Exchanges:The Online Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU
Identifying Core Business School Competencies
Department of Management
The objective of the present study was to identify some core competencies of potential relevance to business school curricula. An examination of the literature, the AACSB guidelines, and the mission, goals, and curriculum of the California State University Fullerton business school identified seven core competencies of potential relevance to business schools: written communication, oral communication, computer skills, teamwork skills, cultural awareness, ethics, and functional-area competence. This study addressed three major research questions. First, are these competencies actually important to business students and to the employers of business students? Second, which specific tasks within each competency do business school graduates need to perform in the course of their daily professional lives? Third, is the CSU Fullerton business school effectively able to teach these competencies? The two samples involved in this study included a group of 500 business school alumni and 46 likely employers of business school students. Responses from these two groups showed some similarities and differences in the perceived importance of these seven competencies. Oral communication was perceived as most important by both the employers and the alumni but was found to be among the least effectively taught of the competencies. Implications of the present findings for curriculum reform are discussed.
Porter and McKibbin (1988) suggested some time ago that business graduates are not considered by the business community to be well prepared for the daily realities of the business world. They predicted that five variables would have a major impact on the future business environment. One, the American economy would gradually shift from being industry-based to being service- and information-based. Two, there would be some major changes in technology. Three, the business environment would become increasingly international in nature. Four, there would be a growth in entrepreneurism. Five, the nature of work itself would change. The authors criticized business schools for not preparing students to respond adequately to such trends and recommended that the teaching of various interpersonal skills (including communication and leadership) be incorporated into the business school curriculum in order to assist students in their roles in the business community.
Despite the Porter and McKibbin study, concerns about business school education have continued. Lorange (1994) criticized U.S. business schools for failing to respond to the two groups that constitute their customers, namely businesses and students. Witt (1994) suggested that the need for significant curriculum change has affected almost every MBA program "from Harvard to whichever school is ranked last among the country's 700 MBA programs" (p. 43). Skousen and Bertelsen (1994) wrote that "all colleges of business management must have a strategic plan developed by administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and external supports. Continuous review and curriculum development are essential to academic excellence" (p.13). The Business-Higher Education Forum (1995) concluded that within the business community graduates are viewed as lacking in the areas of leadership, communication skills, quantification skills, interpersonal relations, the ability to work in teams, the understanding needed to work with a diverse work force nationally and internationally, and the ability to adapt to rapid change. A study by ACNielsen (2000) found that employers saw graduates as deficient in communication and interpersonal skills and unable to understand appropriate business practice. Based on a survey, NACE (2002) reported that employers were planning to hire "19.7 percent fewer new college graduates in 2001-02 than they did in 2000-01…. Among employers who hired a large number of new college graduates last year (250+), that number is an even steeper drop of 23.2 percent" (p.1). As such, it is more imperative than ever for business schools to rise to the challenge of better preparing their graduates for jobs in the business world.
In response to such criticisms, academics and administrators have pointed to the need for curriculum development and a more competence-based approach to learning (Farmer, 1988; Harcharik, Hanson, Gallegos, Pinkus, and Cummins, 1998; Newton, 1994; San José State University Library, 1994), as well as the need for better methods of outcome assessment (Banta, 1998; California Department of Education, 1996; Robinson, 1991; University of Colorado at Boulder, 1996). Attention has turned to finding core competencies that are relevant to business students. Banta (1998) identified writing and speaking as two such basic competencies or skills. Surveys of employers indicate that a variety of skills and attributes are important to employers when hiring college graduates. These include skills in interpersonal relationships, communication, leadership and supervision, team building, decision making, empathy and active listening, report writing, oral presentation, and a number of others (Bullis, 2001; Hope, 1997). Many authors agree with Porter and McKibbin (1988) that the increasingly global business environment makes skills like the ability to understand employee and customer diversity even more important to management education (Hofstede, 1984, 1991, 1993; Kwok, Arpan, & Folks, 1993; Kwok, & Arpan, 1994; Malekzadeh, 1998; Monye, 1995; Odenwald, 1993; Sauser, 1993). Some have suggested that ethics be incorporated as part of the business school curriculum (Brown, 1994; Stewart, Felicetti, and Kuehn, 1996). Computer skills have been identified as crucial to today's technology-driven work environment (Green, 1995; Parker, 1996; Russell, 1995; Ramakrishna, Vijayraman, & Quarstein, 1995). Still others have pointed toward functional-area competence (Barksdale, 1998). Clearly, business school education is multifaceted and needs to incorporate a number of key competencies.
The purpose of this study was to identify a number of competencies relevant to business school students, with students at the California State University Fullerton College of Business and Economics specifically in mind. To this end, in addition to the prevailing literature, the author reviewed the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) standards as well as the mission and goals of the CSU Fullerton business school and the courses it offered at the time the study was designed.
In their standards for accreditation for business administration and accounting, the AACSB (2001) states that planning and evaluation are important to the creation and delivery of high-quality curricula. Their standards require that both undergraduate and graduate curricula cover ethical and global issues; the influence of political, social, legal, regulatory, environmental, and technological issues; the impact of demographic diversity on organizations; and written and oral communication skills. Beyond these guidelines, the AACSB recommends that each school "should set additional requirements consistent with its mission and goals" (p. 19).
At the time this study was designed, the CSU Fullerton College of Business and Economics in its mission and goals statement identified the objectives of preparing students to think critically and giving them a range of skills required in the evolving business environment as its major focus. The school aimed not only to prepare students for employment in their areas of expertise but also to provide a multidisciplinary, competency-based education that would incorporate skills in computing, an understanding of both the domestic and international operations on functional areas, and the ability to manage ethically.
At the time of study design, the author was serving on the school's curriculum committee, which was asked to review the curricula with a view to developing a more competence-based program. The competencies that the committee and the office of the dean deemed relevant to the curricula form the focus of the present study. Seven core business school competencies were identified: written communications, oral communications, computer skills, teamwork skills, cultural awareness, ethics, and functional-area competence. This study aims to answer three major research questions:
Information was collected on the companies by which the respondents were employed. At the time of the study, 73% of employing companies had sales over $5 million, 16% had sales between $1 and 5 million, and 11% had sales under $1 million. In terms of size, 61% of the firms employed over 250 people, 17% employed 50-250 people, and 22% employed fewer than 50 people. Cal State Fullerton is located in a large metropolitan area and thus the large size of the companies is consistent with companies in the area in general. This is also reflected in the employer information (presented below). At the time of data collection, 53% of the companies were private and 47% public, 91% for profit and 9% non-profit. The headquarters for 94% of the firms were located in the U.S.
A questionnaire was developed to assess seven core competencies: written communications, oral communications, computer skills, teamwork skills, cultural awareness, ethics, and functional-area competence. Respondents were asked to consider the importance of each competency with respect to their current jobs, to assess how effectively the business school prepared them to meet the challenges required with regard to each competency, and to give some details of the tasks they typically perform in each area. As an example, with regard to written communications, the following questions were asked and the following anchors were provided:
A copy of the questionnaire mailed to alumni may be viewed online at http://business.fullerton.edu/gsadri/Alumniquestionnaire.htm
The employer questionnaire aimed to assess the importance of the core competencies listed above from an employer's perspective and, more specifically, to assess the importance of specific tasks falling within each category. These tasks were identified during the program review conducted by the author and the individual who was associate dean of the school at the time of the design of this study. A number of tasks were identified within each of the seven categories except functional-area competence. Eight concentrations are offered at the school: accounting, business economics, entertainment and tourism management, finance, information systems, management, management science, and marketing. The wide variation in the tasks involved in each of these areas made it impossible to summarize this functional-area competency in terms of a few tasks. Therefore, functional-area competence was assessed by asking subjects whether they had found it necessary to provide training to their recent business school hires and (if yes) to identify those areas in which training was given. Table 1 shows the tasks listed for each of the six competencies.
Employers were asked to rate the importance of each skill to an employee's success in their company, and to rate their perception of importance on a 5-point scale from 5 (very important) to 1 (not at all important) with the mid-point being 3 (moderately important). A copy of the questionnaire mailed to employers may be viewed online at http://business.fullerton.edu/gsadri/Employerquestionnaire.htm
Question #1: Are the seven core competencies important to business students and to the employers of business students?
All the quantitative analysis was conducted using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS; Norusis, 1990). An initial analysis was conducted to assess the perceived importance of the seven competencies for both groups of respondents, alumni and employers. Summary statistics of importance for the alumni group were calculated by aggregating across the 500 ratings of importance. Mean ratings of importance by employers were derived by calculating a mean score for ratings of task importance under each competency. Both sets of results are presented in rank order, shown in Table 2.
Question #2: Within each competency, what are the most important tasks that business school graduates have to perform?
Two sets of data are available to answer this question. Table 3 shows employer ratings of the importance of various tasks for six of the competencies. Ratings are presented in rank order.
The results presented in Table 4 can be used in a similar way. Table 4 provides the breakdown of tasks that alumni listed under each competency relevant to their current jobs.
Although the alumni data and employer data were collected using different means, there are some noticeable similarities within each category. For oral communications, the two most frequently listed tasks involved giving presentations and communicating with other employees. Both of these skills are rated as very important by employers. Under written communications, alumni most frequently list company memos (including e-mail), client correspondence, reports, and business letters. Again, employers agree that these forms of written communication are important.
Question #3: Is the CSU Fullerton College of Business and Economics effectively able to teach these competencies?
A summary of alumni responses is shown in Table 5.
Another reflection of teaching effectiveness is the type of training provided to recent business school hires. Employers were asked whether they had found it necessary to provide training to their most recent new-hires. In response, 41 of the 46 employers who responded to this survey (89%) said that they had found it necessary to provide in-house training. Those areas cited for training are shown in Table 6. Most training needs were product- or company-specific.
Discussion & Conclusions
An examination of the literature, the AACSB guidelines, and the mission, goals, and curriculum of the CSU Fullerton business school identified seven core competencies of potential relevance to business school education: written communications, oral communications, computer skills, teamwork skills, cultural awareness, ethics, and functional-area competence. This study addressed three major research questions with respect to these competencies. First, are they actually important to business students and to the employers of business students? Second, which specific tasks do business school graduates need to perform within each competency in the course of their daily professional lives? Third, is the CSU Fullerton College of Business and Economics able to teach these competencies effectively? Findings related to these questions have relevance for business school curricula across the CSU system and present a baseline (both in terms of study design and results) from which business schools throughout the system can perform research tailored specifically to their educational programs.
In general, this study showed that interpersonal skills are considered to be important, with oral communication ranked as the most important competency for success in the corporate environment. This reaffirms the recommendations of the Porter and McKibbin report (1988), of the AACSB (2001), and of employers outside of this sample (Bullis, 2001; Hope, 1997). Despite the importance of oral communication, Cal State Fullerton was perceived by the present sample as teaching it only moderately effectively (the competency was ranked as the fourth most effectively taught in the school). This suggests that more emphasis could be given in the curriculum to oral communication skills, and the author applauds faculty who have moved away from the traditional classroom model in which the teacher speaks and the students listen. The present findings suggest that we might benefit from activities such as discussions, group activities, role-plays, and classroom presentations that allow students to develop a variety of communication skills.
Consistent with prior findings (Brown, 1994; Stewart et al., 1996, AACSB, 2001), ethics was also considered to be important by both employers and alumni. However, CSU Fullerton was considered to have taught ethics only moderately effectively (the competency was ranked fifth). One reason for this lack of attention may be that ethics is a difficult and sometimes ambiguous topic to discuss in a classroom setting and, in today's politically correct environment, educators may find themselves shying away from such discussions. The data presented in Table 3 shows that employers rate having written ethical standards in the company as important. In terms of how ethics should be included in the curriculum, Stewart et al. (1996) found that students preferred to have ethics integrated into a number of different courses rather than having it as a stand-alone course, and Brown (1994) suggests that role-plays are an appropriate vehicle for integrating ethical concerns into courses.
It is noteworthy that both groups give a ranking of moderate importance to cultural awareness while prior findings give a high level of importance to cultural awareness (AACSB, 2001; Hofstede 1984, 1991, 1993; Kwok, Arpan, & Folks, 1993; Kwok, & Arpan, 1994; Malekzadeh, 1998; Monye, 1995; Odenwald, 1993; Sauser, 1993). This is likely due to the skewed ethnicity of the current sample: 75% of the CSU Fullerton alumni sample is White and 94% of the companies for which they work are headquartered in the U.S. Only 67 alumni said that they worked with diverse co-workers, and 62 mentioned interacting with diverse customers and clients. While ethnic-racial data was not collected from the employers, we do know that 96% of their companies were headquartered in the U.S., so in comparison with the population in general the present sample faces a disproportionately small number of the challenges imposed by living and working in a diverse business environment. Historical research into the ethnic-racial background of our campus student body showed that in 1995 44% of the student body across the campus as a whole was White, 22% Asian, 18% Hispanic, and 17% other, while in 1985 the campus population was 69% White, 12% Asian, 9% Hispanic, and 9% other. In view of this, the large number of Whites in the present sample is understandable but does, nevertheless, limit the generalizability of the present findings. Further research is needed that looks at the perceived importance of cultural awareness and sensitivity with a more diverse sample.
Discussion & Conclusions
The Business Higher Education Forum (1995) found that business graduates lack the ability to work well in teams. Hofstede (1984, 1991, 1993) and Hall (1969, 1973, 1976, 1983) suggest that in low-context (cultures where written and spoken communications are heavily relied upon), individualistic cultures like that of the U.S., people are more concerned with the self than the group, and teamwork may be viewed as less important than the individual's skills in oral and written communications. However, the high ranking of teamwork by employers suggests that teamwork is important to career success in the current global business environment. The present findings support the increased emphasis on teamwork in business schools. One suggestion to faculty who use group activities in their classes is that they work with student groups to prevent social loafing (Kravitz & Martin, 1986; Shepperd, 1993) and other problems that commonly occur in groups.
In addition to the sampling issues discussed above, there are a number of further limitations to the present study. The questionnaires used here did not ask either alumni or employers to identify competencies that may be of importance to them other than those listed; therefore, there may be competencies of equal or greater importance to business school education that remain unidentified by the present research. Future studies need to determine whether more competencies need to be added to the seven identified in the present research. This study combined undergraduate and graduate data. Future research might want to keep these two groups separate in order to determine whether different competencies are more or less relevant to each group.
The present project was intended as a first step in the process of collecting data of this nature. Comparative data for future years is needed to see whether these competencies remain important. While these results do offer a number of suggestions for curriculum development and improvement, they also show that the CSU Fullerton business school is rated higher on teaching effectiveness by the 1985 alumni over the 1975 alumni and higher still by the 1995 alumni for six of the seven competencies. These differences are significant at the .0001 and may be attributed to the greater attention paid to incorporating these six core competencies into the business school curriculum.
The present study looks at one CSU campus. In light of AACSB recommendations that apply to business schools systemwide, it is likely that the present results have implications for business schools in general. To confirm this hypothesis, it would be most constructive for future research to provide comparable data from other CSU campuses. It is the author's hope that research of this nature can be shared amongst campuses so that interested faculty and administrators can continue improving our curricula and further serve the needs of our community.
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Posted December 5, 2002
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