With our focus on learning as it happens “out into the world,” it’s not often that we feature formal education programs; but, once in awhile we just have to take a closer look at an innovative setting. Tiimiakatemia and the work Ulla Luukas is doing there as coach is one of those instances. The “team academy” looks quite a bit like the accelerator programs where startups go to get a boost. This one, however, is based on getting students ready for life and business instead of aiming to help companies prepare for investment. At Tiimiakatemia, students own the economically independent companies that they create. As such, the teams have to make their products and services work in real business settings. Their schedule mixes company work, study and inter-team collaboration (24/8/8 hours), all with the involved presence of coaches. The program has an inspiring track record and offers us great lessons about real, effective collaborative and peer-to-peer learning in any corporate setting.
Patrick Tanguay— What is the Tiimiakatemia program and how does it work?
Ulla Luukas— It is an entrepreneurship program based on team learning and learning by doing. In the beginning, the coaches divide learners in teams, with a focus on diversity. Each team establishes a company that will function as their platform for learning. Marketing, sales, leadership and financial skills are acquired through working within your own team company.
Customer process is at the heart of what they’ll be learning. They use their own existing connections and the Tiimiakatemia network in order to get the first client projects. Then, the team entrepreneurs start doing customer visits to gain some knowledge of the customer needs. Once the first client is established, they immediately start thinking of the strategies needed to make the project happen. They delegate roles within the team, create the project plan and organise their internal and customer meetings. From the very start of the process, learners are doing practical, applied actions for the company and its clients.
So it’s an an actual company, not a simulation or simple business plan. Why is that important and how successful have they been?
39% of the graduates continue on as entrepreneurs post-graduation and, two years later, about 50% will have started their own business
UL— We have learned that it is extremely important that the company is real and the learners create it themselves. It’s the only way they will feel real ownership and responsibility for their actions. While they do organize their roles in the beginning, we ensure that leadership positions are changed every year so that all entrepreneurs can be leaders in their team company. Moreover, the company does not necessarily concentrate on one business area only (like marketing) but on different kinds of projects within in a complete organization. For example, there can be an e-commerce shop, event organizers, different kinds of marketing projects, sales projects, all under one team company. The important thing is that they learn together, share their learnings and help each other. At Tiimiakatemia, the companies are cooperative and it regularly happens that by the end of the learning process, 2, 3 or 4 new companies will be born from those co-ops and stay in business as incorporated or limited structures.
At Tiimiakatemia, 39% of the graduates continue on as entrepreneurs post-graduation and, two years later, about 50% will have started their own business. Tiimiakatemia team companies make about €1.5 to €2 million in turnover per year. Right now, we have nine team companies with 130 entrepreneurs.
Can you tell us more about the concepts of “creating knowledge” and of students deciding, themselves, what they need to learn?
UL— Knowledge creation happens in a dialogue. All the team companies have two 4-hour long dialogue sessions each week. Those sessions are a place for sharing your learnings and creating new knowledge. All the team entrepreneurs and project teams open up about their projects—how to make sales, how to do marketing, how to organize an event, etc… After the dialogue, they wrap up the key learnings which, in many cases, include ideas they have created and that they can start offering to the new and existing customers. This model is based on Nonaka-Takeuchi’s knowledge creating theory where the tacit knowledge becomes explicit through sharing your learnings with the group.
Students of the program talk a lot about taking responsibility and working well with others, concepts not so present in “classic” education. How do those things help them learn and advance their businesses?
UL— I think that it is of great value when you can develop your teamwork skills during the course of your studies. In business life, you will not work alone and will not always be able to choose your customers or superiors. In our program, team entrepreneurs can practice teamwork in real life situations. In such a setting, you just have to take responsibility. It is also a way of showing (and finding) what you can do. At the same time, they all end up building their personal business network—an important asset whether you end up working as an entrepreneur or an employee.
You consider diversity to be crucial in assembling teams, why is that an important aspect of team creation?
UL— People tend to prefer working with those who are similar to themselves. In these types of situations, people probably don’t question each other’s opinions and point of views that much. We have realised that a well performing team is one where there’s a diversity of team roles. That is why we use Belbin’s team role test in building the teams. There are eight main roles, and some of the people are, by nature, implementers, others are finishers, or idea generators, etc… We want to ensure that there are enough different roles while building the teams to achieve internal diversity.
What’s the role of collaborative / peer-learning in the success of your students?
UL— Collaborative learning happens at different levels. At the Tiimiakatemia level, the whole community comes together to plan and implement the things we would like to see happening for the whole organization. We talk about marketing actions, recruitement, how to attract new companies, etc…
At the team company level, members solve challenges together. They learn things in pairs and in smaller groups, read theory and they write essays. Most importantly, they implement theories through practice in their customer projects.
What are some Tiimiakatemia lessons other entrepreneurs could learn from and apply?
UL— Entrepreneurship can only be learned by doing! This is what I have learned during my Tiimiakatemia years. The truth is a majority of entrepreneurs entering our program don’t have any idea what being an entrepreneur is really about. When you start learning with your teammates, you might start to understand it is not so difficult. You discover that learning can be fun, that customers are human beings and that your own head is your biggest limitation. At Tiimiakatemia, the learners are in a safe environment. They feel free to try as many different things as they want and are allowed to make mistakes. I would say that other places could learn from our dedication to teamwork, community learning and collaborative learning.