credibility of information generated through language tools questionable. Evidently, the use of open GenAI is still quite limited in presumably taking over all tasks of a consultant. The human eye is required to be the controlling factor ensuring the trustworthiness and accountability of the firm towards clients.

Private/in-house Language Tools

In-house language tools:

Bullshit in, is bullshit out…” as was quoted by the interviewed expert. She reflected upon the tendency of PSFs to make large investments in GenAI in-house tools. For instance, PwC has invested 1 billion dollars in their own (pilot) ChatGPT and EY 1.4 billion dollars in an AI platform and announced future spending in their language model tools. Manifestly, creating a more contained, secured, transparent, and controllable GenAI tool that can solve most security and confidentiality issues, while generating solutions on valid data. As confirmed by the interviewed expert, this disruption would hypothetically have a great impact on the transformative paradigm as it could close the operational gap. Noteworthy, the ability to have this great impact will be limited to the individual large (international) PSFs that have abundant sets of data and the funds to create, manage and improve these language models continuously. But again, not without (ethical) risks.

A limited investment

All language models will be as big or limited as their dataset itself is. This means that the quality of your in-house generated solutions will be based and trained on the companies’ data only. Hence, the idea of bullshit in is bullshit out. To add, external factors and awareness are excluded to keep the data contained, limiting the ability to research or find undiscovered information, a quality for which a public language tool like ChatGPT is explicitly valued. Most disappointingly, it will depend on client confidentiality agreements whether their data can be shared (anonymously) with the in-house tool. “With current strict security and confidentiality agreements, sometimes team members are not allowed to view all data available” let alone all employees of a large (international) consultancy firm. Despite the promising efforts by large PSFs, overcoming a predominant confidentiality problem with an in-house trustworthy GenAI tool is not yet guaranteed.

With current strict security and confidentiality agreements, sometimes team members are not allowed to view all data available

In conclusion, the application of Generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI) in consulting raises both the prospect of a paradigm shift and ethical issues. Public language tools improve productivity and effectiveness but pose concerns about confidentiality and transparency. Large corporations are investing a lot of money in in-house technologies to address the operational gap and offer solutions that are transparently and securely regulated. The phrase “bullshit in, bullshit out” perfectly captures the problem of only using data that is internally confined. In-house GenAI technologies have a lot of work to do before they can be fully trusted and accounted for, despite their potential. To maintain its credibility while negotiating the changing context of human-machine collaboration, the consultant industry must still strike a balance between productivity and ethical considerations, to ensure its trustworthiness.

Acknowledgement Statement: This blog is part of the student competition in Management Consulting Master Program at the School of Business and Economics.

Author

Maxime Majoie
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Maxime Majoie is a Belgian student at the School of Business and Economics of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. She is currently pursuing a MSc BA with a specialisation in Management Consulting. She has a background in Humanities studying International Studies at Leiden University.

AI and Consulting: Should Algorithms Find Their Rhythm, or not?

Amidst the rapid AI progress, consultancies have a dilemma: using AI’s efficiency while paying attention to the environmental impact. Experts warn about relying on AI, emphasizing its lack of human empathy, and understanding, crucial in consultancy. Yet, a sustainable future lies in balancing AI’s benefits with environmental responsibility. Consultants must retain their expertise, prioritizing analysis and client relationships, steering the industry towards an environment-friendly AI-supported future.

Author

Arne van Faassen
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
6 November 2023

The world as we know it today is developing at a rapid pace, where technological advancements appear like wildflowers, transforming our technological landscape. One of the most actual developments has been that of Artificial Intelligence (AI), with tools like OpenAI’s chatbot ‘ChatGTP’ gaining a bigger user base by the day, including consultants not shying away from using it. With AI being able to perform lightning-fast idea formulation and data analytics on big data, it has become interesting for consultancies to explore developing their own AI tool.

However, as with every new and hot topic that seems to conquer our world and revolutionize it with its benefits, also AI comes with certain complications. Firstly, a complication that is often not spoken about is the energy usage of AI. The development and maintaining of AI systems comes not only with financial costs but also with environmental costs. Secondly, the aspect of human factors should not be overlooked. Especially with the work of consultants, in which thoroughly considered solutions are formed through a deep and detailed understanding of the problem and situation at hand.

So, an important question arises when thinking of the future of consultancies in light of AI implementation. Should consultancies explore the possibility of using AI to take over their workload and take the environmental effects for granted? To answer this question, I interviewed Ton Metselaar, experienced management consultant at a successful business and technology consulting firm. The conclusion is that we cannot let this rapid development run on its own without looking at the consequences. Every innovation should be assessed on its environmental impact and ways to limit the energy usage should be explored. Furthermore, the human factor in consultancy work is crucial due to their expertise and relationship with the client and this should stay at the core of the value they bring to clients.

Exploring the benefits AI can offer

The speed and completeness of the answers AI bots currently provide is impressive, to say the least. The convenience of having a little AI helper when doing your work can help to initiate ideas and save time when doing routine tasks. But the future lies further, where consultancies will try to reap the benefits of using AI to analyse huge chunks of data within seconds, where normal data analysis would take significantly longer. These ways of saving time come with saving costs as well of course, making it interesting to explore the possibilities.

Unravelling the environmental threats of AI

Yet, where people picture a world where AI can perform all their tasks and we do not have to do any work ourselves anymore, it is not without drawbacks. Like other technological advancements, AI models have a certain carbon footprint. The humongous amount of data that is stored by data center servers requires a lot of energy and water usage to run the servers, equipment, and the cooling systems. Ton Metselaar explains that it’s like calculating the transactions for Bitcoin, which is known to consume large amounts of energy. AI models produce CO2 emissions in three ways. The initial training of the model is the first and most energy consuming way, with researchers calculating the CO2 emission at 626,00 tons of CO2 which can be compared to the CO2 emissions of 119,000 cars (Strubell et al., 2019). Furthermore, the carbon footprint of keeping the generative models running and letting people interact with it are slightly below these emissions. The last way is through the updating and tailoring of the model to a consultancies’ specific information, which uses the least amount energy.

With the enormous growth of AI, the energy usage of these models will rise as well and have a threatening impact on our environment.

Analysing the importance of the human factor

Next to the fact that AI has certain drawbacks, it also contains flaws. As Ton Metselaar accurately puts it: “AI can make a lot of suggestions and have ideas on how to make things simpler but as a model it can never be completely without mistakes”. AI might interpret certain factors wrong or miss out on contextually important details which can lead to wrong outcomes and bad solutions. It is therefore not a reliable source. In addition, the absence of human empathy and understanding is also lacking with AI since they are unable to genuinely understand the client concerns. Clients always seek an emotional and human understanding that AI cannot offer. This can make clients feel like they are treated as data points rather than individuals with unique requirements and specific concerns to be addressed. AI cannot establish trust or build reputation with clients through meaningful conversations, active listening, and the human touch that comes from genuine interactions, which are the cornerstones of client relationships.

Proposing a sustainable way of AI usage

But what should our future look like then?

The ideal future is that of a sustainable one. Not only sustainable for the environment but also sustainable for the careers of consultants.

Ton Metselaar continues to explain that for a good consultant, it is essential to be an expert in their field. Therefore, it is vital that they can carefully listen to what a client needs and what specific situation they are in. Subsequently, this information should be mindfully analysed to come to the optimal solution. Ultimately, this needs to be properly communicated to the client, with which the relationship and the maintaining of that relationship is indispensable. All these aspects show that AI cannot replace the human factors consultants bring to the table. Furthermore, with our world being threatened by drastic environmental issues, “We should not only save the planet, but also save ourselves. The climate will likely kill us before it will kill the planet”, as Ton Metselaar alarmed in the interview. When looking in further detail at the solutions we should not aim for every consultancy to build their own specialised AI model but rather build on existing ones to limit energy usage. Moreover, it is needed to incorporate AI usage in the monitoring of a company’s emissions to be aware of its magnitude. To really seek for responsible improvement, environmental-friendly AI developments should be sought instead of creating completely personalized ones.

Reference list

Kumar, A., & Davenport, T. (2023, July 20). How to Make Generative AI Greener. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/07/how-to-make-generative-ai-greener?autocomplete=true

Strubell, E., Ganesh, A., & McCallum, A. (2019). Energy and Policy Considerations for Modern Deep Learning Research. Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence, 34(09), 13693–13696. https://doi.org/10.1609/aaai.v34i09.7123

Acknowledgement Statement

This blog is part of the student writing competition in Management Consulting Master Program at the School of Business and Economics

Author

Arne van Faassen
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Arne van Faassen is a 24-year-old Management Consulting Master’s student at the Vrije Universiteit, currently based in Amsterdam. After obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at the Univeristy of Amsterdam, he gained experience as a consultant working at Page Personnel in the field of IT Recruitment. His interests lie in entrepreneurship, strategy, and optimization to help organizations unlock their full potential.

Unlocking the Future of Consultancy: Building In-House AI Languages with a Deep Learning Expert

The transformative power of AI is reshaping our world. Consultancy firms are innovating by creating AI languages, a complex process of data, fine-tuning models, and continuous improvement. As a result, major consultancy companies are likely to have integrated AI models within five years, enhancing employee performance and fostering data-driven decision-making.

Author

Pietro Rapetti
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
30 October 2023

AI is changing the world

AI is changing the world. Maybe, experiencing these changes from the inside, as citizens of the game changer superpowers, we don’t really realize the violent impact of disruption on our daily life. The violent impact will come when, while cooking dinner for our beloved family we realize that an Artificial Intelligence, linked to the watch of our children, through monitoring pulse rate, body heat and oxygen in the blood, will be able to recommend the best cartoon for them to watch or the best vegetable to eat. And just at that point we will really think “ok, what’s happening here?”. But for now, seeing these changes in “rallenty”, reading about one “small” innovation at a time (just because we can’t read simultaneously more than one word at a time), doesn’t really seem to shake us. Well, long story short, the world (and the business world firstly) is changing and it’s changing fast.

When speaking about innovative practices, people can lag behind, Businesses can’t

We, as people, can surely remain back a few steps without risking bankruptcy. Businesses can’t. Nevertheless, when the businesses on which we focus are consultancy societies that, in order to survive, formulate strategies to make other societies stand out, within a sea of competitive societies backed up by other societies. In this mess,it is inevitable that consultancy firms must not only keep up with innovation, but even direct and guide it. Regarding this last statement I’m pretty sure they will. How? Well for two main reasons, they are constantly immersed in a network of stakeholders (clients and partners) who are informed or need to be informed regarding cutting-edge technologies and trends and because of their human-centered nature (with relatively low fixed assets) that allows them to implement new methodologies or sell new products in a fast and nimble way. Now, when we speak of implementing new methodologies and selling new products, what are we referring to? Well, in this article, we are referring to implementing and selling Artificial Intelligence languages.

It is inevitable that consultancy firms must not only keep up with innovation, but even direct and guide it.

How can new languages be created? A chat with Carlo

In order to understand how new languages are created, I interviewed my long-time friend Carlo, Master of Science in Machine Learning and Research Engineer at CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security. In simple words Carlos’s daily job involves adjusting leaks and improving the state of the art of AI and deep learning models. I interviewed Carlo in order to understand what it means for Consultancy Firms to create their own AI language and what are the variables involved. Speaking with Carlo I understood that there are two main protagonists in this process, the data (the oil) and the model (the engine). While the parameters of the models can be obtained and used by all, since societies such as Meta make them public and useable (we are speaking of pre-trained, large and generalized language models), the data needed to make the model speak the “consultancy language” (through the “fine-tuning” process) is more difficult to be found. For this reason it is more likely that big companies such as PwC, EY, KPMG, that already have tons of terabytes of in-house data can more easily get the engine to work. Small companies instead, are obligated to download it from public online sources such as Kaggle or Wiki English that still provide great quantities of good quality data. This doesn’t mean that small companies can’t do it, it just means that for them it’s probably going to be more costly. So once the consultancy company in object has on the one hand Meta’s pre-trained AI model and, on the other hand, the data, Carlo takes the field. His role is to use the data collected making the model speak the strategic consulting or marketing consulting or HR consulting language (depending on the data collected), delivering a product that can increase the efficiency of work within these companies. And how does he do this? Through the fine-tuning; a process that consists in training the pre-trained, large and generalized language model and making it better suited for a particular application.

While the parameters of the models can be obtained and used by all, since societies such as Meta make them public, the data needed to make the model speak the “consultancy language” is more difficult to be found.

Deep diving the apparently impossible process

This process involves the use of more than 20 GPUs (Graphic Processing Units, the billions of operations needed to train these models are performed on specialized computers built for quick and parallel processing). Once the model has been trained to serve a particular mansion or “speak” a particular language, the model can be prompted and used to generate new text or voice. What happens in this second step (called inference or prediction) is often referred to as a black box, since the human mind can’t really understand what is going on under the hood and why exactly the model is generating a single specific output (but this is another story). So once the fine tuned model is created, it needs to be put in production. Putting a fine-tuned model into production is a complex process. Through CI/CD pipelines, which means Continuous Improvement and Continuous Development, the model is updated and trained with data and questions, and every time a new output is generated, feedback on that output is feeded back to the model, to ensure the full lifecycle of the CI/CD pipeline. This helps ensure the model works effectively and doesn’t give unwanted answers (such as racist answers or information on how to conduct illegal activities). Finally, after completing this phase, the model is ready to be used by the consultancy firms (while needing continuous training with new and updated data).

Through CI/CD pipelines, which means Continuous Improvement and Continuous Development, the model is updated and trained with data and questions.

The outputs of the impossible process, the case of Lilli

This process, which seems long and expensive, is actually doable, thanks to the work of specialized engineers and consultants, such as Carlo, that concludes the interview making his own prediction: “I think the major consultancy companies, in five years, will all have ad hoc fine tuned AI models integrated into their systems. Their employees will use them to boost their performance working in a more efficient and data driven environment.” And someone already started! McKinsey, this year launched “Lilli,” an own generative AI solution that aggregates all Mckinsey’s knowledge and capabilities in one place. The data used to train Lilli relies on more than 100.000 documents and interview transcripts that the firm collected during years of hard work. For Adi Pradhan, an associate partner who specializes in technology strategy and transformations, Lilli is “a thought-sparring partner” ahead of meetings and presentations. He uses Lilli to look for weaknesses in arguments and anticipate questions that may arise, to tutor himself on new topics and make connections between different areas on the projects.

Acknowledgement Statement

This blog is part of the student writing competition in Management Consulting Master Program at the School of Business and Economics.

References

Author

Pietro Rapetti
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Pietro Rapetti is a master’s student at Vrije University School of Business and Economics. After completing a Bachelor’s in Economics and Management for Art, Culture, and Communication at Bocconi University in Milan, he joined the Innovation Team of PwC Italy. Among other responsibilities, he was involved in the creation of startup incubators and accelerators.

Crafting Attention Flows in Organizations: How employees can shape communication structures

Mid-Level Employees Hold Power in Shaping Strategy and Communication. Unlike the old belief of top managers as sole decision-makers, our study shows mid-level employees wield substantial influence over how strategic issues get attention and which communication channels are used for it.

Authors

Anna Plotnikova
Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam
Krsto Pandza
Leeds University Business School
Richard Whittington
Saïd Business School and New College, University of Oxford

download the full study

Plotnikova, A., Pandza, K., & Whittington, R. (2023). EXPRESS: Bending the Pipes: Regaining Attention through Reinvention and Renewal. Strategic Organization, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/14761270231184616

25 September 2023

Think of organizations as intricate networks of communication channels—meetings, reports, calls, workshops, and other interactions. Communication channels are especially important in organizations that are organized into specialized units or departments. They help to align with strategic objectives, ensuring that each unit’s efforts contribute to the organization’s overarching goals. How this network is structured significantly shapes what leaders and other members find crucial, how they direct their day-to-day efforts, and where they focus their attention. The “pipes and prisms” of this attention architecture determine when, where, and how decisions are discussed and made, involving specific individuals and adhering to certain protocols.

While this organizational architecture might seem unchanging and dictated by upper management based on their vision and preferences, our study published in the journal Strategic Organization reveals that these ‘pipes’ aren’t rigid. They respond not only to top management teams but also to other organizational actors, adding dynamism to our understanding of attention architecture and the agency of mid-level actors.

Strategic shifts within an organization lead to changes in attention architecture

When an organization alters its strategy as a consequence of new technologies, emerging players, or shifts in the external environment, the attention of leaders naturally shifts too, resulting in changes to attention structures. However, such changes can bring both positive and negative outcomes for those who work with communication channels – mid-level employees. The communication channels they contribute to can gain or lose its importance. This was evident in our study of professional strategists at Ericsson (large telecommunication firm) who, despite losing their central role initially due to strategic transformation, managed to regain their position. Two strategies aided their resurgence.

Expanding and Connecting ‘Pipes’

First, the group we studied reinvented some of the communication channels. They explored digital tools, recognizing the potential of involving new actors in established practices, such as understanding industry trends. Traditionally, this task was performed by experts. Mid-level employees also harnessed existing connections with core customers, proposing a Customer Engagement Group to align with top management’s focus on customer satisfaction. This experimental approach aims to add novel elements to existing channels, often by broadening participation through digital tools like crowdsourcing or online communities. Such experimental thinking is the underlying logic of reinvention – what is the novel aspect we can add to the existing channel? Extending the number of participants involved in a communication channel could be one of the promising ways to reinvent or expand the existing ‘pipe’. The availability of digital  tools like crowdsourcing or online communities and chats are useful in it.

This experimental approach aims to add novel elements to existing channels, often achieved by broadening participation through digital tools like crowdsourcing or online communities.

Reviving and Repurposing ‘Pipes’

Another way to align communication channels with the evolving architecture is by revitalizing outdated channels. We called this renewal. To reintegrate old practices, it’s essential to identify gaps or areas where communication channels can bring value. Networking skills are crucial here. We observed how forming alliances with groups entrenched in the new attention architecture is the key. The group of professional strategists partnered with the technologists, who managed essential communication channels for top management decisions. The professional strategists’ strategic knowledge and industry expertise complemented the technological prowess of the technologists, successfully reintroducing joint strategy meetings into the new communication architecture. This approach of repurposing channels involves identifying how and when channels can be useful in addressing new strategic challenges. The selective reuse of familiar practices is the underlying logic of renewal. It is important to consider: what are the core communication channels for Top Management Team? Who is the core player in them? And what value can we add by partnering with those players? The ability to evaluate the new communication structure and clear value proposition for potential partners plays a pivotal role in reviving old ‘pipes.

This approach of repurposing channels involves identifying how and when channels can be useful in addressing new strategic challenges.

Organizational shifts might be an opportunity for different professional groups to regain their importance

Any transformation that an organization undergoes in its structure, culture, processes, strategies, or other fundamental aspects present opportunities for diverse professional groups to reclaim significance. The story of Ericsson’s strategists exemplifies how organizations can adapt to significant changes through flexibility and innovation. When traditional structures are disrupted, various employee groups, from strategy professionals to HR, Finance, and Marketing, can maintain their importance by creatively redesigning communication channels. As technologies like AI increasingly challenge professional roles, the ability to reinvent and renew communication channels empowers employees to strengthen their position, amidst major organizational changes.

Authors

Anna Plotnikova
Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam

Dr. Anna Plotnikova is Assistant Professor of Strategic Change at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, School of Business and Economics. Her research interests lie at the intersection of strategy practice and process research, focusing on topics such as open strategy and strategy participation.

Krsto Pandza
Leeds University Business School

Krsto Pandza is Professor of Strategy and Innovation at the Leeds University Business School. His research interests lie at the intersection of strategy, technology innovation and organizational theory.

Richard Whittington
Saïd Business School and New College, University of Oxford

Richard Whittington is Professor of Strategic Management at the Saïd Business School and New College, University of Oxford. His main current research interests are Strategy as Practice and Open Strategy.

Crisis or opportunity? Entrepreneurship and Covid-19 in Africa

The Covid-19 pandemic decreased entrepreneurial intentions in Africa, but at the same time entrepreneurs illustrated entrepreneurial resilience and innovativeness. Considering these contrasting effects, we urge practitioners to take local contextual dimensions into account and foster entrepreneurial resilience whilst designing entrepreneurial education and entrepreneurial support programmes in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Authors

Maud van Merriënboer (editor)
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Hanâa Benchrifa
Université Hassan II de Casablanca
Steven Kator Iorfa
University of Portsmouth
Magnus Godvik Ekeland
Radboud University Nijmegen
Lotte-Marie Brouwer
Utrecht University
Neema Komba
Hanken School of Economics
Chanyoung Park
Hanken School of Economics

download the full study

van Merriënboer, M. (ed). (2022). Entrepreneurial Responses to Covid-19 in Africa. Utrecht: Eburon Academic Publishers.

11 September 2023

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent government measures decreased the number of people who wanted to or could become entrepreneurs in Africa. At the same time, the crisis yielded innovativeness and resilience among new and existing business owners. How can entrepreneurs and policy makers turn crisis into opportunity, and build back better through entrepreneurship?

The global crisis affected entrepreneurs all around the world, and Africa was no exception. Much focus was on the negative impact of the crisis: several relief funds were released by the donor community in the global North to support African entrepreneurs in these difficult times, and the pandemic was dubbed a “gendered” crisis as women entrepreneurs were said to be disproportionately affected through the increased time spent on childcare and other unpaid care tasks. There was little space for discussing the resilience demonstrated by African entrepreneurs, and the opportunities Covid-19 unlocked. The four studies in the edited volume ‘Entrepreneurial Responses to Covid-19 in Africa’ take a closer look at these two contrasting effects on entrepreneurship and Covid-19 in Africa: crisis on the one hand, and opportunity and resilience on the other.

Entrepreneurial intentions go down

Although the impact of the pandemic varied greatly across the continent, African economies generally were hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent measures, such as lockdowns and market closures. Entrepreneurial intentions and activities had a broad downturn due to substantial risks on both demand and supply side. Entrepreneurs were forced to downsize or (temporarily) quit their businesses, while fewer novel entrepreneurs started their own companies. Those that did engage with entrepreneurship seemingly did so out of necessity. A survey conducted by Hanâa Benchrifa and Steven Kator Iorfa amongst Moroccan university students (chapter 1), for example, found that students who felt threatened about their future due to the lockdown and subsequent scarcity of resources developed more positive attitudes towards entrepreneurial activities – considering it as the only viable option in a depleting job market.

Students who felt threatened about their future due to the lockdown and subsequent scarcity of resources developed more positive attitudes towards entrepreneurial activities – considering it as the only viable option in a depleting job market.

On the other side of the continent, Magnus Godvik Ekeland (chapter 2) spent one year in a South African township during Covid-19 times to better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the lives and livelihoods of young township residents. Specifically, his research aimed to uncover whether a government-dispensed Basic Income Grant would increase entrepreneurial intentions. Based on conversations with unemployed young men and observations on how they spent a temporary Covid-19 grant, Ekeland explains that entrepreneurial intentions are not likely to increase because of specific contextual dimensions. For these men, it was for instance less than desirable to become dependent on a (female) relative. This fear kept them from viewing entrepreneurship as a short-term solution to unemployment.

Entrepreneurial resilience and innovation go up

In both studies described above, entrepreneurship is considered second best to salaried employment in times of crisis. The final two chapters, however, shed light on a different outcome of the pandemic. These studies showcase entrepreneurs’ resilience in crisis, and the ability to come up with innovative solutions. When export numbers declined, Mercy Mwende, a Kenyan agri-business woman, developed a new product (affordable porridge) to appeal to the local community and diminish dependence on external markets. Mercy was part of a larger interview study conducted by Lotte-Marie Brouwer comprising twenty Kenyan female agri-entrepreneurs (chapter 3). Her chapter explores how these entrepreneurs demonstrated entrepreneurial resilience: “the ability of an entrepreneur to manage difficult personal and market conditions as well as destabilising events, and be future-oriented”[1]. Short-term strategies included reducing costs and working side jobs, and long-term adaptation strategies were changing target markets and implementing digital solutions. For this specific group of entrepreneurs, the Covid-19 pandemic even provided new markets that otherwise would have been more difficult to enter as they would have had to compete with (Northern) imported products.

When export numbers declined, Mercy Mwende, a Kenyan agri-business woman, developed a new product (affordable porridge) to appeal to the local community and diminish dependence on external markets.

Similarly, two medical innovations from Tanzania and Kenya were exemplary of how innovative responses can offer coping mechanisms in times of crisis. Neema Komba and Chanyoung Park (chapter 4) show us that, rather than becoming paralyzed by the fear that was instigated by the pandemic, the entrepreneurs in these cases were able to ‘fight’ instead of ‘flight’, provided they receive proper support. This resulted in the founding of Tiba-Vent, a low-mechanical ventilator built by fifteen students of Kenyatta University in Nairobi, and the Cubic Bupiji Sauna – a steam inhalation treatment invented by George Buchafwe of Star Natural Products from Tanzania. The development cycles of these inventions were quite different due to differences in institutional or policy support. Whereas Tiba-Vent had to wait a long time to receive the proper certification, the Bipiji Sauna was endorsed by local politicians and public media instantly, and as a result the invention was adopted by hospitals a lot sooner.

From crisis to opportunity – three tips for practitioners

On the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic decreased entrepreneurial intentions in Africa. On the other hand, entrepreneurs illustrated entrepreneurial resilience and innovativeness in responses to the crisis. Based on our findings, we end with three tips for practitioners who want to build back better through entrepreneurship.

  1. Design proper entrepreneurial education.

In entrepreneurship education, it is important to consider the different motivations students have to engage in entrepreneurship. Students who consider entrepreneurship as the only viable option because there are no jobs, are inherently different from students who are opportunity-driven. Benchrifa and Iorfa encourage entrepreneurship educators to design educational programs such that both groups of students are activated to effectively increase entrepreneurial behaviour.

  1. Take contextual dimensions into consideration.

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. On a continent with more than 50 unique countries, there are many factors such as gender, class, sector, and national context that play a role in how well entrepreneurs respond to crises. Whereas schemes such as Basic Income Grants might have been proven successful in other regions to promote entrepreneurial behaviour, Ekeland’s research shows that it is important to also consider local notions of personhood whilst designing these policies. Depending on contextual perspectives of for example masculinity and dependency, programs that are supposed to increase entrepreneurial behaviour might not prove effective.

  1. Foster entrepreneurial resilience and innovation.

Policy makers and ecosystem stakeholders have the potential to create positive framework conditions to foster entrepreneurial resilience. Brouwer, for example, demonstrates how the Northern donor community should be careful in approaching “African women entrepreneurs” as a homogenous group portraying them as “victims” during crises. Instead, they should analyse them in their specific context to uncover their particular needs while acknowledging their adaptive resilience. Komba and Park also show the importance of peer- and institutional support in fostering resilient entrepreneurial communities.


[1] Fatoki, O. (2018). “The Impact of Entrepreneurial Resilience on the Success of Small and Medium Enterprises in South Africa,” Sustainability 10-7: 2527.

Authors

Maud van Merriënboer (editor)
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Maud van Merrienboer is a PhD student at the department of Management and Organisation of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the experiences of visible minority entrepreneurs in the Dutch tech start-up scene. Learn more about Maud’s research here.

Hanâa Benchrifa
Université Hassan II de Casablanca

Hanâa Benchrifa is an Assistant professor at Université Hassan II de Casablanca. Hanâa does research on entrepreneurship and corporate entrepreneurship inside SMEs.

Steven Kator Iorfa
University of Portsmouth

Steven Kator is a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth. He is a positive psychologist and researcher pioneering research in the field of value for life. His other research interests are human well-being/thriving, grief, trauma, substance abuse, environmental sustainability and climate change.

Magnus Godvik Ekeland
Radboud University Nijmegen

Magnus Godvik Ekeland is a PhD student at Radboud University Nijmegen. His research focuses on survival strategies, distribution and aspirations towards the good life in rural South Africa. The data is collected from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in several townships, before and during South Africa’s lockdown. How residents lives were impacted by pandemic and the subsequent lockdown will be given due attention.

Lotte-Marie Brouwer
Utrecht University

Lotte-Marie Brouwer is a PhD student at Utrecht University conducting research in gender and entrepreneurship among agri-businesswomen in Kenya. She is also the Women’s Entrepreneurship Lead of Bopinc. As such she helps to ensure that Bopinc’s entrepreneurship programs, innovative products and services and related business models are beneficial to everyone.

Neema Komba
Hanken School of Economics

Neema Komba is a poet, writer, and PhD student at Hanken School of Economics interested in entrepreneurship, corruption, gender and Tanzania. She is the founder of Amimeita Ventures Limited (irashoptz) making natural mosquito repellents, soaps, lotions, oils and co-founder of Lapoetista Arts Initiative.

Chanyoung Park
Hanken School of Economics

Chanyoung Park works at Hanken School of Economics and is interested in Health Psychology, Positive Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Entrepreneurial Economics, Business Economics and Business Administration.