Four tips for developing students’ business skills

How to teach skills that bridge the gap between completing an undergraduate business programme and embarking on a successful career, by Qi Li and Rosemary Bai


Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen
20 Jan 2023
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The skills to solve problems, persuade and lead a project are essential for a career in business. So how can university lecturers teach students these fundamental capabilities? Here are four teaching tips which should help students hone key business skills.

Emphasise the pain points. There is undoubtedly much to learn from success stories, but there is real gold in digging into the failures of organisations. Investigate failure case studies. Guide students to examine a business, identify its pain points, learn to read the signs when a company is likely to fail, and propose solutions.

Taking Amazon Fresh as an example. This is an online and physical grocery store that offers delivery service in selected countries. Amazon Prime Members can order online in the Amazon app for same-day delivery. Students are asked to identify challenges likely to emerge in such daily operations. Amazon Fresh wants to improve the shopping experience, connect customers with suppliers and respond to customer feedback faster. Ask students to propose solutions using the company’s existing resources – Amazon is a worldwide distributor and leading company in the Internet of Things – and drawing on the latest technologies. Students should be guided to examine whether these problems may present new business opportunities.

Study a real business through primary sources. Help students overcome the inevitable challenge of trying to apply classroom learning to solve real business problems by adopting the Harvard Business School case study method. This takes successful and ailing companies inside and outside China and asks students to analyse their performance through independent research and group discussion. Students present their analysis to the class then have to respond to challenging questions from their peers. This puts them in the role of “business leader”, offering insight into what scrutiny company heads face when making decisions.

Encourage students to select a private business more accessible to them for a close-up study to help them fill the knowledge gap between big brand case studies and day-to-day business management. Unlike case studies that rely largely on secondary sources, when students study the real businesses around them, they can reach out to business owners, managers and customers to collect information for analysis and application of the statistical skills they have learned in class.

Ultimately, students can use the primary source information they gather to compile a business report, which provides an overview of the company, reveals its strengths and pain points, foresees any crises and creates a business strategy. Students should be asked to write up case study reports and present their business strategy to the rest of the class. This will help sharpen their writing skills, public speaking and persuasive techniques.

Appreciate the value of dialogue. Create opportunities for students to communicate directly with business owners and high-level managers. For example, invite business leaders to university- or programme-specific seminars or lectures as guest speakers. Many of our business students are immensely interested in starting up their own companies. So we invite founders, entrepreneurs and executive managers from industries that arouse students’ curiosity, such as 3D printing and AI, to share their insights and challenges in setting up and managing businesses.

These guest lectures or seminars should not just focus on “teacher talk”. Encourage students to engage in dialogue, exchange ideas with guest speakers and even challenge them. Guide students to compare different perspectives to the same question and find the best approach through group discussion.

Develop leadership skills through group projects. Every business needs effective leadership. Engaging students in group projects helps develop their leadership skills. Break your class into study groups. These study groups simulate the micro-ecosystem of an actual workplace, where different personalities must coexist and collaborate towards a goal.

Ensure each group has students from diverse ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds to promote cross-cultural teamwork. Cultural awareness is an essential quality in global business leaders. We work with other institutions around the world such as Copenhagen Business School and the University of British Columbia to support cross-cultural education by bringing our students together. One Indonesian business student who joined the tripartite exchange programme with these institutions coordinated by CUHKSZ observed from her group that “the student from Vancouver tends to be enthusiastic about technology, while the student from Copenhagen thinks about sustainability all the time”.

Each group contains about six students. The team elects a project manager who oversees and takes care of the team, and all agree on the tasks distributed to each individual through group discussion. Each team member selects a specific area to concentrate on – in our case, cloud computing, AI, blockchain, VR/AR, Internet of Things and 3D printing. They are then responsible for providing valuable insight from the perspective of the designated area. The most common challenge a project manager faces is managing conflict. Different opinions cause tension in decision-making and different levels of commitment can disturb the balance of the team. Students must learn that conflicts do not necessarily hurt a team and can be a source of creativity. Students with differing views must learn to coexist and appreciate ideas that others bring so the team can move towards its shared goal. At the end of the project, everyone in the team evaluates and grades each other’s performances. This peer feedback teaches students a lot about themselves. A successful business leader must be able to work as part of a team and step into different roles as need dictates.

Qi Li is assistant professor in the School of Management and Economics, and Rosemary Bai is marketing coordinator for international undergraduate admissions, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.

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