Business Needs the Liberal Arts
Harvard, Americas first university, was founded in 1636. Two hundred forty-five years later, in 1881, Americas first business school, the Wharton School, was founded at the University of Pennsylvania. Principals of businesswhich had previously been conveyed by master to apprenticewere soon the subject of academic study at colleges and universities around the country.
Yet, 125 years removed from Whartons founding, debate persists concerning the educational role of colleges and universities in preparing would-be captains of industry for their careers. This is particularly true when considering the value of a liberal arts education to students planning business careers. Over the past decade or so, most higher education curricula have trended toward academic specialization and away from the broad intellectual offerings typical of liberal arts institutions. Many attribute this trend to the vocational lens through which more and more parents and their children view the colleges and universities seeking their tuition dollars. Often, parents approach college tuition as an investment and, like savvy market traders, they dont want to sink their capital without some assurance of a high return. Typically, they expect this return to materialize in the form of a well-paying job for their daughter or son right after graduation. This goes a long way in explaining why business is one of the most popular undergraduate majors at U.S. colleges and universitiespsychology, engineering and, now, economics, typically comprise the other top choices.
So does academic specializationbe it majoring in business, engineering or psychologyprovide the golden key to career success? Well, that depends.
Research gathered by human resource and job placement experts indicates that, in the current corporate environment, demonstrated professional and technical proficiency acquired by earning a degree in fields such as business, accounting or engineering gives graduates a leg up in landing the first job out of college. Increased global competition and the resulting tightening of corporate purse strings means that many companies no longer have the resources to provide significant on-the-job training and have to look for new employees who already have the skills to get the job done. Findings from the Council of Independent Colleges and other surveys find that corporate human resource managers readily admit to looking first to the undergraduate business schools for entry-level hires because they are confident these graduates have the basic business acumen and professional skills the company needs.
But students shouldnt rush to their computers and dash off an e-mail to their academic advisor requesting a change of major from anthropology to finance. The above is only part of the story. Yes, earning a technical or professional degree enhances a students ability to land the first job after graduation. But securing a liberal arts education better prepares a student for long-term career success, particularly in todays global economy.
Adaptability and the 21st-Century Economy
In 2000, Business Week Onlines series The 21st-Century Corporation made a similar point, stating, Although disciplines such as marketing and finance will remain key, there will be more value placed on a liberal arts education that encourages lateral thinking. Also rising in value is an eclectic background. The corporation will be guided by people who know how to harness the energies and talents of their team while keeping their egos in check The corporation itself will depend more on a complex and ever-shifting stream of alliances, partnerships and customer relationshipspart of the reason for the constant change. As a result, leaders will rely more than ever on the intelligence and resourcefulness of their staff.
Adaptability is the defining characteristic of business in the 21st-century economy. The technology-driven service economy is fast-paced and ever-evolving. Business success now entails more than simply applying tried and true best practices. It requires thinking outside the box to anticipate and exploit new opportunities and to solve unforeseen problems. Leaders and managers must be capable of integrating knowledge across processes and business units to solve complex challenges.
David E. Shi, president of Furman University, notes,
[T]he most effective leaders of this new perpetual-motion economy will not be technical experts but bold generalists comfortable in the face of uncertainty. They must be able to distill new ideas and make new connections from torrents of informationand do so quickly In a knowledge-based society characterized by rapidly changing markets, technologies, careers and relationships, a narrowly focused education will not provide the breadth or agility needed by entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.
Such mental agility and capacity is a defining characteristic of the liberal arts graduate. Graduates of quality liberal arts institutions spend four years acquiring a breadth of knowledge from an array of academic disciplines, learning to think critically, building strong working relationships with faculty and other students, honing oral and written communication skills and engaging in leadership opportunities. These are all skills of immense value in the 21st-century global economy and, perhaps more importantly, says Roger Young, director of career services at Southwestern, All these competencies are in very high demand in the business world.
In fact, according to a research survey of 1,621 businesses by Northern Virginia Community College, employers appeared to place more emphasis on personal or general characteristics rather than on specific work-related skills. Work ethics, communication abilities, the ability to learn on the job, motivation and initiative, and working with others were skills considered by the majority of employers to be very important. In addition, a large percentage of the employers also rated employee characteristics such as the ability to solve job-related problems, interpersonal skills, overall preparation for employment and reading, and comprehension skills as either very important or important. In comparison, less than half of the employers indicated that skills such as special technical job skills or work experience were very important.
Ready to Go Global?
Whether it means negotiating new markets in China, outsourcing programming to India or financing the purchase of a stock exchange in Europe, there is little doubt that todays business often takes place on a global stage. Corporations, whether national or multinational, face pressures from global markets and global competitors in their efforts to increase profit margins. The unprecedented spread of information technology during the past 15 years has increased the frequency and importance of business communication between organizations and professionals all over the world. The understanding and appreciation of diversity is now frequently vital to long-term business growth and profitability.
Derek Christian 96 has firsthand experience with the global demands business professionals face. He works for Procter & Gamble in Market Strategy and Planning for Global Export. Says Christian, The global economy has made it a requirement that you understand the world, that you be able to understand the people of a country. This can help you avoid mistakes and to see opportunities. The ability to communicate effectively on a variety of topics is an essential business skill because it gives one greater facility and comfort in building relationships with people from very different backgrounds, cultures and countries.
Some of the most important classes I took for my business career were ethnomusicology, historiography and religions of east Asia, continues Christian. As a result, I was able to talk with a customer in Indonesia about the time I played Javanese instruments. In another instance, I was able to discuss the results of the 1954 coup in Guatemala with a potential distributor in that country. And I have been told many times that I am the only American businessman my non-American counterparts know who has actually read some of their holy texts and can talk about them. This has helped me form relationships in places where relationships often matter more than the law. It also has helped me demonstrate that I respect and honor their culture, and that I am not just there to take from them.
A liberal arts education provides one with a breadth of knowledge and understanding to negotiate the sea of difference so often encountered in a global business world. But, perhaps even more importantly, a liberal arts education gives students a more critical understanding of their own background. Enhanced awareness of ones own American culture and values is a key benefit of a liberal arts education, according to Marvin Suomi, president and CEO of Kajima Corporation. Such deep awareness is necessary for anticipating and dealing with the assumptions, feelings and opinions regarding the United States that one is likely to encounter and maybe even have to be accountable for within the context of an international business dialogue.
In the wake of the Tyco, WorldComm, Enron, Sallie Mae and other corporate scandals and abuses, we need people in business whose moral compass is less wavering and who believe that profit alone is not the endgame in terms of corporate citizenship. Research findings presented last year by World Resources and the Aspen Institute indicate that business schools are not yet doing enough to address the issue on their own. According to the study, Of the 91 business schools surveyed on six continents, 54 percent require a course in ethics, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, or business and society, up from 45 percent in 2003 and 34 percent in 2001. While better, there is still much room for improvement.
Business plays a much bigger social role than the mere generation of capital and that role brings with it significant social responsibility. A better balance needs to be struck in corporate culture that champions success with integrity, turning a profit and truly valuing employees, and investing in the community as well as the company because both produce valuable returns. Business has a greater impact on our standard of living and quality of life than perhaps any other institution (perhaps even greater than government or church), says Jonathan DeFelice, president of Saint Anselm College. Given its influence, business should be looking for creativity and vision, ethics and character, and an approach to work that is grounded on moral principles and intellectual honesty. These characteristics are the foundation upon which a liberal arts education is predicated.
Preparing for the Long Haul 21st-Century Career Success
In 2003, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) gathered academics, university presidents and business leaders for a symposium on business and the liberal arts. Their findings indicated that while hiring managers may trend toward professional and technical graduates, senior management and CEOs have been equally vocal about the importance of a liberal arts education as preparation for career advancement and for the exercise of leadership in the corporate community.
In other words, technical or professional majors may have a head start in landing the first job, but a broad base of knowledge and strong people skillsacquired while working with professors, students and teams from a variety of backgrounds and academic disciplinesare keys to career success. According to CIC findings, The fact of the matter is that the liberal arts prepare students for their entire lives, not just for their first jobs. This is important because most will change careersnot just jobstwo or three times during their lives.
Spending an entire career with the same company is a rarity these days. Even if one is so fortunate, odds remain high that, over the course of a career, the company itself will grow and change in ways that require its employees to develop new skill sets, acquire additional knowledge and succeed at different tasks if the business is to remain successful. Today, more than ever, lifelong learning skills are a key predictor of professional success.
You never know where your career is going to take you, explains Christian. I am one of the very few who has spent his entire career with one company. However, in that 10 years I have sold frying oil door to door, led a team to install multi-million-dollar computer networks, purchased coffee futures, managed a call center, negotiated investments in start-up companies, and now run market strategy and planning for a global export operation. There is nothing narrow about the path my management career has taken. You need to be able to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. There are no longer traditional career paths. I have taken on sales, IT, purchasing, operations, finance and strategy roles. Today, you have to be comfortable knowing that you can master a variety of skills.