Need Innovation? Hire Humanities Grads

Last Updated Apr 7, 2011 5:41 AM EDT

How to get employees to be more innovative is a frequent topic on BNET but the very popularity of these sorts of posts begs another question -- why are all your hires so lousy at innovation to start with?

One possible answer is that, in general, most people find it hard to think outside the box, but a recent post by Second Road CEO Tony Golsby-Smith on the HBR blog The Conversation offers a slightly different explanation -- most people your business is likely to hire find it difficult to think outside the box. Why? Golsby-Smith argues it's because you're not hiring enough humanities majors.

Their resumes may never make it past your HR department, but Golsby-Smith argues that people who studied literature, philosophy and the like offer key skills your organization probably lacks:
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.... 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.
Exactly what valuable intellectual skills do humanities grads offer? Golsby-Smith outlines four: complexity and ambiguity, innovation, communication and presentation, and customer and employee satisfaction. Check out the complete post to read the author's explanation of how pondering the classics can help in these areas.

The relative merits of tech and liberal arts degrees is an interesting discussion for business leaders, but what does the debate look like from the perspective of someone trying to decide on a college major? Should you study liberal arts if you want to rule in business? There's anecdotal evidence that a humanities degree can help you in business and A-list economist/ blogger Tyler Cowen is a convert to the liberal-arts-for-business idea, but beware that the statistics are against you (especially if money is a motivator). The highest paid degrees are all technical and the most common major among CEOs is engineering (33 percent). On the other hand, it's worth knowing that research tells us business students are among the majors who learn the least in college.

What do you think -- from the perspective of the company can liberal arts grads improve innovation? And from the perspective of potential students, is it ever a good idea to study the humanities if you have a career in business in mind?

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user tonynetone, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.

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