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Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 31, 2011 12:34 PM
How many people in your organization are innovative thinkers who can help with your thorniest strategy problems? How many have a keen understanding of customer needs? How many understand what it takes to assure that employees are engaged at work?
If the answer is "not many," welcome to the club. Business leaders around the world have told me that they despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems—or even get their heads around them. It's not that firms don't have smart people working with them. There are plenty of MBAs and even Ph.Ds in economics, chemistry, or computer science, in the corporate ranks. Intellectual wattage is not lacking. It's the right intellectual wattage that's hard to find. They simply don't have enough people with the right backgrounds.
This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn't teach how to navigate "what if" questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira, the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: "The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks...The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy."
People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare's poetry, or Cezanne's paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can't be analyzed in conventional ways. Here are just a few things that the liberal arts crowd can help you with:
Complexity and ambiguity. Too many companies lack the scope of understanding to stop problems before they start, because their people are too focused on immediate tasks, or buried under so much data that they can't see warning signs. The BP oil disaster, the manufacturing problems at Johnson&Johnson and Genzyme and many others might have been avoided if they had learned to identify ambiguous threats.
Any great work of art—whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual—challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.
Innovation. If you want out-of-the-box thinking, you need to free up people's inherent creativity. Humanists are trained to be creative and are uniquely adapted to leading creative teams. (A case in point: Steve Jobs, who openly acknowledges how studying the beautiful art of calligraphy led him to design the Macintosh interface.)
Communication and presentation. Liberal arts graduates are well-trained in writing and presenting, making them natural fits for marketing, training, and research. A focus on writing (which you need for degrees in history, literature, philosophy, and rhetoric) helps people develop persuasive arguments, and a background in performance (such as theater or music) gives people great presentation skills. And an understanding of history is indispensable if you want to understand the broader competitive arena and global markets.
Customer and employee satisfaction. The ability to "get under the skin" of customers and employees to discover their real needs and concerns demands something other than surveys, which yield superficial information. Instead, you need keen powers of observation and psychology—the stuff of poets and novelists.
What else? A person who has studied a foreign language or literature can run your overseas offices, or help with your global strategy by providing local insight or business analysis. Philosophers can help you with ethics. Historians can help you understand the past while giving you a picture of the future. (Just ask P&G's A.G. Lafley, who once planned to be a professor in medieval and Renaissance history.)
If you want another good reason to hire from the humanities, consider this: consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain like to hire them for all the reasons I've described above. You can hire liberal arts graduates yourself, or you can pay through the nose for a big consulting firms to hire them to do the thinking for you.
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