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Yankee Ingenuity is still a vital tool

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America became an economic power because Americans had a unique way of solving problems. In the past, this problem-solving capability was called Yankee Ingenuity. Although there are many similarities between Yankee Ingenuity and what we call "entrepreneurship" today, there is much contemporary entrepreneurs could learn from those ingenious Yankees of the past.

Yankee Ingenuity was a combination of a strong work ethic, free enterprise, clever business practices and innovative thinking to find technologically based solutions. The products and processes that came from this ingenuity were often elegant in their simplicity and practicality. This led to technical self-sufficiency in America, which eventually grew to dominate world commerce.

We needed that self-sufficiency because we were so far away from world markets. This strength proved to be a critical competitive advantage during the past century, even as transportation decreased the distance to markets and America became the world's largest market.

Entrepreneurs today still need the same combination of critical skills. However, in today's Information Age, we too often overlook the importance of technical skill and knowledge in the mix of factors that contributed to Yankee Ingenuity.

Some may ask if technology-based solutions are still important in the service-oriented business world of today. If we divide the economy into two parts — services and products — we soon realize that product-based companies must have a technical advantage or they are soon outperformed by competition purely on price or delivery. However, sustained success needs fundamental improvement over the competition, and that improvement is often technologically based.

Technology is probably less important in service-based companies, but, as shown by Federal Express or AT&T, improved technology can result in significant technological advantages for service companies, too.

From the beginning, technology was important in America's economic progress. But that technological knowledge was not necessarily based on formal schooling. Rather, it was often derived from practical experience and acute observation. That kind of knowledge probably won't be adequate for most entrepreneurs today. Therefore we propose the following model as the ideal educational profile for the future entrepreneur.

First, a strong liberal education. This provides the breadth that is necessary to see all of the problem and to understand how to synthesize new concepts from old truths. This also allows the entrepreneur to use the wisdom of the past in forming the innovations of the future.

Second, a strong business background. Business is a language that must be skillfully spoken. This language involves accounting, finance, marketing, sales, operations and leadership. In some companies, especially those in the service sector, these business skills also become the technical field that must be understood for success.

Third, especially in product-based companies, a technical knowledge of the product and its application. This technical understanding provides the depth that is required for long-term competitive advantage.

How can all of these skills be obtained today? Like our ancestors, we may be able to obtain them by practical experience. But, in our highly specialized and complex world, we tend to look to universities to give us the education we need. Almost all university graduates are given a basic liberal education, thus satisfying the first educational requirement.

The second and the third are often obtained separately by majoring in either business or some technological field. Additional depth is often gained through a master's degree program, such as an MBA. Now, however, a new concept is gaining strong academic support: the combination of a technical degree with a business minor. The language of business is learned, but so is the technical depth.

An example of such a program is the Manufacturing Engineering Technology Program at BYU. Another is BYU's Construction Management program. These programs are not unique but are among the best of their kind in the country.

The combination of both breadth and depth gives a powerful capability to see and solve the problems of the marketplace. Entrepreneurs in the Information Age need these skills to keep Yankee Ingenuity alive.

Brent Strong is associated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. He can be reached via e-mail at cfe@byu.edu