Gaining commercial awareness

What is commercial awareness?

Commercial awareness is one of the top skills sought by employers, but one which many feel is missing among graduates.

41% of employers say they are dissatisfied with the level of business and customer awareness they see in graduates. (CBI Skills Survey, 2016)

Commercial awareness can be explained as an understanding of how organisations, companies and businesses work and what makes them successful. Being commercially aware involves thinking about a combination of the following factors:

  • What...
    • Is the organisation there to do? E.g. make a profit, provide a service?
    • Are the costs and overheads?
    • Are the potential risks to the business? E.g. political changes, technological advances, increase in competitors?
    • Legislation or guidelines does the organisation adhere to?
    • Issues affect the business? E.g. staff morale, the stock market, client demands?
    • Are the trends driving the sector in which the organisation sits?
  • Who...
    • Are the key stakeholders?
    • Are the customers or clients?
    • Are the suppliers?
    • Are the competitors?
  • How...
    • Is the business organised?
    • Innovative is the organisation?
    • Responsive to change is the organisation?
    • Does the organisation market itself and does it do this well?

Why do you need commercial awareness?

In the application and selection process:

  • Improve your understanding of the industry or organisation, and make more informed career choices.
  • Use your understanding to show commitment and motivation, helping you stand out in the application process.
  • Commercial awareness is assessed continually throughout the recruitment process - you will need to demonstrate understanding of how and why a business operates.

In the world of work:

  • Every organisation, regardless of size, requires commercial awareness.
  • Awareness of the market in which an organisation sits is essential for survival.
  • It helps make effective decisions, meet business needs and manage risks.

How to develop your commercial awareness

  • Keep up to date with news stories: read relevant articles, journals, publications and listen to business-related programmes on TV and radio.
  • Get involved: in societies and professional bodies or volunteer/get some work experience to see how a business operates and is organised.
  • Attend events: for example, employer presentations and careers fairs and ask employers about the issues facing their business.
  • Engage: in person, online, at events, at fairs. Network and build contacts to gain industry insights.
  • Familiarise yourself: with concepts, analysis tools (PESTLE, SWOT) and case studies.
  • Carry out research: into the employers and industry sectors that you are interested in. See our researching employers page or come in and speak to a member of staff.

How to use your commercial awareness

Employers have a variety of ways in which to test your commercial awareness throughout the application and selection process.

Questions that test commercial awareness

  • “How could you demonstrate your commercial awareness?”
    • Include your research and examples from your work experience.
  • “Tell us why you'd like to work for this company?”
    • Tell them what interests you about the business and why you’d make a good employee. Show them that you know the difference between similar organisations and how they operate.
  • “So, what’s been interesting you in the news recently?”
    • Show your genuine interest, whether you’ve noticed a news story that references them, their clients or the industry and whether or not you’ve understood the implications of events in the media.
  • Competency based questions.
    • Show evidence of skills such as communication, decision making and problem solving. Try and match your skills with the organisation needs.

Tasks that test commercial awareness

  • Case studies and presentations
    • After a briefing about a business situation, you could be asked to present findings and make recommendations based on your analysis, either individually or as a group.
  • E-tray exercises
    • Inbox simulations requiring you to prioritise work, responding to different queries and pressures.

Check out our video resources (look under the 'interview' tab) for information directly from employers about how to enhance your commercial awareness.