Innovate Higher Education to Enhance Graduate Employability – Extended abstract on accepted book chapter by Justin O’Brien and Christine Rivers: Developing Business Ready Graduates (Dec, 2017)

Developing business-ready graduates

Country and context of research

The research presented in this chapter was conducted in the UK, Guildford as part of the Centre for Management Learning, (CML) cast series. This chapter is highly pertinent given the current debates, for instance, on the skills gap and skills revolution, ageing workforces and well-being. At the recent Business and Education Summit (British Chamber of Commerce, July, 2017) Jeremy Corbyn MP and Justin Greening MP both urged educators to engage more with businesses to address these issues and this chapter will explore these aspects with employers. 

Background and significance

With student ‘customers’ now expected to pay the full cost of their university education, service outcome metrics are becoming increasingly important in a more transparent and competitive marketplace. The graduate job employment rate is now a reputation critical measure in the recently launched Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). But do business schools prepare students well enough to enter a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, the so called VUCA environment (Bennett and Lemoine, 2014) ? With paradigm changing advances in big data and automation, what does it mean to develop business-ready graduates, what new digital skills are needed? UK Commission for Skills and Employment (2015, p3.) stated ‘a growing number of jobs are being left unfilled because companies can’t find the right people with the right skills’.  MacGregor and Semler (2012) believe that management education needs to go beyond merely using the 1930’s originating case method, are the right teaching methods being deployed? Can employers help guide Higher Education professionals to develop business-ready graduates? Studies listed in section 3 below have addressed some of those aspects, however more depth is needed. In fact Dyllick (2015) is very critical of business schools and emphasises a neglect of soft skill development, accusing university educators of acting irresponsibly to a degree.

Brief literature review

Research on soft skills development in management education informed by employer’s insights is less well documented in the literature. There are specific pockets of research such as quantitative studies asking students or those with a specific MBA focus. Tymon (2013) looked at employability of business management students from a student perspective, highlighting that commitment and engagement of students is detrimental to developing soft skills. (I don’t understand this committed students don’t develop soft skills ?) But it is not clear how this can be achieved or what these skills really are. Ingols & Shapiro (2014) and Waddlock & Lozano (2013) focused on employability and soft skills development for MBA students, which is a well understood and researched area, however insights from these studies are less valuable to business schools with large student cohorts of undergraduates and postgraduates. MBA students are mature and often highly motivated, showing a different level of engagement and commitment from the start. From a programme point of view, there are is a lower student staff ratio and soft skills development is usually embedded throughout the curriculum. In contrast, undergraduate and MSc postgraduate students and programme directors face very different challenges: large class sizes, cultural differences, motivational differences and so on. Thus, soft skills development for those groups of students might require a different approach. Studies that have taken recruiters perspectives into account are mostly quantitative in nature and use a less in depth approach in identifying the skills that are required (Rao, 2014) or how they would transform in the future. This “future” aspect of what skills will be required is certainly not as easy to predict, however employers often see trends within their industry and can therefore be a useful source of knowledge.


The qualitative research sought to integrate two pieces of field work, firstly eight diverse employers’ graduate skills perceptions were investigated using a semi-structured interview technique and this was followed with an employer-university panel discussion fronted by six employers at the CML. The industry-university exchange event sought to consider how business school professionals could do to better in developing business-ready graduates. Employers from various industries were included in this study to gain broad insights relevant for designing business management programmes, including recruitment, marketing, consultancy/ professional services, financial services and entrepreneurs. The qualitative in-depth interviews helped focus on specific industries and more deeply investigate skills requirements. In contrast, the panel discussion highlighted overlaps and differences between employers, as well as challenges faced from an educational point of view. All the interviews were video recorded and followed a semi-structured approach. Interviewees were chosen for their substantial leadership and managerial experience at senior level (typically at CEO and Managing Director level) and active involvement in staff recruitment and development. This was considered to be very important insight and expertise in order to be able to meaningfully elucidate current and future graduate skill requirements in their industries. Unfortunately the panel discussion recording technology failed , however notes were taken by the researchers and panellist members were asked to summarise their points in writing immediately afterwards. The interview data was analysed using a systematic thematic approach (Clarke & Braun, 2014) and cross-validated with the panel discussion data. 

Findings and discussion

The panel discussion corroborated the findings of the interviews, which was reassuring and yet the panel discussion yielded more practical advice from employers how to integrate soft skills development in the curriculum. Before highlighting these recommendations the chapter will draw on the differences and similarities between industries in regards to what soft skills are required and then contrast these insights with what business schools do at present.  Additionally consideration will also be given to what accrediting bodies expect business schools to focus on or demonstrate as well as emergent governmental TEF requirements.

Clear, common, soft skills gaps identified were communication skills, including; business acumen, presentation skills, self-awareness and evidence based decision making that shares common ground with The US National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook report in 2016. Employers emphasised that graduates need to have certain qualities and the potential to develop skills further rather than being entirely ready-made. However, it became apparent that developing those qualities and potential requires time and practice and this is where business schools can play a crucial role. However, such development needs to start from the beginning at undergraduate level (e.g FHEQ level 4). In fact employers highlighted that developing communication skills should be as important as acquiring knowledge and that it is almost or should be a hygiene factor. One of the strong recommendations was that soft skills development should be tightly integrated and that fifty percent of a programme should cover soft skills, including team work, evidence based decision making, conflict resolution and leadership.. 

Differences between industries were less prevalent. Employers pointed out that anyone can acquire information and gain knowledge, but having the skills to apply knowledge and evaluate information in order to make the right decisions under pressure needs to be trained. For instance attention to detail was considered less important by employers than being able to clearly put across their own ideas during face-to-face decision making processes. Knowing ones weaknesses as well as strengths was also identified as key for employers and yet “knowing weaknesses” are often associated with aspects of failure. Dealing with failure was another key skill employers were particularly interested in.  .      

Conclusion and recommendations

A clear gap between what employers want and need and what business schools offer was identified, most focussed on so called soft skills. Another gap between employer’s demands and expectations of accrediting bodies was recognised.   These insights are presented here to to provoke a much needed debate in business schools on the value and relevance of current management teaching and assessment practices and the direction provided accrediting bodies in this arena. Findings have significant professional implications on the role of the teacher, content delivery and assessment. In addition, the findings necessitate a discussion around the role of business schools within research driven universities and the provision of apprenticeship programmes. This section will further discuss how these points can be addressed and recommendations will be given how to embed employer expectations in the curriculum. 

Limitations and future research

The research benefitted from a wide range of employer perspectives, but participants were drawn from the network of a single business school, and further similar research in different geographic locations is needed to be able to start generalising the findings.   Going forwards it would be insightful to consider research that encompasses wider student and faculty perspectives. 



Bennett, N. and Lemoine, G. J. (2014) What VUCA really means for you.  Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb

Clarke, V., & Braun, V. (2014). Thematic analysis. In Encyclopedia of critical psychology (pp. 1947-1952). Springer New York.

Dyllick, T. (2015). Responsible management education for a sustainable world: The challenges for business schools. Journal of Management Development, 34(1), 16-33.

Ingols, C., & Shapiro, M. (2014). Concrete steps for assessing the “soft skills” in an MBA program. Journal of Management Education, 38(3), 412-435.

MacGregor, S. and Semler, K. (2012) “Towards whole person learning through sustainable executive performance”, Journal of Management Development, Vol. 31 Iss: 3, pp.231 – 242.

Rao, M. S. (2014). Enhancing employability in engineering and management students through soft skills. Industrial and Commercial Training, 46(1), 42-48.


Tymon, A. (2013). The student perspective on employability. Studies in higher education, 38(6), 841-856.

United Kingdom Commission for Employment and Skills (2016), Employer Skills Survey 2015:UK Results Evidence Report 97, May

Waddock, S., & Lozano, J. M. (2013). Developing more holistic management education: Lessons learned from two programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12(2), 265-284.

Keywords: skills gap, business insights, future workforce

Co-Author/s brief biography

Dr Christine Rivers

Justin O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in strategy and marketing at Royal Holloway University of London’s Management School, having prior to this appointment gained 16 years of practical international sales and marketing experience at globally renowned airline British Airways. As the former MBA Director and now Co-Director for Student Experience in Management he has been focussed on the wider employability agenda for more than a decade.  Justin is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and member of the Society for Research in Higher Education.  

Justin’s academic profile can be found here:

Justin’s portfolio of business journalism with is linked here:  

Justin’s SAGE (business teaching case collection) profile is posted here: