An Arts and Science Approach to Business – Part 1

A common theme in my philosophy and approach to business is the need to bring left and right-brain thinking to business issues. In my experience this whole-brain approach, blending artistry, systemic thinking, and the humanities with analysis, engineering, and the sciences is much more powerful than either approach alone.

The following is a presentation I made recently to the students of McMaster’s Arts and Science Program, an undergraduate degree which takes a multi-disciplinary approach with a custom-designed curriculum for a small number of students each year.

Remarks by Bruce Miyashita to the Arts and Science Programme of McMaster University

Adventures of an Arts and Science Grad in the World of Business

When I graduated in 1984, like many of you, I wasn’t too sure of what to do and, perhaps more to the point, I wasn’t sure if this unusual degree from a tiny program, Arts and Science, would open any doors. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that people were genuinely intrigued by our program and its philosophy. My entire career has been one big inquiry project after another and I always tell people that whatever success I’ve enjoyed and the interesting experiences I’ve had are due entirely to what I experienced at my time in C-105.

Throughout my career in business, from the early 80’s at IBM, as a business consultant, and as an executive, I have seen the urgent need for people who can take an inter-disciplinary approach and have experienced how tough it is to find people with this mindset in the world of business. In what ways do I see this need?

Inquiry

This is perhaps the most important word, idea, skill and mindset. All of us here were attracted to the Arts and Science Programme because we enjoy the process of inquiry; we love to apply insights from one discipline into others; we are unafraid of ambiguity; we seek diversity. But in so many areas, not just business but also in the public-service and not-for-profit sectors, I frequently see a deficit of sincere inquiry, an absence of both the rigor of the scientific method and the humility provided by grounding in history and philosophy, and an alarming ignorance of knowing how to learn.

A whole-brain approach

There is a growing complexity of issues facing businesses, and a growing number of areas of our lives affected by business. What I witness is the need for left and right-brain approaches to things but almost always see just one or the other. The essence of business – people organizing to do things within the larger context of national and local cultures — is such that business challenges are almost never about “the numbers” but instead about people and emotion, a messy mixture of ego, love, greed and fear.

Business is mainly about beliefs, perceptions, and paradigms. In other words, business is as much about Shakespeare, psychology and anthropology as it is it about accounting, IT, finance, and operations. How a business is conceived and run has consequences for people’s lives. It can bring dignity, empowerment, and fulfillment, or it can bring humiliation, frustration, and a grinding mindlessness not to mention injury, illness and sometimes death. It has consequences for civic life: transparency and rule of law or corruption and disorder.

King Lear

Business pays the bill for our civic life

The business world matters. It matters because business directly employs billions of people in enterprises large and small, and business taxes, the personal income taxes paid by workers, and the taxes paid when people buy the things made by business directly or indirectly pays for healthcare, education, and other government services. Donations from individuals and businesses fund charities and arts groups.

The Economist estimated the number of people in world working for a business at 3.1 billion. Walmart, the largest private sector employer at 2.1 million, is dwarfed only by the Chinese Army at 2.3 million and the U.S. Department of Defense with 3.2 million. While a business is often a reflection of the society around it –consider the cynical and corrupt nature of business in Russia today or conversely the remarkable renaissance of business and civic life in, of all places, Rwanda – a soundly run commercial community can also beneficially influence civic life.

How a business is run is the result of choices and actions of people. If a group takes a regressive approach to business, you get a regressive business. If they are progressive, then you get a business that is a positive force in people’s lives and their community.

Business is often said to be inherently about narrow interests and short-term advantage. It is not. Business is agnostic, a morally empty vessel that takes on the character of those who start, manage, run, and govern it.

 

Original value creators

I would like to highlight a distinction I make between businesses that create original value and businesses that are at best supports and at worst parasitical. It is the businesses that create value that I consider the engine of whatever progress is to be made in reducing poverty and disease and increasing productivity. By original value I refer to a product or service that is used by an end consumer; food, clothing, a haircut, a movie.

Then there are many other businesses that exist to support other businesses for example accounting firms, advertising agencies or banks. They too have to provide value to their clientele but their existence, and the money they make, is derivative of the business that actually make or do things for consumers, the original value creators. I think this is important to note because, having worked in both kinds of businesses, I think much of what has gone off the rails in the world economy is, in my opinion, the money made by many of these support businesses that is out of proportion to the value they add.

 

Bringing an arts and science ethic into the business world

I believe that business needs the kind of people who graduate from the Arts and Science Programme. Let me give you an example. During my business career I twice had the good fortune of being able to recruit, coach and mentor large numbers of people for my organizations. I found that whether they were recent graduates or experienced hires, very few had developed the skills of logical and structured reasoning and writing. Few had read widely or diversely. Those skills and habits we learn in Arts and Science such as starting with a rigorous set of definitions is something alien to most people.

To compensate, I had to develop training courses that tried to give people a basic grounding in things like inquiry and how to structure an argument as well as exposure to readings that have nothing to do with business per se but that expand the mind; books like Orwell’s Inside the Whale, Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival, The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, or Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould. I exposed people to the aesthetics of good graphics and visuals as well as how poor graphics can deceive and obscure through work such as Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

 



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