Developing Commercial Awareness

See also: Employability Skills.

Commercial awareness is one of the key attributes cited by many employers as being essential to employability, but unfortunately one that many people seem unable to demonstrate. It comes up time and time again in job advertisements, discussions between recruiters and on careers guidance websites.

But what does 'Commercial Awareness' really mean, and how can you develop it?

With the huge changes that have happened in the public sector around the world over the last five years, it can sometimes seem that citing the need for commercial awareness in job advertisements is a way of saying ‘You must have worked in a commercial organisation, and not just in the public sector’. But you can develop commercial awareness working anywhere, including on a voluntary basis, or even by reading and studying.

What is Commercial Awareness?

Commercial awareness is the ability to understand what makes a business or organisation successful, through either buying or selling products or supplying services to a market.

This simple definition, however, masks a wide range of skills and understanding. The first and probably most obvious area is an understanding of the business and its market or sector.

Ask yourself and research the following questions:

  • Does the organisation produce, sell, or buy products? Or is it in the services or ideas business?
  • Who are its customers? Are they other businesses, or ‘ordinary people’?
  • What’s going on in the market sector? Are there legal or regulatory changes on the way, or does the economic situation have a larger-than-usual impact?

The next part is understanding how you will fit in to the organisation.

  • What job would you be able to do, and how will your unique skills and attributes help the company more than anyone else’s?  In other words, what do you bring that the company needs to meet its goals?
  • Are you the sort of person the company needs, and will what you want to do fit into the company structure? More generally, for new graduates, and those who have not worked before, it’s helpful to demonstrate that you understand how organisations are structured, what a hierarchy looks like, and that you understand that you will start fairly close to the bottom of the heap!

There are a few other quite specific skills that it’s helpful to demonstrate to reassure potential employers that you are likely to be commercially aware.

First, an understanding that organisations are there to make money. You need to show some level of financial awareness: a demonstration that you always look for value for money in any purchase, for example, or that you have helped an organisation achieve cost savings through improving efficiency.

You also need to show that you have some idea of moving a project forward from idea to implementation, even if it’s only on a very small scale, such as planning a party or outing for a group of friends. Our pages on Project Management and Project Planning may be helpful here.

Finally, it’s good if you can demonstrate that you’re reasonably numerate: an ability to understand a financial graph really helps.

Who Needs Commercial Awareness?

The short answer is almost everyone. It’s not just those working in business. With increasing levels of competition in the public sector and voluntary organisations, for both resources and to supply goods and services, even public and charitable sector organisations are looking for those who can show it, and demonstrate that they represent good value for money for their employers.

Improving Commercial Awareness

There are a number of things you can do to improve your commercial awareness:

  • Read the business pages of newspapers, and general interest economic magazines such as The Economist, readily available online. These will give you a good grounding in the general financial and economic situation in the world. If you’re looking for work in a particular sector, you should also read the specialist press for that sector. See our page: Critical Reading for ideas on how you can make your reading more effective.
  • Think about what you’ve learned from any job or work experience that you’ve ever had. Think about the organisation you worked in, and consider what you know about its customers, its sector and the broader environment in which it operates (and here, it can be helpful to think about political, economic, social and technological aspects separately), its competitors and anything else you can think of about the way it operates and why it is successful or not. Reflect on what you think can be generalised, and what you think might be sector- or company-specific. See if that fits with other companies that you know about. See? You’re already becoming commercially aware.
  • Brush up on your basic skills, especially your numeracy and, if possible, statistics. There’s very little more embarrassing than being presented with a graph in an interview and wondering which way up it goes. And percentages. What exactly is a percentage increase? Take a look at our Numeracy Skills pages, including Percentages and Percentage Change to see.
  • Take on voluntary roles that will help improve your commercial awareness. For example, does a local club need someone to take on a project? Does your children’s school PTA or similar group need a treasurer? Roles like this will increase your understanding of how organisations find or make money, and how they judge how well it is being used.

Apart from these general ways to improve commercial awareness, you should also always research any company or organisation to which you are applying, preferably before you fill in the application, but certainly before you attend an interview.

The internet is a fantastic tool, and you should be able to find out about the structure of the organisation, who is at the top and the shape of the Board, what the company does, who its customers are, what sector it operates in and any specific issues facing that sector or company. Don’t just look at the company’s website, although that’s important. Also look at news sites and discussion forums for mentions of any problems or issues.


Commercial awareness is a highly-valued skill in the current employment market. With public and voluntary sectors facing increased levels of competition for service provision, and the tight global economic position, this is perhaps not surprising. But it’s also a relatively easy skill to develop with a little application and thought, especially if you have some work experience already.