Commercial awareness: it's how the industry fits together
Commercial awareness is prized by graduate recruiters across the board, in career sectors ranging from law to engineering. It is to the world of business what night-vision goggles are to midnight assaults: with it, you can operate on a professional level, but without it you won’t know what is going on, and your chances of survival are slim.
If you haven’t had the chance to develop commercial awareness through your studies, there is plenty you can do to brush up your skills in this area for yourself.
Different employers will have their own interpretation of what commercial awareness means for them and in their sector. For some, it will mean reading the Financial Times every day; for others, it will mean having a grasp of the importance of cost-effectiveness and the need for efficiency.
Generally speaking, employers will expect at least the following:
- An understanding of their business. Familiarity with the end product, and a grasp of the activities of the organisation and the role applied for.
- An understanding of the marketplace. Major competitors and how they differ from each other.
A really impressive candidate might also:
- Have an understanding of how the major players in this particular market are performing at present. In some sectors, such as engineering, strong applicants will be aware of who is dealing with who, and which companies have won important contracts.
- Be able to speculate intelligently about the future. You’ll need to keep up with general news to be able to do this. If there is a major catastrophe somewhere in the world, a good candidate will have some idea of how that could affect developments in the business. They might even have some inkling about how they would plan for completely unexpected events.
- Have an understanding of the past which helps them to predict future trends. It’s particularly useful to be aware of any typical cyclical patterns, such as how wider economic conditions tend to affect a particular industry. On a smaller scale, it could be helpful to be aware of the cycle of the financial year and the effect it can have. For example, clients such as local councils might attempt to spend any remaining budget for road-building or maintenance before the end of the financial year, making this a busy time for civil engineers and construction contractors who specialise in this kind of work.
Commercial awareness examples
The good news is that your commercial awareness won’t be tested too early in the game. In your application and covering letter it’s enough to write a bit about why you like the company and what it does, and why you want to work for them. Make sure these are genuinely unique reasons though. For example, John Lewis being owned by its employees is pretty special.
However, by the time you get through to the next round, you need to be on the ball. If you’re going to an interview you need to know about all the services their company provides. You will also need to know their main competitors, and be able to throw out some figures about how they compare (be certain these are correct).
How do I phrase it in job applications?
Do say: ‘I noticed a couple of different people talking about the same phenomenon, so I checked it out. It seemed new and relevant, so I managed to persuade the people behind it to give a talk for my society.’ – For top marks you should not just be observing new trends, but acting on what you see as well. Early adopters are prized more and more these days, so being one could set you apart.
Don’t say: ‘I read the Financial Times.’ – Anyone can buy a newspaper. You’d have to be pretty spectacular to turn that into a career. Instead you should think about how it has developed your knowledge base and what other sources you are using to cross-reference that data. Think about trends you have noticed, and why they are relevant to the sector you want to go into.
How to develop commercial awareness
There is no quick fix. Any practical, hands-on business experience will help, however, whether it’s through work experience or an internship, extracurricular activities or a part-time job.
You will need to follow industry news – try setting up email alerts on specific search terms. You could also try subscribing to journals and industry magazines and following relevant Twitter feeds. Candidates who make a concerted effort to gain commercial awareness for the year or so before applying for jobs should be in a strong position.
If you want to brush up your commercial awareness, browse through our employer hubs. Try looking at different companies in the sector you are interested in, and see what differences you can spot.