Why (business) students need to understand the human factor?

| Blog
Pekka Stenholm, University of Turku (Picture: Maria Grönroos, Studio Liikkuva)

On last year’s entrepreneurship -award-winning Startup! course I have been observing how students brainstorm, test and bring to market new business ideas. At the same time, I have learned more from them in terms of human behaviour – the human factor – than about entrepreneurship. Interaction between students and understanding others often anticipates team success more than the business idea they develop. But does this prepare them for working life? I hope so.

How work is done is changing

It is easy to say, that companies started today will take on a completely different appearance as they age in comparison to established companies. They just have to be different. For the new wave of workers, work and employers are merely tools to help achieve individual goals.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) report on the future of employment emphasises the change in the nature, and flexibility, of the work. At the moment, these are defined as change occurring in the workplace that make use of a variety of platforms, teleworking, co-working spaces and “renting” knowledge. Because of these transformations today’s companies need only a few full-time employees and permanent functions. (WEF, 2016).

Firms no longer need to “own” their staff, but can source skilled minds even for functions critical for competitiveness (Ismail, 2014). Working time and place lose their traditional meaning and the difference between work and free time blurs. If this is the reality of work, what do current university students need to know before they graduate?

The human factor is all about interaction

One of the most fascinating things that sprung to mind came about when I noticed the fundamental importance of first person-to-person communication and the ablility to understand other’s decision-making processes. I suspect that this capability cannot be replicated by machines, algorithms, and is something quite human. I would call it the human factor.

The human factor is the ability to communicate with and understand others. The human factor has proved to be particularly important when the things aren’t going to plan or when disaster strikes. Such moments come as a surprise, but they show how early phase organisations, start-ups, work and whether the team is capable of working toward its goal. At that point it doesn’t yet matter whether or not your algorithm works, how the logo looks, and whether the prototype is red or blue.

If the human factor isn’t there, the team will dissolve regardless of how great its business plan is. I do not mean, however, that the disagreements should avoided, but rather the fact one needs to be able to share differing opinions. In the middle of a snow free winter my observations were encapsulated in a presentation by Petri Holmen, CEO of Lyyti, in which he vividly argued that the most important metric of an organisation culture is how people behave together when absolutely everything goes wrong. That’s what matters.

The human factor heals uncertainty’s cutting wounds

What happens if the belief in long careers and functional organisations persists in universities? Stability and all that? What would it prepare students for?

In a US study, it was clear that recruiters look for critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills above all (Kavanaugh, 2017). This realisation also supported by the World Economic Forum assessment of the most important working life skills in future: problem solving and social skills (WEF, 2016). I don’t doubt for one second the most fundamental objectives of universities transform over the course of studies into working life skills. I these then are the necessary skills and, at the same time, companies hire fewer and fewer permanent employees, what is left? Uncertainty?

If uncertainty (where pretty much everything is a little unclear) becomes the norm (it stops being uncertainty), does the human factor, understanding others, help? Maybe. If when uncertainty abounds, one is able to understand how and why people behave as they do and one is able to share that, uncertainty is reduced. During the abovementioned Startup! course students found themselves in situations they could escape only by combining and developing their capabilities with those of others. Alone they would not necessarily be able to solve the problems at hand, or even be able to bear the uncertainty. Together – yes they would. This further underlines the importance of the human element. Can this be included in university syllabuses, when we who design them don’t tolerate even the least bit of uncertainty?



Chamberlain, A. (2017), What Matters More to Your Workforce than Money. Accessed 20.1.2017.

Ismail, s. (2014) Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it). Diversion Books.

Kavanaugh, J. (2017) Are MBA Programs Preparing Students for Success? Accessed 18.1.2017.

World Economic Forum, WEF (2016) The Future of Jobs. Accessed 18.1.2017.

The author, Pekka Stenholm, is a Senior Researcher with the SWiPE project.

Read more about Pekka, his areas of expertise and work as a researcher here.