By Clive Holtham, City University London
The moment an undergraduate student starts a business degree, their mind is already geared to the job offers they hope will be coming thick and fast upon graduation. Yet there is an ongoing mismatch between what students think employers want, and what employers are actually looking for.
Amid concerns that places are going unfilled because some graduates are not making it through selection processes, a new campaign has been launched called Work Ready Graduates to get more university students comfortable with business etiquette. Employers need to make sure the graduates they hire can hit the ground running, but are also flexible employees who can re-train to face changing situations.
When it comes to the employability of a student from an undergraduate business course, it’s worth turning to the ancient Greeks for some perspective. Aristotle was not just a philosopher, he was also professionally involved in top leadership development as the tutor of Alexander the Great and he analysed the “virtues” which a successful leader needed. His three broad categories remain highly relevant today.
First Aristotle identified knowledge (episteme), second, skills (techne) and third, practical wisdom (phronesis). These remain the three broad qualities that employers are looking for, although the nature of each and the balances between them continually shift.
When we survey our incoming business undergraduates it is not surprising that they strongly believe the most important of these three for employers is knowledge. After all, the school system is almost wholly geared to transmitting and testing knowledge, as is higher education.
Hard versus soft
Business schools provide two contrasting types of knowledge. Historically, it’s been the technical, discipline-specific knowledge relating to different business functions such as accounting, marketing and strategy that has been in the ascendency on business school curricula. The other type of knowledge relates to management as a generic function that transcends business disciplines and even sectors. Encompassing themes of organisational behaviour and management processes, it is sometimes dismissed as “soft” knowledge.
Yet even a quick study of what large employers say they want paints a very different picture to school leaver’s expectations. Accountancy firm PWC seeks five qualities, only one of which relates to technical capabilities. The other four are: “whole leadership, business acumen, global acumen and relationships”.
Employers still want students with good degrees – an indicator of intellectual capability. But that is basically an entry hurdle. It’s the “soft” areas that increasingly lie at the heart of employability.
Most good students are likely to have the intellectual basics needed for employability, almost regardless of degree specialisation. This means that business school educators are developing much clearer emphasis on other areas — particularly practical wisdom.
Developing practical wisdom lies at the heart of a progressive business undergraduate curriculum. This is to help future managers deal with “wicked” problems. These are the difficult problems that have no formulaic answer, as opposed to “tame” problems which can be addressed through textbooks and formulae. Current undergraduates will need to deal with massive uncertainties at both global and societal levels. And they will need to address the inevitable conflicts between what is functionally right for one section of the businesses they work in and what is right for the organisation as a whole.
Much attention is often paid to the highest-ranked business schools both internationally and nationally. Yet at conferences on employability, some of the most exciting lessons and experiences I’ve heard about come from the regional schools which go unsung in glossy magazines.
In the last year I have been particularly struck by visits to three business schools – Hull, Cork and Denver – which each have exceptionally close relationships with regional employers to the very clear benefit of their research and teaching. They are directly relevant to student employability.
When, 15 years ago, the local IT industry called for information systems graduates who could demonstrate broad creative skills, the University College Cork faculty came up with the idea of an “Anthology” to showcase publicly the creative and artistic skills of its students in poetry, photography, art and creative writing. This developed both technical skills and encouraged broader practical wisdom among the students.
Adapting for the future
The Carnegie Foundation commissioned a ground-breaking study into the undergraduate business curriculum in 2011, which proposed moving “beyond narrow technical expertise to creativity, professional judgement, and enhanced social contribution/personal fulfilment”.
The Aspen Undergraduate Business Education Consortium involves several dozen progressive business schools taking a pro-active approach to implementing these proposals.
This is very timely. In the future, business schools need to not only meet the expectations of undergraduates that they will be taught technical business knowledge, but also need to accelerate the emphasis on learning practical wisdom for an evolving, globalised business landscape.
Clive Holtham does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.