Investigating the Evolving Information Needs of Entrepreneurs:
Integrating Pedagogy, Practice & Research
Nicholas Albaugh & Micah Altman
Innovation-driven entrepreneurship is essential and indispensable in the race to solve the world’s major challenges, especially in the areas of health, information technology, agriculture, and energy. MIT is a global leader in this type of entrepreneurship: a 2015 report from the Institute’s Sloan School of Management estimated that active companies founded by MIT alumni produce annual revenues of $1.9 trillion, equivalent to the world’s tenth largest economy. In terms of the curriculum at MIT, over sixty courses in entrepreneurship were taught during the 2016-2017 academic year.
Discovering, accessing, and integrating information is critical to the success of innovation-driven entrepreneurship and it is part of the Libraries’ core role to improve the foundations for discovery, access, and integration. The presence of a vibrant community of entrepreneurs provides an opportunity to delineate and understand the information skills, needs, and challenges of students and researchers engaged in entrepreneurial ventures. This understanding can inform strategies and methods to address these challenges and aid in the design of innovation methods of library instruction which move beyond small group lectures.
In this blog post, we are going to report on the background and preliminary results of a project designed to answer these questions. There were three stages to this project: background research to identify the information related skills of entrepreneurs, the design of a survey instrument, and the surveying of MIT’s delta v accelerator program.
Initial Steps & Background Research
This was a group effort. Nicholas Albaugh (Librarian for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) did most of the heavy lifting — performing both the ‘bench’ work identifying what was known about information use in entrepreneurship, interacting with the students and the class, and creating a first draft of communications. Micah Altman (Director of Research) provided overall scientific guidance, co-lead in conceptualization, developed the research design and methodology, performed the quantitative analysis, and provided critical review. Shikha Sharma, Business and Management Librarian, and Karrie Peterson, Head of Liaison, Instruction, and Reference Services, contributed to the conceptualization of the project and provided critical review.
During the first few months of the project, the four of us met roughly once a month to develop a prospectus outlining the research questions, methods, desired outcomes, and key outputs.
After this prospectus was completed, we wanted to build on previous work by identifying existing frameworks outlining the information skills necessary for entrepreneurial success and entrepreneurial competencies more broadly.
To identify these frameworks, we conducted background research in the business and library literature using three databases: Business Source Complete, ABI/INFORM Complete, and Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts.
The primary article in terms of identifying key information-related skills for entrepreneurs was “21st Century Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities and Entrepreneurial Competencies: A Model for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Education” by Trish Boyles. This delineated three broad categories of entrepreneurial competencies, cognitive, social, and action-oriented. The key information-related skills fell in the cognitive category, in particular:
- A habit of actively searching for information
- The ability to conduct searches systematically
- The ability to recognize opportunities when not actively looking for them by recognizing connections between seemingly unconnected things
In addition to a general framework regarding the information-related skills of entrepreneurs, we wanted a more general framework for entrepreneurial competencies. The premier text for this is Bill Aulet’s Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup. It is the textbook for the delta v program and its author is the Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, one of the key parts of MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Outside MIT, it has been translated into eighteen languages and serves as the text for three, web-based edX courses taken by hundreds of thousands of people in countries all over the world.
MIT delta v
We decided to survey MIT’s delta v accelerator program, as it is widely considered the capstone entrepreneurial experience for students here on campus. Participants in the program work full time over the course of the summer on the following goals:
- Defining and refining their target market
- Conducting primary market research about their customers and users
- Running experiments to validate or invalidate hypotheses regarding potential customers
- Building and nurturing their founding team
The goal of the survey was to identify which stage of the information gathering phase of the delta v program was most time consuming and which part of that process was the most challenging. We were also interested in learning what resources and tools they used during these stages and processes and what tools they would have preferred to use. We also sought to identify specific information needs of those participating in the delta v programs in order to inform solutions going forward.
Our survey consisted of six multiple-choice questions and 5 open-ended questions. The multiple-choice questions addressed the following points:
- Time spent on market analysis vs. business model development and the most challenging part of each process
- The relative challenge of identifying and evaluating sources and extracting and analyzing information
- Resources, tools, and methods used to locate, extract, and collect information
The open-ended questions addressed:
- The most useful tools they used when seeking, collecting, and analyzing information and why
- What existing tools would have been useful to them
- The biggest surprises they encountered during this process
We launched a pilot version of this survey at the conclusion of the program in September 2017, in which six students participated.
Some suggestive patterns emerged: All of the entrepreneurs surveyed reported that market analysis was the most time-consuming phase involving seeking, collecting and analyzing information; and all of them used a library resource in their search for information. Further, nearly all of the entrepreneurs found evaluating sources of information, and summarizing, analyzing and mining those sources challenging or very challenging — and almost all relied on manual copying and pasting to extract or collect information they discovered.
We plan to survey a larger group of MIT delta v students during the upcoming summer 2018 cohort of the program. This larger data set will allow us to draw more generalizable conclusions regarding the information-related skills necessary for entrepreneurial success.
We hope these preliminary results will prompt other universities to investigate the specific information needs of entrepreneurs, particularly students in non-traditional settings like accelerators, incubators, and competitions as opposed to the classroom. Once these particular information needs are better understood, librarians can better address them through targeted workshops and instruction.