This ice cream empire can teach business grads valuable things about soft skills

soft skills
Lim (right) credits the success of her ice cream empire the soft skills gained in her international education. Source: Lim Shiew Li

Building a successful business empire is anything but easy. In food-obsessed Malaysia, it’s almost impossible. But Lim Shiew Li, co-founder of Inside Scoop achieved just this, becoming the undisputed ice cream mogul of Malaysia today.

With 23 outlets and more on the way, the ice cream company gained recognition through Malaysian taste buds, beating the likes of Baskin Robbins and Haagen daazs with their artisanal  techniques and local flavours. It has seen a meteoric rise since 2013, when the company started with just one outlet in Kuala Lumpur.

So how did she do it?

The answer lies in a combination of factors: her upbringing, a growing middle class ready to spend on desserts, and of course being in the right place at the right time.

Lim doesn’t think it was specifically her actuarial science degree that helped her out along the way, and it wasn’t all smooth sailing. But what gave her the power the keep going and ultimately succeed?

“I would say it’s the soft skills I gained from my entire education experience,” she explains. By this, she means her time as an ASEAN scholar in Singapore and her experience at an Australian university. Whether it was skills picked up while waitressing in cafes or lessons learnt as an outsider in a foreign land or how to live independently from a young age, these collectively played a big role in helping her and her business thrive.

Soft skills

Another day, another new branch of Inside Scoop opens in Malaysia. Source: Facebook/@Inside Scoop

Soft skills are the opposite of hard skills – defined as the technical expertise you need to get the job done. They include emotional intelligence, persuasion, collaboration, creativity, adaptability and time management.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report declared that these “human skills” – especially originality, initiative and critical thinking – will grow more valuable as technology and automation advance. In another study covering over 52 professions with more than 8,000 managers, soft skills were identified as the major competencies in nearly all professions, even in the technical environments.

“Strengthening a soft skill is one of the best investments you can make in your career, as they never go out of style,” LinkedIn Learning Editor, Paul Petrone, wrote in a blog. “Plus, the rise of AI is only making soft skills increasingly important, as they are precisely the type of skills robots can’t automate.”

LinkedIn’s Emerging Jobs Report 2018 also found that soft skills – like oral communication, leadership and time management – make up nearly half the list of skills with the largest skills gaps.

Their growing importance is undisputed. So far, however, business schools’ efforts to imbue soft skills have met some hurdles.

Speaking of his experience as a student in universities in India, Europe, the UK and Australia, Ankit Agarwal at the Adelaide Business School  says efforts by business schools to boost their employability have been quite encouraging but in some cases still remain “very artificial”. By artificial, Ankit, who is currently a PhD candidate and an educator in Australia, means these initiatives often take the form of short courses conducted separately from students’ core modules. In such courses, students are taught to identify the hard and soft skills, and their competencies, that will boost their employability.

The problem, according to him, is that these sessions aren’t linked to their main courses or integrated into the formal curriculum. A student can listen to hour-long lectures about the importance of listening, effective communication and skilful approaches, Ankit says, but they’ll still be left with the question “How am I supposed to do it?”

“I think learning happens when we practise it. We can’t learn by just listening and attending one-hour classes.”

One way forward is to close the gap between these two sections, Ankit suggests. For example, students can be tasked to present a strategy in their management or marketing class, for which they will be formally, instead of voluntarily, marked on.

“If we make it a formal part of the curriculum…then I’m pretty sure students would be paying attention with how and what they’re communicating, how they’re learning and…the different methods of learning. Then they will have an external motivation, because if they don’t do this, then they won’t pass.”

A more comprehensive measure can be found at the Edith Cowan University’s Work-Integrated Learning programme. Each of the four departments that make up the School of Business & Law have teaching units that integrate project-based learning within them. There are also practicums, internships, capstone units and come next February, a virtual simulation centre for students to connect with industry. These programmes range from 100 hours (one to two days per week) to 600 hours (full-time for 16 weeks).

But what makes them stand out is the research-backed methods used to carry out these programmes.

Before starting their placements, the school matches students to meaningful learning opportunities that are aligned to their interests, according to Associate Professor Denise Jackson, Director of Work-Integrated Learning at the School of Business & Law.

Students then perform a self-assessment of their non-technical capabilities using the school’s BeReady framework. Based on the research findings of Associate Professor Denise Jackson, it comprises of 10 overarching soft skills and a number of behaviours associated with them. For example, one of those capabilities is “Communicating effectively” and the associated behaviours include Verbal Communication, Non-verbal communication, Meeting Participation and Public Speaking.

After completing their placement, students complete a post-audit of capabilities alongside their counsellor.

“That’s really important for students to understand when someone in the industry says you’ve got skill gaps there and they can help you reflect on how you can address those,” Jackson explained.

For international students, one often-reported problem is their lack of understanding regarding the workplace culture of their host country. A suite of online modules specifically target this by using videos to teach the formal and informal aspects of how to effectively operate in a workplace environment. In induction sessions, ex-students who have participated in placements or guest speakers are invited to talk about the cultural differences that may arise in the workplace.

“International students have reported that preparation is critical to them. The better prepared they are, the easier their transition to the workplace.”

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