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Education for Business Administration: The Importance of Soft Skills

Introduction

Higher levels of education are meant to prepare students by providing the knowledge, competency, and skills necessary to succeed in their industry. Business administration is one of the most complex fields, both academically and practically, commonly requiring completing a challenging master’s in business administration (MBA) curriculum. While such academic rigor is useful and offers significant knowledge, one aspect that is disregarded in education is soft skills for students. As future managers and leaders, students in business administration must possess a range of soft skills that will contribute to their competency and the ability to apply the information learned. This paper will argue for the importance of the inclusion of soft skills in the education for business administration curriculum as they serve as key elements of success in the modern workplace.

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Soft Skills

Soft skills can best be defined as “character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationship with other people” (Kenton, 2021). Soft skills are classified in a wide variety of ways such as life, interpersonal, social, leadership skills, transversal competences, key competences, and any other approach which refers to the emotional factors and quotient (EQ) of humans in comparison to IQ that is associated with hard technical skills. Soft skills can also be described as personality traits, motivations, preferences, and goals that are valued in the labor market or other aspects. Soft skills are a combination of cognitive and practical elements with interpersonal and intellectual components. These interpersonal and social competencies are necessary to aid individuals in adapting and behaving according to the context in order to effectively navigate professional and daily life situations, vital in all economical sectors and industries (Succi & Canovi, 2019).

Some of the most commonly emphasized soft skills include “communication, teamwork, problem solving, critical and innovative thinking, creativity, self-confidence, ethical understanding, capacity of lifelong learning, the ability to cope with uncertainty, and willingness to accept responsibility” (Succi & Canovi, 2019, p.3). These soft skills are deemed important because experts and research suggest that it allows individuals to better adapt in the professional world, particularly to organizational culture, taking on leadership roles, and being a contributing employee in organizational success. Soft skills are directly associated with emotional intelligence, which is linked to successful teamwork capabilities, understanding the consumer, and leadership potential in modern businesses. Interpersonal skills are likely to predict successful careers according to human resource expectations. Soft skills are associated with employability and opportunity, particularly for recent graduates.

Current Standards

Business degrees peaked in popularity in the 1980s but have been declining since, particularly after the 2008 recession as the perceived effectiveness of MBA programs has declined. The biggest complaint is that the graduation requirements, either from a business college or an MBA, have significantly fallen. Success in these academia is based solely on passing sets of exams and courses, with barely any real-life skill or personal qualities to succeed in the professional training or performance. While many colleges argue that they prepare students comprehensively and adequately, employers say otherwise, suggesting that there is a significant divide between business in higher education and actual achievement, to the point where companies dismiss MBA employees and replace them with technical staff (Lawrence, 2012),

Arguably little change has occurred in university and masters’ curricula in the context of advanced business administration degrees. The American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business has reported that business schools do not provide students the tools and perspectives that are critical to build the foundations for successful contribution as employees and leaders in the business world. The traditional MBA programs are commonly criticized for excessive focusing on quantitative and technical skills while barely addressing soft skills. While managers need the tools and techniques learned in the MBA to succeed, in order to be effective, soft skills for negotiation, communication, and team building are needed. Without these skills, a manager cannot effectively navigate key elements of business administration such as managing technological change within an organization or overseeing corporate downsizing or rapid growth. The most desired soft skills are communication, interpersonal skills, and driving initiative, all of which are elements of emotional intelligence (Lawrence, 2012).

Experts and employers continuously note that business schools excel at theoretical components but fail to develop relevant soft skills such as self-awareness, communication, and integrity. However, intellect and theory are not enough in a rapidly changing and complex future. Employers even have negative perspectives on the process and outcomes of traditional modern business education. The most successful MBA programs have integrated real-world practice immersions where students can feel their strengths and weaknesses, keep emotions in check, and address challenges in realistic environments. Academic education cannot replace that experience, such as the stress of working on team projects or listening to critique from the boss while being in front of peers. Honest feedback helps assess one’s strengths and weaknesses and prioritize the skills that should be developed (Lightfoot, 2014).

Application in Business Administration

A wide variety of soft skills are needed in business administration, below is a brief breakdown of skills and their applications in the field.

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  1. Communication – virtually the top demanded soft skill among all employers. Effective communication is extremely valued in the modern workplace, ranging from email to telephone to face-to-face enquiries, it is a skill to communicate in a manner that is appropriate for the context, type of conversation, and purpose. Good communicators often rapidly rise to leadership positions in organizations and have the attention of those around them.
  2. Problem-solving – modern business environments are complex and oftentimes uncertain. Especially as a manager, one is faced with potentially all kinds of absurd or difficult situations. The ability to think ‘outside the box’, finding solutions both efficiently and effectively, and being able to adapt on the spot are key criteria for effective managers and administrators. Furthermore, these skills also demonstrate one’s stress resistance to avoid issues when problems are at their ‘peak.’
  3. Leadership – this is a very broad term, as leadership can take on many forms, strongly depends on the context and environment, and strongly depends on the individual themselves. Typically, those pursuing MBAs strive for management positions and hope to achieve high-level executive leadership positions. Leadership undoubtedly is both a natural trait and one that must be learned. With leadership comes responsibility and decision-making, but until one reaches those levels, it can be demonstrated by motivating co-workers or setting an example, communicating a vision, or taking leadership on small projects. Taking the initiative, which is a skill commonly mentioned by employers, implies the adoption of a leadership role in some form.
  4. Adaptability/flexibility – this is a soft skill which has become part of a trend in recent years. That is due to the rapid changing of business environments, innovations in industries, and the accelerated pace of how companies operate and conduct business. The modern globalized world is unpredictable, so companies operate not on long-term plans but short bursts and making sharp turns. Therefore, cultivating the ability to make quick adjustments, adapt to new team dynamics, and remain confident and competent, holds a lot of value and contributes to being able to streamline operations in a firm.
  5. Teambuilding and collaboration – a great team is not always the best minds gathered together, it is a team with individuals that share a similar vision and have the strengths to complement each other, a team that can work together efficiently and produce results. The key premise of team building is the ability to activate the talent within and bring the employees together towards one goal. That is where collaboration comes in, it is vital for modern teams or professionals to work together. Collaborative environments contribute to the exchange of ideas and developing projects. The collaborative process produces solutions and ideas, but a good leader sets the parameters and expectations for this process in order to maintain focus and inspire. As expected in modern organizations, teams will have to be created within departments, and then those teams will often collaborate interdepartmentally, sometimes across the world, and even among different organizations.

Discussion

Most modern MBAs are comprehensive and do offer a range of at least introductions to soft skills or attempt to develop them through projects. However, they are not at the level of competency that they should be at for someone with that degree of specialization in the field. A Bloomberg Businessweek survey found that employers seek the following five soft skills from MBA graduates, problem-solving, communication, collaborative teamwork, leadership, and entrepreneurial mindset (University of Northern Colorado, 2021). While this may not be the case for all programs, but there has been a disconnect as of late regarding the soft skill level expectations held by employers hiring new graduates and the realities of their educational preparation in this context. Murti (2014) notes that firms in recent years have frequently complained about a lack of soft skills in graduates and emphasizes the demand by firms to have such professional competencies.

It can be argued that soft skills are both difficult to develop within the context of education and not the responsibility of MBA programs. Some argue that soft skills, while they can be learned, they cannot be easily taught in an academic setting, which focuses more on the technical and procedural disciplines. Meanwhile, soft skills are a practical application, they are learned over time and practice, applying certain techniques which an individual can then assess in effectiveness. Therefore, it is arguably much easier and potentially expected that soft skills are developed once in the workplace, with appropriate coaching and mentorship. In other words, education lays the foundation, but it is up to the managers to improve the employee’s soft skills, and MBA programs should not face the blame (EHL Insights, 2021). At the same time, the European Commission and various human rights experts have indicated that there is a need to provide opportunities to either educate or develop soft skills for young people to successfully transition from full education to entering the labor market. Skills such as entrepreneurial skills, coping strategies, learning strategies, ability to work in teams, communicate, and manage conflicts are necessary to demonstrate competency and endurance within the labor market.

However, this paper argues that educational improvements are needed to enhance soft skill development for business administration. Potentially, as commonly occurs in a variety of industries, education lags behind the practical realities of the real world. Education is slow to change, while the current business environment is rapidly changing and undergoing unprecedented levels of innovation (OECD, 2018). Therefore, it is suggested that changes in education to business administration are implemented in a more targeted and innovative fashion, as described in the next section.

Improving the Education

Unfortunately, the solution to improving higher education for business administration is not an easy fix that depends on introducing new curricula or courses. Bedwell et al. (2014) note that most programs lack the flexibility to integrate interpersonal skills courses into heavy and pre-planned course loads. Meanwhile, while some programs have begun integration into the existing curricula, they are not achieving intended outcomes. Massaro et al. (2016) call upon the need to review and improve business management and administration programs, specifically with the goal to update “the old body of knowledge paradigm still prevailing and limiting the ability to introduce curricula change” (p. 222). They argue that a holistic approach to education requires a comprehensive view that integrates multiple layers of both learning and experiences, which will help students recognize their mental models and implement a paradigm shift from a technical mechanistic mindset to a more dynamic perspective. They suggest five key areas/courses that should be focused on for soft skills in business administration education:

  1. Ethical leadership and governance
  2. Morality, self-interest, and the markets
  3. Entrepreneurship, development, and collaboration
  4. Dimensions of sustainable development
  5. Social interaction, acts and rules of collaboration (Massaro et al., 2016).

Meanwhile, Bedwell et al. (2014) took on a more scientific concept of education. The authors argue that for training or education to be effective, it needs to have the components of information, demonstration, practice, and feedback. This way, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes will translate to the work environment. Teaching interpersonal skills in MBA classrooms should be based on instruction designed around a specific trainable competency. Soft and interpersonal skills can be separated into distinct competencies, aligning with those lacking in current business education (Bedwell et al., 2014). By specifically targeting these skills and competencies, educators can focus on the skill gaps and adequately prepare students for the workforce without compromising the existing knowledge and curriculum.

Conclusion

Higher education in business administration is undoubtedly challenging and provides students with much knowledge and tools to succeed. However, one critique that has been ongoing regarding business administration education is a lack of preparation in soft skills. This paper presents the current status quo of education, defines soft skills and describes their application in real-world business administration, and then discusses and offers solutions regarding potential improvements to educational programs. With relatively minor changes and a greater focus towards holistic and qualitative education, significant shifts can be made towards the improvement of soft skills in the curriculum of MBAs. This will lead to a better alignment between academia and employers and prepare students with a stronger foundation for the modern corporate world.

References

Bedwell, W. L., Fiore, S. M., & Salas, E. (2014). Developing the future workforce: An approach for integrating interpersonal skills into the MBA classroom. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 13(2), 171–186. Web.

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EHL Insights. (2021). Can soft skills really be taught? https://hospitalityinsights.ehl.edu/can-soft-skills-training

Kenton, W. (2021). Soft skills. Web.

Massaro, M., Bardy, R., & Garlatti, A. (2016). A soft skills training model for executive education. In M. Lepeley, E. von Kimakowitz, and R. Bardy (Eds.) Human centered management in executive education, pp. 222-241.

Murti, A.B. (2014). Why soft skills matter? IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 8(3), 32-36. Web.

Lawrence, N.S. (2012). The case for soft-skills development in MBA programs. Global Conference on Business and Finance Proceedings, 7(2), 28-67. Web.

Succi, C., & Canovi, M. (2019). Soft skills to enhance graduate employability: Comparing students and employers’ perceptions. Studies in Higher Education, 45(9), 1–14. Web.

OECD. (2018). The future of education and skills. Web.

University of Northern Colorado. (2020). 5 soft skills employers seek in MBA graduates. Web.

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