Developing students’ soft skills through business competitions

One consequence of a ‘monetised’ higher education system is that students expect value for money and a measurable return on their investment. To evidence this return requires a metric, which is hard to define when it comes to the teaching and learning of “soft” skills.

Soft skills revolve around issues such as adaptability, communication and teamwork. Their merits have been acknowledged for almost half a century, with the studies of pioneering researchers such as Meredith Belbin prominent in outlining the links between collaboration and performance.

Modern-day enterprises expect graduates to possess these skills alongside the more technical abilities required to flourish in the world of work. In other words, they look for recruits who are not only very good at what they do but who are able to engage, cooperate and thrive in an everyday environment.

The trouble is that soft skills are precisely the type of capabilities that a monetised education system struggles to accommodate. They have no price, because they are hard to measure. As a result, regardless of their innate worth, they are often paid scant attention or even none whatsoever – a situation detrimental both to students and to would-be employers.

The world of work in microcosm

One possible solution is to make the development of soft skills compulsory. This is what is happening at Nottingham University Business School, where a module that was previously elective is about to become obligatory for almost all undergraduates.

It is right to concede, though, that not every business school is likely – or able – to incorporate soft skills into its curriculum. It therefore follows that for many the answer may well lie outside the curriculum, and this is where business competitions have a major part to play.

The popularity of such events has grown enormously in recent years. This reflects the rising tide of activities around enterprise, inspired in no small part by mounting interest in start-ups and the success of TV shows such as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den. At least on a certain level, business competitions are widely – and rightly – seen as a bit of fun.

Yet they are much more than that. They encourage teams to come together to solve a problem or articulate an idea. They demand a comprehensive and cogent statement of business merit. They challenge participants to combine disparate strengths and outlooks.

They also force teams to self-organise. They oblige them to delegate responsibilities, to work together and to reconcile contrasting opinions. The resulting dynamics compel individuals with diverse natures, styles and perspectives to strive for a shared goal. In short, business competitions recreate the world of work in microcosm; and in doing so they present many students with the best chance they will ever have to nurture soft skills.

A safe space in which to make mistakes

Most of us are wearily familiar with the long tradition of what has come to be referred to as “strategic learning”. This generous euphemism describes the approach of students who identify subjects from the previous year’s exam and reason that, since they are unlikely to surface again 12 months later, they can be given short shrift.

Such “gaming”, as it is more commonly known, is rooted in the hoary notion that merely possessing a qualification is sufficient to guarantee a good job in perpetuity. The argument is roughly as follows: learn what little you need, earn that precious piece of paper and sail through life.

Yet there are many things that cannot be “gamed”, and soft skills are among them. Business competitions underline this truth by aiding the process of self-selection, sorting students into those who find they genuinely like entrepreneurship – sometimes in spite of their own misgivings – and those who appreciate that they might not be as good at it as they imagined.

Relatedly, these events also provide a safe space in which to fail. They offer an enjoyable and unthreatening way for students to come to terms with one of the classic conundrums of education: good judgment comes from experience – experience comes from bad judgment. Crucially, participants can make mistakes and learn from them, with no long-term penalty for being wrong, while acquiring competences that employers increasingly value.

Finding something that unequivocally gives students and businesses alike what they need is not easy. This has long been the case, and it remains so in the era of monetised education. As one of the rare exceptions to the rule, business competitions deserve maximum recognition and support.

David Falzani is an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.