Monday, April 3, 2017

Why We Need Liberal Arts in the Business World

Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm

It’s become dogmatic in certain circles to insist that only STEM subjects matter; disciplines like English, Sociology, and Music have become passé. Danish-American strategy consultant Christian Madsbjerg disagrees. Traditional humanities disciplines are not backward or vestigial; in his experience, business professionals and forward-planning capitalists need these fields to function. We’re not all plugged into an algorithm, Madsbjerg writes. Humane arts are necessary in a wealthy society.

We’ve all grown bored with the repetitive claims. America need more welders and fewer philosophers, Marco Rubio said. Madsbjerg quotes Jeb Bush that psychology majors are headed for jobs at Chik-fil-A. Today’s data-driven world gives us all important answers, and we can accurately predict outcomes if we simply have sufficient information. Businesses run on data, and we need more number crunchers, more code writers. The numbers speak for themselves.

Not so, Madsbjerg writes. Numbers almost never speak for themselves; they need humans to interpret them. In his early chapters, Madsbjerg details several high-profile incidents where numbers, adrift from human context, proved the exact opposite of reality. Software failed to predict movements in population, economy, even disease epidemiology. Only a well-informed human could restore the context these numbers lacked, giving them power to mean anything in the real world.

From this foundation, Madsbjerg builds five formal bromides about how humanities make American business possible. I could list them: statements like “Culture—Not Individuals,” or “The North Star—Not GPS.” But unlike too many business writers, who dispense fortune cookie platitudes with casual disregard, the real joy in reading Madsbjerg comes from his explanations. A schooled philosopher himself, Madsbjerg coaches readers through a thought process, not memorized “skillz drillz.”

Christian Madsbjerg
Why, for instance, does the Ford Motor Company struggle to sell cars in India to people who are, demographically, almost identical to their core business in America? The answer, which Madsbjerg teases out across several chapters, has roots in cultural circumstances unrelated to cars. Running the bare statistics, middle-class Indian urbanites seemingly resemble their American peers. Understanding the difference requires pausing big data and unpacking respective cultural contexts.

This doesn’t mean abandoning technical skills. In my favorite illustration, Madsbjerg describes a Danish architect scouting a location for a prospective Swiss bid. Important aspects of architecture, like engineering properties of glass, steel, and masonry, apply everywhere. But aspects of designing this building, to fit into this business and regional culture, involve understandings not taught in design classrooms. These require understanding language and industry and art—in short, understanding humans.

Madsbjerg, to his credit, does not produce another crinkum-crankum encomium to why liberal arts education makes us better people. I could’ve written that; I probably have. As a business consultant, Madsbjerg maintains focus on economic implications. Liberally educated professionals make better business executives, he insists, because their diverse education allows them to face difficult situations, sift conflicting evidence, and make decisions that improve everyone’s condition.

This requires a complex relationship with information. Business executives who turn data into outcomes don’t simply receive their information; they run it through filters that, for lack of better terminology, resemble anthropology, literature, and art. Business history, and Madsbjerg’s prose, is replete with examples of people, well-trained to do one thing (spreadsheets, double-entry bookkeeping), who stumbled altogether when confronted with the larger picture. Liberally educated professionals can simply adapt better.

And Madsbjerg himself is actually a good example of this. I’ve had several books cross my desk recently, offering to make readers into billionaire business icons; most either bury the audience in source notes and statistics, or tell long, rambling anecdotes that seem largely irrelevant. Madsbjerg, by contrast, creates the kind of balance that makes his advice practical: numbers where they’re necessary, stories where they’re relevant, always couched in comprehensible context.

Humans are sensemaking creatures, Madsbjerg writes, thus his title. Increases in data collection and statistical analysis have made sensemaking more powerful, nuanced, and worthwhile. But data never simply exists as-is; it always comes from somewhere, and requires human intelligence to make it applicable. Without that human intelligence, which comes from understanding literature, social science, and other humanities disciplines, numbers mean nothing, or even create more confusion than they solve.

I’ve read and reviewed several business books recently, and hated more than I care to recount. The worst are often mere billboards for the authors’ consultancies, comprehensible only if a Harvard MBA or the author is present. Madsbjerg has instead created a manifesto. Businesses, money, and data all serve people, he writes, not vice versa. Understanding this makes the difference between success and failure.

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