When I was in graduate school, my classmates didn’t always like the way that the courses were taught. After leaving such a class, they often quoted an old maxim: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

I didn’t take that saying literally until one day a law professor who was held in the highest esteem by scholars mentioned that he had lost every appellate case he had ever prosecuted before turning to full-time teaching. That was pretty a dismal performance considering how well he knew the law.

Compare what such a teacher can demonstrate to students with the kind of hands-on learning in apprenticeships to master craftspeople, a way of gaining competence that has been successfully employed for centuries.

Such masters apply their expertise daily in performing a craft or vocation. Consequently, everyone can see the quality of their work. No one is going to choose learning from a master who isn’t superbly talented and highly effective.

A master who has too much work to handle alone may allow a youngster to serve as an apprentice. At first the youngsters don’t do much more than sweep up. After proving trustworthy at simple tasks, masters gradually introduce the more important ones. While the apprentice is working on assigned tasks, the master occasionally casts a correcting eye and adjusts the youngster’s approach when necessary.

Until the last few decades, business management was often learned in a similar fashion. You may have heard that young people started by working in the mail rooms at various talent agencies, advertising firms, and movie studios. Through delivering the mail and running errands, youngsters in these entry-level jobs would gradually become acquainted with more experienced people in their organizations. Sometimes they would make a good impression and be offered opportunities to learn by working as the higher-ups’ assistants.

More recently, most aspiring businesspeople sought skill by attending bricks-and-mortar colleges and graduate schools. In such settings, management principles are often taught by people who have spent relatively little time managing businesses. Rather than learning how to run a business by doing, students practiced with one another in addressing simulated problems. Some might think of such learning as being like playing charades in a living room rather than acting on a big stage.

New trends have emerged. Because they want to make such job-related learning more relevant to employees’ day-to-day assignments, businesses are relying more on doing their own training. Such at-work courses are increasingly taught by a company’s top officials. Much as with apprenticeships, such learning allows younger people to observe and receive direction from masters in their fields.

Requirements for business success are continually shifting, often in unexpected ways. Consequently, some business people have discovered that their knowledge has become obsolete. If their employers don’t offer in-house training, deciding what to do can be difficult.

Most mid-career people who need refreshed knowledge don’t want to take time away from work to fill in whatever they are missing. To meet this need, colleges and universities began offering learning programs that are compressed into just a few days or weeks, as well as night and evening classes that are conducted a normal learning pace.

While such institutions can rapidly supply more academics to teach these mid-career students, few experienced businesspeople choose to serve as part-time instructors due to the demands of busy schedules.

Fortunately, some talented businesspeople have made highly satisfying, helpful transitions into teaching business management. From their experiences many lessons have emerged for how to improve learning about business for everyone from youngsters to those of more advanced years.

Let’s look at an example. A Rushmore University faculty colleague, Professor Robert M. Donnelly, recently described how he went from a successful executive career to providing experience-based knowledge to his students.

Let me share a little of Robert’s business background. In the early part of his career, he held executive positions at IBM, Pfizer, and Exxon. When asked how he became interested in business, he humorously observed that he initially saw it as a way to make money. When he actually began making some money from business, his interest naturally grew. He eventually served for ten years as the president and CEO of a technology-based company that was eventually sold to a Fortune 100 firm.

Where did teaching come in? Well, knowing quite a lot about how to succeed in business, he remembered how bad some of his teachers had been. The gap between what students need and what is too often made available inspired him to try teaching. The experience proved to be challenging and rewarding.

Professor Donnelly has taught at the graduate business level for 25 years now, primarily in MBA and EMBA programs. He often teaches courses in entrepreneurship, innovation management, Internet marketing, marketing strategy, niche marketing, organizational behavior, and strategic planning.

As just one indication of his teaching effectiveness, Robert has often been called upon to teach practitioners outside of academia. He has developed and delivered executive briefings for Business Week, Frost and Sullivan, YEO, and other well-known organizations.

He’s also a respected author and editor. He wrote Guidebook to Planning: A Common Sense Approach to Building Business Plans for Growing Firms, and he edits “The Entrepreneurial CEO” column for Chief Executive magazine. His latest book is Personal Brand: Planning for Life, which builds on his successful workshop for MBA students and graduates.

Curious about Professor Donnelly’s perspective on what’s most valuable today for learning more about business, I asked him to diagnose student needs and prescribe solutions.

He observed: “Everyone has a specific talent or skill, but they need someone to help them discover what it is. With the right motivation, examples, and projects, anyone can learn how to achieve more in their business lives. Everyone needs to understand the incredible value of the Internet and how to use it for enhancing their lives.”

Robert went on to note: “There is a critical need for learning platforms that allow anyone on Earth to enhance their skill set by gaining online access to world-class experts at their convenience from wherever they are 24/7.”

In addition to these student-oriented views, he sees the importance of supplementing his experience-based teaching with writing about what he has learned. In doing so, he continues to examine the world from an entrepreneur’s perspective, continually bringing fresh insights to his students and readers.

I was intrigued by Professor Donnelly’s suggestion about individualized online business training. His idea fits nicely with the apprenticeship model while retaining many benefits of the excellent in-company training provided by many organizations. Mid-career people would benefit, too, by being able to stay up-to-date more easily and conveniently. Organizations would be well served because such learning could be focused on job-specific assignments.

To work best, however, Robert feels strongly that the learning should build one-on-one relationships between professors and students, something that few online educational services provide. Be sure to look into that opportunity.

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Author's Bio: 

Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit