Enterprise, entrepreneur, and a group of related words around them have emerged since the 1970s as central terms of a new emphasis in capitalist, especially neo-liberal societies. An overall shift in how we perceive change, opportunity, innovation, and wealth creation has already had an impact on the preferred forms of organization by means of which goods and services are produced and delivered. But changes associated with these words are not confined to the traditional business sector. When enterprise is used in specialized combinations such as social enterprise or in collocations such as enterprise university, influence extends to institutions previously conceived along very different lines.
Changing meanings of enterprise and entrepreneur also have an effect on personal value systems, for example in the favourable presumption now typically conveyed by enterprising person and entrepreneurial character. Precise characteristics of an entrepreneur, or of the entrepreneurial process, have never, however, achieved any consensual definition. Lack of agreement partly follows from conflicting ideological frameworks within which the words are deployed. While enterprise and entrepreneur are often used to signify approval (conveying qualities of creativeness or inventiveness), in other circumstances the same terms are used to condemn behavior as opportunistic, exploitative, unethical, unduly competitive, or selfish.
Enterprise and entrepreneur derive from a similar root: old French entrepris[e], past participle of entreprendre [a. OFr. entreprise, -prinse, f. entreprendre to take in hand, undertake]. Adopted into English from 15c, the general, descriptive OED sense 1 emerges of ‘a design of which the execution is attempted; a piece of work taken in hand, an undertaking; chiefly, and now exclusively, a bold, arduous, or momentous undertaking (often a military undertaking)’.
Alongside this general ‘undertaking’ sense, enterprise has been used in English in a more specialised, political economy sense from at least early 19c. Throughout the 19c, nevertheless, use of related entrepreneur in a broad political economy sense was still often accompanied by reference back to its French roots, as in the OED quotation from 1891, “We have.. been obliged to resort to the French language for a word to designate the person who organizes and directs the productive factors, and we call such a one an entrepreneur”. In philosophical writing, that French connection seems to have involved implied reference to Richard Cantillon’s (1755) treatment of business judgments exercised in the face of uncertainty as to rewards but with fixed costs: a discussion influential on accounts of entrepreneurial activity offered later by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham.
In 18c and 19c accounts, an entrepreneur might still be an owner or proprietor of any small firm, using their own capital and operating in a fairly stable market. Only gradually did the difference between general business person and entrepreneur increase in terms of different degrees of risk, innovation and tempo of operation. Greater emphasis placed on exploiting opportunities unseen by others, especially in response to uncertain market conditions presented by rapid change, led to emergence of an entrepreneur as someone who exploits opportunity in a changing marketplace, often at personal risk, and so as the innovator, initiator, and commercial risk-taker.
The business practices that characterize enterprise and entrepreneurship were analysed influentially during 20c by, among others, the German/Austrian sociologist J.A.Schumpeter (1883-1950), a major influence on development during the 1930s and 1940s of entrepreneurship theory: a specialized academic field sometimes in tension with the pragmatic, often intuitive and improvisatory approach of many actual entrepreneurs.
More recent shifts in enterprise and entrepreneur are perhaps most closely associated with OED sense 2, the ‘disposition or readiness to engage in undertakings of difficulty, risk, or danger; daring spirit’. This ‘disposition’ sense emerges from the accentuation of risk outlined above, and introduces the idea of character or personality traits already inherent but not yet developed in earlier senses. This line of development in entrepreneur is reflected in modern ideas of entrepreneurial personality and commercial instinct. People are praised for showing qualities of a ‘born entrepreneur’, or for engaging in ‘entrepreneurial decision-making’ by following imputed natural inclinations first illustrated in OED with reference to artistic or theatrical work (cf. ‘impresario’); and attention to the dramatic, sometimes larger than life character and lifestyle of the business entrepreneur continued into many 20c uses.
The most recent phase of development, from the 1970s onwards, can be followed in a range of extensions of meaning reflected in combinations with enterprise. Enterprise zone (OED sense 4) began to be used to designate an area of high unemployment and low investment, usually in an inner city, where government encouraged new enterprise by granting financial concessions such as tax and rate relief to businesses. In some thinking of the period, such terms presaged an emergent enterprise culture, foreseen as an encapsulation of established values of free enterprise and private enterprise, generalising policy incentives adopted for urban renewal to all sectors. Enterprise culture was also presented as the best way to improve competitive position in global commerce. Some uses of enterprise culture from the period convey enthusiasm for the vision of individualism, personal achievement, striving for excellence, hard work and assumption of personal responsibility for actions. Others suggest an awkwardness in adopting either the expression or the practice.
One difficulty inherent in a verbal combination like enterprise culture is that the phrase brings together potentially conflicting values: that of accentuated individualism (in ‘enterprise’) and a value inherent in social norms or conventions (in ‘culture’). Proposed as a basis for social behaviour, enterprise, entrepreneur and entrepreneurial character and so on become tangled up not only in how people do business or how services are delivered but in more general notions of what constitutes citizenship.
The most challenging verbal combination with enterprise, however, is social enterprise. This phrase is used in relation to public sector activity, charity and not-for-profit organisations, and denotes not just an undertaking in a society, as any enterprise must be, or even a bold commercial venture taking place in a society, but partial or wholly commercial delivery of goods and services otherwise paid for from taxation or donation. A social enterprise, in this sense, has social objectives; but its strategy for survival and growth introduces an element of commercial activity and seeks to create surpluses, which are then used for reinvestment rather than, as in kinds of commercial enterprise, in order to maximise shareholder value.
Rethinking different kinds of organisation along these lines has repercussions across many areas of society and culture, including for instance health, arts and education. In education, an enterprise agenda can be made part of the curriculum, reflected in a shift towards vocational training to develop enterprise competencies. It may also prescribe a form of institutional organisation and management. Inevitably, contradictions then surface as regards whether the mission, values of members of staff, and expectation of professional and voluntary contribution are compatible with an enterprise ethos. This will be especially the case if that ethos foregrounds risk-taking and a search for market opportunities in delivering what might otherwise be considered a public service.
In academic business research, there is little consensus on whether theories of entrepreneurship have a scientific basis or are primarily a matter of ideological commitment. The connection is also questioned between entrepreneurship as a teachable practice or attitude and aspects of social background such as ethnicity, national history and religion. During a period of recession, debate over enterprise and entrepreneurship is inflamed by questions about whether aspirations encouraged by ideas of rapid wealth accumulation and risk may lead to social problems associated with exclusion. Different senses of enterprise and entrepreneurship play a continuing role, too, in changing representations of business people and commercial activity in fiction, cinema and drama.