Why knowledge of liberal arts is essential for success

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For businesses to survive in 2020, management must go beyond the balance sheet to make the right decisions. The most useful knowledge is up-to-date and comes from a number of sources and disciplines. If your thinking is siloed, you could be missing opportunities for growth and oncoming risks. How can process excellence practitioners broaden their sources of knowledge?

There is a method of solving management problems which provides better solutions than “quantitative analysis for business decisions”. This method outperforms quantitative analysis because it is faster and considers many factors that quantitative analysis may not, including ethics and social responsibility which are frequently ignored. The method? A Liberal Arts Analysis.

A Liberal Arts Analysis will help to avoid solutions which have led some organizations to fail despite a quantitative analysis focused on maximizing profits or sales promising that a particular action would lead to success. This failure can happen when factors which are important to the public, customers, employees, or other stakeholders are ignored.

The long list of companies that experienced this failure includes Enron, Circuit City, Blockbuster Video, Atari, Kodak, Polaroid, Borders, Sharper Image and many more that quietly died a death without making global headlines.

The first step in avoiding failure and achieving success is the acquisition of knowledge of eight specific liberal arts that can impact the situation under analysis.

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Liberals arts specified by Peter Drucker
Drucker, “the man who created management” specified eight liberal arts subjects as knowledge that must be included. These are: economics, ethics, history, humanities, philosophy, physical sciences, psychology, and social sciences.

The first advantage of a liberal arts analysis over a purely quantitative one is that much of the knowledge you need you may already have. We sometimes mistakenly refer to this knowledge as “common sense.” It is certainly not "common", and it is dependent on your experiences and what you learned. 

Acquiring knowledge before it is needed
Even in the age of the internet, books should be a major vehicle in anyone’s planning. Books are a good basis for knowledge acquisition before and after an issue has been identified.

Nowadays, you can log into many libraries’ collections to locate exact books you need without stepping away from your computer.

In Drucker’s day, he had no choice, and Drucker read many books in libraries and at home. He kept a stack of books along with newspapers by his bedside throughout his life. 

They weren’t just management books. Many were history books and Drucker incorporated history into examples and ideas for the 39 management books and hundreds of articles that he wrote during his lifetime. Books contain both general and specialized knowledge needed in your profession whatever it is. They are particularly valuable because fiction and non-fiction both contain knowledge of subject matter or different ways looking at a problem or an issue that you are drawn to because of your work or maybe just because of your interest in the subject.

Knowledge through serendipity
The word “serendipity” comes to us courtesy of 18th century English author Horace Walpole. Walpole had discovered a lot of unknown facts about various topics by accident during his recreational reading, which helped him in his efforts, as he had frequently come across surprising insights that had an immediate application in his work. Achieving some notable success in this manner, he adopted it as a formal process of discovery and coined the term “serendipity” to describe it. The word itself came from a fairy tale he read using this method of discovery entitled, The Three Princesses of Serendip in which the royal trio travel to strange lands and had various adventures and mishaps. The princesses made all sorts of discoveries by accident. But “Serendip” wasn’t a nonsense word. It’s the ancient name of modern Sri Lanka, from whence the princesses in the story originated. Any kind of reading is useful in the acquisition of knowledge and because serendipity may be useful in your attainment of liberal arts knowledge, sometimes when you least expect it. I once found the solution to a management problem when I read a science fiction novel.

Knowledge obtained from intentional or unintentional discussion
One excellent reason for joining clubs and associations is that you witness and get involved with discussions of subject matter crucial to your knowledge store for future decision-making. Many times, you will even get advance notice that a topic in which you have considerable interest will be presented and discussed at a meeting. 

Knowledge from teaching
Drucker wrote that “No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” That may be why occasionally you’ll come across a brilliant teacher and later discover that he or she had been a poor student. More than a thousand years before Drucker, the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach, we learn.” Today, students that are  recruited to tutor others, were found to work harder to understand the material, could recall it more accurately, and then apply it more effectively. Student teachers also score higher on tests than students who are learning only for their own sake.

We can use this concept by seeking opportunities to instruct others in the liberal arts knowledge we want to assimilate ourselves.

There are plenty of opportunities to teach. Sometimes advanced degrees are required, but in many cases, you need only to raise your hand to volunteer, and sometimes you get paid for it.

Knowledge gained through lifelong learning
“Lifetime Learning” is a term that has grown up over the last fifty or sixty years. Technology, time availability, affluence all came together to create the opportunity for what has been called "ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated" pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons and plenty of organizations have jumped in to grasp this opportunity, including traditional degree granting colleges and universities. They expand the service to their market by offering non-credit courses. Even a prestige school like Harvard, and many colleges, offer not only courses, but full programs priced at thousands of dollars to attend.

Knowledge gained while you do something else
The idea is to use a psychological subliminal technique so you can learn at a subconscious level when the mind is focused elsewhere else, even sleeping. This is called subliminal learning.

The normal conscious way of learning is through repeated experience. Understanding and doing with practice is frequently added. Through these processes, the new information you have learned is “mastered” and stored in your mind on an unconscious level. However, you don’t need to think about it and if subliminal, it can still be recalled automatically when you need it.

For both mental and physical actions, subliminal learning bypasses the conscious experiences of practice, and repetition. Instead, information is transmitted directly to the unconscious mind. 

Knowledge from your own experiments or studies
There is no law against conducting your own experiments, surveys, or studies and you can gain useful insights in this way when required.

Knowledge from quantitative calculations and analysis
Focusing on maximizing profitability or any single factor alone may cause you to miss other factors which may lead to serious problems by overlooking something of greater importance to different stakeholders or something else.

Of course, you learn a lot as you progress in life, but you’ll learn a lot more if you make it a concerted effort. Moreover, there are an infinite number of ways to acquire the knowledge needed for your own liberal arts analyses. This doesn’t mean you need to know everything, but the more you know of the liberal arts, the better.

In 2020, conduct a stock-take of your learning. How do you find out new information? Is what you know up-to-date? Are you checking your facts are still relevant and how are you keeping on top of changes? If there are noticeable gaps, take the initiative to fill them. Don't just find new knowledge; find a new way of acquiring it.

*Adapted from a forthcoming book The Power of Liberal Arts Management and syndicated.