Why Universities and Businesses Must Collaborate to Develop Critical Competencies

Conversari’s Corporate Training Consultant Tom Scott talks about why Universities and Businesses should seek closer collaboration to develop critical business competencies.

A Familiar Tale

It has almost become cliché. Universities work hard to develop the skills they think businesses want. Businesses then complain that graduates lack these skills. Why does this keep happening and what can be done about it?

The answer perhaps lays in greater collaboration between universities and businesses. Universities play an essential role in the development of graduate talent. Over the years courses have started to extend past academic topics. Students are engaged in projects that develop their soft skills.

Equally, businesses are refining what they want and talking to universities. They explain their demands and then wait for the current cohort to come to interviews. Talking to businesses, I regularly hear how graduates still lack the required competencies. Is there something else that can be done?

What do we know?

Levels of mismatch vary from country to country. Some countries seem to do a better job of meeting graduate employers’ demands. I am based in Mexico and I have both anecdotal and academic evidence to suggest a large gap between supply and demand.

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In 2014, Profesionistas.org published a national survey with CIDAC that pointed to large gaps between competencies graduates had and competencies businesses needed. Typical things missing were project management skills, sales skills, collaboration, and innovation capabilities.

In the UK, there have also been government papers that point to graduates lacking the required competencies. When I talk to managers around the world, the feeling seems to be mutual. Not enough candidates are arriving with the competencies they need. This can be costly for talent attraction and talent management.

What can be done?

The good news is that researchers are making headway. In the EU there have been attempts to fill the gap by promoting greater collaboration between businesses and universities. But what exactly is involved?

Evidence has shown that one of the most effective ways for graduates to gain business competencies is to engage in professional work experience. When students work during their university study, they get an opportunity to develop real-life skills in context.

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Taking this a step further, in Europe a project was carried out by a university in which they invited a local business to the university to become the teachers. The idea was to have the business actually create a live environment that somewhat mirrored the reality of the business. Key stakeholders from different parts of the business worked closely with academics and teachers to facilitate the experience.

This case involved a highly-innovative firm delivering a 3-month course on innovation. This class was not about sitting on seats and staring at the board. It was about bringing in real-life work and cases and challenging the students to come up with solutions. Students were told they must find ways to innovate products and services. They were given mentoring and support throughout and had chances to reflect.

The mentality behind the project was steering away from skills being simply transferable. The university and company felt it was necessary to allow students real opportunities to use the skills they would use when in the workplace. There appears to be evidence in support of this idea, both anecdotal and academic.

The results of the study were impressive. Using a validated tool for measuring innovation competencies, there was a significant increase in a number of competency areas. Moreover, the business reported that they actively observed a number of competencies they would require in graduates. While there is more research to be done, it does point to an important avenue to explore: closer business and university collaboration.

Greater cooperation

My experience working with companies has always been about experiential learning. The most positive results we have seen, although not always academically validated, have been when participants are developing competencies in their work context. When companies place their current graduate workers into real situations and provide opportunities, growth occurs.

It is why I have spent time over the years tailoring solutions so carefully to each customer. Creating roleplays, activities and projects involving real-life cases increases motivation and relevance. It also means that skills are applied in context and this allows learners to assimilate and accommodate new ideas and skills.

My belief is that this needs to go a step further. Universities should seek stronger relationships with businesses, but not just commercial. Businesses should seek to contribute more to universities by actually setting up live environments which empower and challenge learners. When there is a greater symbiosis, there will be opportunities for development and application of competencies in real-life contexts.

Next steps

Progress is already being made. Universities and businesses are working together. It is my personal challenge to myself this year, however, to make more of this kind of collaboration happen. If you are a business who recruits graduates and is interested in increasing the flow of graduate talent with workplace competencies, get in touch: tomscott@conversari.com or @tomscottmex on Twitter.

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