There have been grumblings in the past, from the CBI among others, about the calibre, employability and business acumen of UK graduates. An experience I've had over the last couple of weeks prompted me to feel a combination of optimism, admiration and concern.
Back in the autumn of last year we announced that the RSA were partners in this year's University Business Challenge. This is an event that has been running very successfully for over 10 years. The organisation that runs it, Learning Dynamics, happens to be led by two great RSA Fellows, Deborah and Peter Cardwell.
The challenge pits undergraduate student teams against their peers from numerous universities across the country in a series of increasingly difficult and time-pressured management simulations. Over the course of successive rounds, from the regionals, to the semis, and ultimately the grand final, they have to handle large amounts of management data, assimilate it, make judgements and calculations, and trade to outperform their competitors. Historically the teams whose simulated businesses made the most profit won the competition.
I'll blog about management simulations sometime, because that was an interesting aspect of the learning experience.
This year 250 teams entered, representing 73 different types of faculty. The event is hosted and sponsored by big blue chip organisations like RBS, Serco, Procter and Gamble, Lloyds TSB and IBM.
This year, the RSA and the Learning Dynamics team thought it would be timely to introduce the idea of "responsible capitalism" to proceedings.
As a result Learning Dynamics built in a new element to the simulation, and made this the theme of the whole programme. Alongside profit maximisation, contestants had to consider how their decisions would impact on the lives and wellbeing of a range of other stakeholders, including customers, employees, and wider society. Their decisions created a "double bottom line" for their simulated businesses which affected their overall performance.
The RSA hosted one of the semi-finals in our Vaults. Two leading Fellows from our Social Entrepreneurs Network - Dan Snell and Trudy Thompson - social started the day explaining to the students how you can balance profit with social purpose, and thereby run great businesses with conviction, integrity and a sense of wider mission.
Other Fellows worked with students throughout the day on the main challenge itself, but also on a parallel challenge we set them: to consider how they would use their management knowledge to improve the fortunes of a struggling social enterprise, which we provided as a case study. By the end of the day they had to present their recommendations to our Fellows, all of whom had extensive expertise in consultancy, management and social business.
Here are some vox pops we captured on the day with RSA Fellows, students and their lecturers who were there in support. They explain how the challenge helps them, and why profit with purpose resonated this year.
Universities Business Challenge (UBC) at the RSA from The RSA on Vimeo.
Last Friday I went to the grand final event at IBM's headquarters on London's Southbank, where the team from Anglia Ruskin scooped the honours.
What struck me in all this was the immense focus, application, speed and ferocious intelligence these students brought to the task. There was excellent coordination within teams, drawing on people's differential strengths in mathematics, strategic judgement, marketing and economics, as well as raw gut instinct. Working under tight deadlines they were assured and confident, and also creative when given unusual and random exercises to throw them off guard. On this evidence, UK businesses would be lucky to have them, which gives me the cause for optimism I mentioned earlier.
What intrigued me though, was the proportion of foreign students in the teams. The overwhelming majority seemed to be from the emerging economies of China, India, Eastern Europe and South America. I would be interested to know how many intended to stay in the UK and contribute their formidable talents to boost our stuttering economy, or would take their expertise back home with them, heightening the competition for UK industry and talent. Speaking from a parochial perspective, I would hope the former. But perhaps this is the wrong way to look at it. At the final we heard about the phenomenal scale of IBM's global operations during the final event, the resultant fluidity and globalisation of its talent pool. Perhaps what I saw was just a glimpse of the emerging labour market in which we'll all be competing. And this time it won't be a simulation.