Business accelerators as learning environments: A mixed methods investigation
This thesis is a study of business accelerators, and the efficacy of accelerators as learning environments. Accelerators are increasingly becoming a popular strategy for delivering a more authentic entrepreneurial learning experience. Accelerators provide a time-bound suite of highly structured educational and business development activities that provide learning support to cohorts of competitively selected high-potential entrepreneurial teams. The participants face considerable uncertainty and are exposed to complex learning and business development processes associated with rapidly building, validating, and scaling investable business models. Intense mentorship and entrepreneurial education are core features by which accelerators support this journey. Thus, an implicit assumption embedded in accelerator programme logic is the accelerator learning environment positively shapes learning and development outcomes. Yet little research has investigated how accelerators influence participant learning and development. This gap motives the current research. A multilevel quantitative and qualitative mixed methods approach was adopted to examine participant learning and development at the three levels of participation embedded within accelerator programme design – cohort, team and participant. Concepts and measures from academic work on accelerators, learning agility, and individual performance behaviour were assembled into a coherent set of investigative tools and lenses. Taken together, they frame the accelerator learning environment as a whole system of actors and elements that operate both independently and interdependently. The research setting is a Global Accelerator Network affiliate programme based in New Zealand. Three strands of data were collected on 29 participants associated with 10 venture teams participating in a single accelerator programme cohort. Strand 1 applied a multiphase quantitative survey approach to capture a longitudinal understanding of how accelerators influence participant learning and development at the cohort level. Patterns of relationships between the key constructs were identified for each phase. Strand 2 utilised a qualitative observation method to investigate the quantitative findings through a team lens. This was done because of the central role teams play in the accelerator programme logic. Each of these stands occurred during the accelerator. Strand 3 used interviews to explore how the accelerator learning environment influenced learning and development at the level of individual participants. Interview data was collected six months after the accelerator to capture participant perceptions in retrospect. The research findings show accelerators do more than shelter emerging organisations; they actively support the development of the new venture, provide an authentic learning environment for the entrepreneurs, and they foster the development of entrepreneurship capacity. However, findings also suggest participant response to the learning environment is dynamic and unpredictable. Specifically, participants perceived the learning and development benefits they received from: a) mentors, as low across all phases; b) managers, as strongest during the middle and last phase of the programme; c) the cohort of participants, as very helpful during all three phases; and, d) accelerator instructional programming was tied closely to the relevance, quality and timing of the resources provided to them. Further, the evidence suggests team composition matters more than the team’s business idea, and task-oriented accelerator programme design negatively influences learning and development by limiting the amount of ‘free’ time participants have for creative interactions, experimentation and reflection. Thus, the availability of accelerator learning opportunities, such as education and mentorship, can both enable and hinder participant learning and development. This study provides insights for entrepreneurship research focused on supporting the development and success of early-stage enterprises. The presented findings and interpretations offer scholars, organisers and stakeholders a greater appreciation of the importance of participant learning and development in accelerators. They also suggest the utility of applying learning agility and individual performance concepts as lenses for understanding individual learning processes and their effects in entrepreneurial contexts beyond accelerators. Research limitations, implications for policy and practice, and future research are discussed.