Thursday, 5 May 2011

Identifying employability in the curriculum

By andercismo
I've had a couple of snatched conversations with Richard (our Career Development Manager) recently about identifying employability in the curriculum. Academic departments are now much more keen to engage with us (which I'm very pleased about) because they are under increasing pressure to show how they are contributing to students' employability. This has resulted in some departments swinging from one end of the spectrum (we're not interested in employability) to the other (let's have lots of employability), which presents us with a different set of problems (I know, I know, some people are never satisfied!). One department recently approached us with the idea of a full 10 week module on careers skills featuring week 1 - CVs, week 2 - applications, week 3 interviews etc. Which whilst laudable in many ways would a) be stretching the content a bit and b) feel very bolt-on from the students' perspective. Our experience is that the more contextualised and relevant to the course of study the employability content is the better, so Rich has come up with the idea of using competencies to help departments understand what they are already doing in the curriculum that relates to employability but might not realise it.

Rich stumbled across the SHL Universal Competency Framework which identifies eight core competencies (they call them the 'great eight') that they say are crucial for good performance in the workplace. SHL define universal competencies as:
It is a single underlying construct framework that provides a rational, consistent and practical basis for the purpose of understanding people’s behaviours at work and the likelihood of being able to succeed in certain roles and in certain environments.
I know very little about SHL other than they are a commercial company, and there may well be a better list of competencies somewhere, but they seem like a useful starting point for conversations about employability, and indeed learning development, in the curriculum. The eight competencies are:
  • Leading and deciding
  • Supporting and co-operating
  • Interacting and presenting
  • Analysing and interpreting
  • Creating and conceptualising
  • Organising and executing
  • Adapting and coping
  • Enterprising and performing
You can see the descriptions of these in the table below and I reckon that students are required to do a lot of this stuff as part of their degree.
Leading and decidingTakes control and exercises leadership. Initiates action, gives direction and takes responsibility.
Supporting and co-operatingSupports others and shows respect and positive regard for them in social situations. Puts people first, working effectively with individuals and teams, clients and staff. Behaves consistently with clear personal values that complement those of the organisation.
Interacting and presentingCommunicates and networks effectively. Successfully persuades and influences others. Relates to others in a confident and relaxed manner.
Analysing and interpretingShows evidence of clear analytical thinking. Gets to the heart of complex problems and issues. Applies own expertise effectively. Quickly learns new technology. Communicates well in writing.
Creating and conceptualisingOpen to new ideas and experiences. Seeks out learning opportunities. Handles situations and problems with innovation and creativity. Thinks broadly and strategically. Supports and drives organisational change.
Organising and executingPlans ahead and works in a systematic and organised way. Follows directions and procedures. Focuses on customer satisfaction and delivers a quality service or product to the agreed standards.
Adapting and copingAdapts and responds well to change. Manages pressure effectively and copes with setbacks.
Enterprising and performingFocuses on results and achieving personal work objectives. Works best when work is related closely to results and the impact of personal efforts is obvious. Shows an understanding of business, commerce and finance. Seeks opportunities for self-development and career advancement.

So, for instance, a useful exploratory question when talking to an academic from a department could be: what are your students already doing in the curriculum that involves analytical thinking or solving complex problems, or learning  new technology, or communicating in writing (Competency: analysing and interpreting)? Presumably quite a lot. Or how about what are they doing that involves planing ahead and working in a systematic and organised way, or following directions and procedures (Competency: Organising and executing). Some competencies will be easier to identify in the curriculum than others. For instance, 'Leading and deciding: takes control and exercises leadership. Initiates action, gives direction and takes responsibility.' This is probably easier to identify outside the curriculum, perhaps in involvement in clubs and societies, but even this one you could identify some elements of in lab work and fieldwork.

Clearly these competencies were written for a different context; the workplace. But if we need to identify how students are beginning to develop workplace skills then it seems like a good place to start. Once existing employability-related elements in the curriculum are identifying we could then work to supplement these with more traditional but contextualised careers skills. It would also help us when talking to employers to articulate our students' skills in a language they understand.

What do you think - are using competencies a good idea or not? What are the disadvantages? Have you tried it already? How will academics react? Is there a more appropriate set of competencies somewhere? Do you think the idea has legs? And if it has someone must have already done this somewhere else. As I'm new to this careers stuff I could do with some help.


  1. Hi Stu, I hope you don't mind me posting this here and I know you wanted more comments from academics, however this post has stimulated some thought.

    I've been musing about the idea of standardised competencies leading to a strategic delivery framework for all the work we do. If you think about mapping our offerings, schemes and programmes against the competencies you've described here they individually cover one or two each, leading to full coverage across all of our offering. This leads to the question do you try and design a course that covers the competencies holistically, or offer an opt in approach where departments chose the programmes they want for the number of credits or week delivery required.

    Taking this standarised competency framework further, if it was recognised more widely, in the same way the RDF has been for PGR students, these competencies could be used as the construct for the HEAR degree certificates. Therefore our service's offering was mapped against the framework and onto HEAR certificates.

  2. Hi Matt. Of course I don't mind you commenting - never would - especially when it's such a shrewd comment! I think mapping our offerings against competencies is a good idea - because as you say they all cover one or two. Designing something that covers all of them might be a bit of a headache and probably a quite contrived too - I think it would be better to just do the mapping as that would lead to full (or near full) coverage anyway. I'm chatting to @alexm11:twitter about it next week. Susan's keen that we join things up - which is quite right. The RDF is an interesting parallel and the HEAR thing an interesting thought too. Wonder what @estebanrooney:twitter thinks to that? (and wonder how this mentioning twitter ids in disqus works)

  3. Be interested to hear what makes of it and I agree it's quite right we join things up and access all the expetise available to us.

    The idea of a framework was something I'd been thinking about since reading the post, but the mapping came whilst @rbhuhi:twitter and I were doing some learning design of our own. We've being working of the Enterprise Online Module (I'll blog about it), as we were coming up with learning objectives, learning outcomes and assessment criteria, it was clear the they mapped easily against some of the competencies.

    Thinking about it further and more corporately, the competencies can also make good KPIs, not only in terms of a measure (mapping) of what we offer, but also as a measure of student engagement with the competencies.

  4. We need to talk more about this!

  5. Thanks for an interesting blog. It's always good for academic departments to know what the world 'out there' wants, or thinks it wants, from our students. And plenty to think about in the competencies. But they're not real. They're only words. Or prompts in our case. The hard part is to translate what they might mean and how they might fit in a module on 14th century Shipbuilding, say, or Manure. That's the level we can enter the conversation. But up till then they're only words and though students might be told they have these 'competencies' we have to make sure that a) SHL's idea of what is important in a person (its values) concurs with our's and b) how to realize them in the work we do.

    It's easy really. Just like 'impact'.

  6. I agree entirely. That's the next stage - what do these things look like as part of the curriculum or outside of it. Thanks for the comments ;)

  7. Hi Rob and Stu,

    Interesting points!

    My view is that these competencies are certainly real in the sense that employers are using them to measure our students (whether this is right or wrong is another matter).

    However, these competencies are, if you ignore the corporate language, by and large, already being developed, to some degree, within the curriculum anyway. In terms of curriculum intervention, which is only part of the answer to this issue, we can look at where this skills/competency development is already occurring and focus on making the link to employability more explicit. In addition, looking at additional ways in which employability can be introduced into a module - a good example being using presentations as part of the module's assessement - is another way in which we can ensure employability is being enhanced without comprimising the adacdemic content.

    I guess we all need to be comfortable with the fact that employability and academic rigour are not mutually exclusive, if handled correctly (agree, bringing CV writing into a module abut Shipbuilding would be tricky!)

  8. An area this list of core competencies seems to miss is the ability to gather and evaluate information effectively; this might be seen as implicit within 'analysing and interpreting' (i.e. you need to have selected relevant data/information to interpret and analyse in the first place) but is an area which can be overlooked and underdeveloped if not made explicit. Librarians (such as me) often talk about 'information literacy' - this goes wider than just 'gathering/evaluating' information as it also includes the ability to interpret, present and organise information - these competencies are reflected above. I would agree that in the HE context development of these competencies is best done as part of curricula.

  9. Thanks, Ben. Sorry for the delay. You're right, it probably needs to be more explicit. How do you want to pursue this? Maybe we should meet to chat it through. We're still at a very early stage though