What is commercial awareness?

Commercial awareness – it’s one of those terms that will come up time an time again when you’re researching important graduate skills and how to demonstrate them, and it’s usually referred to as an essential part of a graduate’s employability. But what exactly does it mean?

It’s simple really.

Commercial awareness is about knowing how an organisation works and the impact it faces from external factors.

I recently had an interview where the employer asked me what I thought might be challenges the organisation and the specific department I was interviewing with are faced with – that, essentially, was a question designed to test my commercial awareness. The employer was looking to find out how much I knew about their organisation, the industry, and the type of work I would be doing in that specific role, and in my response I was aiming to demonstrate that I understood how certain factors might impact the organisation (or department within that organisation).

To answer a question like this convincingly, however, is not all that simple. Especially if you’re not prepared for the question you’re asked! And it’s sometimes easy to forget that employers will have their own interpretation of what being commercially aware means for them and in their specific sector. We can also bust the myth that commercial awareness is only relevant or important in a corporate setting – recruiters will value it hugely regardless of the sector or industry. This is simply because it’s a great way to see how passionate you are about the role and organisation.

So what can you do to prepare for questions testing your commercial awareness?

First, to get a rough idea of what you should know, think about: What is the role you are applying for? What will you be doing in that role? What are the challenges or opportunities the organisation might be faced with right now? Are there any previous events which have made a long term impact on this organisation? Essentially, you want to consider the following potential influences: social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal, ethical. It might not be necessary for you to consider all of these factors – some might be more relevant than others, depending on organisation, role and sector.

Second, it might be a good idea to think about the type of questions you could be asked. Common ones include:

  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • What are the biggest challenges facing our organisation/sector? What about opportunities?
  • Tell us about what we do

Third, actual research to develop commercial awareness might include reading business news stories, watching news programmes, listening to relevant podcasts – or generally staying up to date with relevant news/current affairs by following relevant people, industry publications, associations or organisations on social media and LinkedIn. When reading an article or listening to a podcast you should consider how the topics raised could impact the organisation you are applying to. Networking with people through careers fairs and events or contacting alumni could be a useful way to get sector insights.

Fourth, think about the commercial awareness you already have! By reading the organisation’s website you may already have noticed important themes and topics which you could look into further. Or maybe you already have work or volunteer experience which have given you an insight into the sector?

Whatever stage you’re at – Discover, Focus, Action – it is never too late to think about how commercial awareness might play a part in your career journey. If you’ve read all the way through – you’re off to a good start! Commercial awareness is all about bigger picture thinking, and anyone can do it. All you have to do is think about what commercial awareness might mean for the organisation you are interested in. Do you have an idea? Spend some time to reflect on it!

And remember that commercial awareness is not just for interviews – you can find ways to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the organisation in your CVs and applications too…

Good luck!