Liberal Arts or Business Degree? Or Both?

Business schools are often criticized for teaching aspiring executives what to think, rather than how to think. That’s why some professors suggest that liberal arts education is a superior choice to business school. But this argument misses the mark. What’s needed to operate in today’s complex world, is both business knowledge and a Socratic “mode of inquiry” taught through a liberal arts education.

As quoted in the April 25, 2011 issue of Financial Times, dean of IE Business School David Bach laments business students are taught what professors think they should know and then sent to conquer the world. But Bach says more than assembling and analyzing facts, students need the ability to ask the right questions. Bach states one way to reach this goal is through a liberal arts education where students gain “a way of looking at the world, a mode of inquiry” instead of time tested memorize and regurgitate approaches. Bach claims we’d be better off spending time training executives to make connections, problem solve and communicate—all skills the liberal arts education seems to afford.

In fact, as Bach alludes, executives need both business acumen and “different perspectives” in order to make sense of the world. As executives swim in deep seas of too much data, increasingly they will require content and facts parsed in manageable chunks (perhaps via MapReduce or other type of analytic engine) to help provide distilled fodder for overwhelmed and overworked human brains. Then, analytical tools can help discern correlations and patterns not clearly evident and also highlight information of critical importance requiring further drill-down analysis.

In addition to algorithmic engines and other technologies, to succeed in an unpredictable and complex global environment, executives will need to pair business acumen with modes of inquiry. Today, business managers can take data and information that tools have sorted and prioritized and then utilize these findings to challenge existing assumptions, seek new and different approaches, and apply creative thinking to tasks at hand.

A cartoon from the Financial Times shows two executives having a conversation with one quipping; “I left business school knowing all the answers. They didn’t tell me the questions would change.”

Indeed, in dynamic global economy, the questions, much less the right answers change every day, and sometimes in microseconds. Business and economic facts are important, but what’s really necessary are technological engines to help sort, order and then analyze the monstrous data flood that invades our daily lives.

The use of technology to harness the big data flood coupled with a questioning mind can then help make sense of the world today, and also intelligently predict with a high degree of probability what’s coming next.


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