Do business schools really understand what employers want from their graduates?


By Professor Zahir Irani

Business schools, more than any other faculty, are set up to meet the needs of employers.

But do we really know what they want and can we react quickly enough to market changes? Studies have shown there's very little understanding between partners in long-standing relationships of what the other really wants from them. What chance do organisations with different aims, structures and culture have of keeping up a natural and ongoing sympathy?

There continues to be an assumption that employers want the proof of particular qualifications, evidence of high achievement, in-depth knowledge in specialist areas. That might only be because that's what business schools know they can deliver and convince themselves is needed.

Experience with employers suggests they aren't necessarily expecting the finished product among graduates, and they know an MBA on a CV doesn't mean they'll get a finished product either; it's all about potential, the ability to be elastic, to do more, change things. Employers are more interested in work ethic and an ability to keep on learning, to have shown they can problem-solve, open to learning and are resilient.

Students themselves are becoming more demanding with ever changing expectations. Their programme has to deliver much more than learning in an environment of fancy facilities in a newly constructed building. It has to make them look like strong candidates on paper and in person. The main areas they're looking for now are relevance and readiness to the world of work. So relevance in the sense of not bothering with outdated concepts, and rooting areas of study in learning they see and feel will relate to their career. This is where the business school emphasis on research is so important, but also the need to keep it snappy and fresh, in a language that is portable and understandable.

Readiness is a mindset issue and may be more relevant to our undergraduates: their attitude to work, what it might demand from them, and how to orientate themselves for different employers with different cultures; but also about having collected employability skills (attributes and behaviours) throughout their experience in a school, self-consciously gathering and being aware of the assets they have and need for the workplace.

But actually, the best way to give employers what they want more consistently is through our alumni. We already have stronger links with alumni than other institutions - the ranking process sees to that and keeps it as a living agenda. We all want to stay in touch with alumni for the sake of building a community and because of the selling opportunities involved. In this case there shouldn't be any financial transactions involved, but recognition of what we're giving each other.

Business schools should keep updating those assets of their alumni for free, long after they've graduated or finished their programme. You've invested in us, and you're part of the network, so let's see if we can work with each other throughout your career. Alumni will provide the most useful connections and insights from their experience, translating what directors or HR might say they're looking for, and sharing more of the detail of what's actually needed into programmes.

Of course, ongoing development is important for the graduates, because just as employers say, they're not so much interested in old qualifications as the ability of managers to keep learning and wanting to learn. The change in organisational structures and employment relationships has meant it's less about getting a senior job anymore, it's about keeping the job and developing with it. We can help.

In return for acting as a pro bono resource, we'd want alumni to give something back to the next generations of students. Giving guest lectures and talks, acting as mentors for students, providing opportunities for placements, supporting professional ‘problem solving’ clinics, getting involved with practitioner research - it would all become part of a virtuous circle. There is a real opportunity here for universities to differentiate themselves by commiting to guaranteeing all its postgraduate students with an alumni mentor.

No matter how much we consult with employers and keep open the channels of communication, there will, of course, never be a definitive answer to what they really want from us (just like in a marriage). But business schools do need to avoid the trap of believing they'll want whatever we're currently best placed to provide, and the double-edged role of alumni may well provide an answer.

Professor Zahir Irani
Dean, College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, Brunel University London

The above image featured belongs to Brunel Business School