Outside Higher Education: Business and English by David Docherty, CEO National Centre for Universities and Business

Posted by boo11 at Mar 18, 2019 09:00 AM |
Rough Notes on the Humanities and Business


How did I get from a Ph.D on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricœur and Max Weber to scheduling BBC One on a Saturday night or running tech businesses? I spent roughly ten years as a researcher and writer, ten at the BBC, ten running businesses, and in the last part of my career I hope to loop back to thinking about words and things, or words that do things in a project called Knowing and Doing: The Once and Future University.

My grounding in semiotics, semiology, hermeneutics, continental sociology, and Marxism were incredibly valuable in my business career. The humanities and social sciences helped build skills of understanding people and texts, unmasking taken-for-granted processes and assumptions, building persuasive, internally-coherent arguments, and, let’s not forget, writing. And the stuff I learned is going to become ever more relevant in a fourth industrial revolution that will merge the physical, digital and biological worlds.

Lots of businesses already value working with English scholars and hiring humanities students.  For example, Liv Garfield, CEO of Severn Trent, read German and French at Cambridge, and Emma Walmsley, CEO of GSK, has a degree in classics and modern languages from Oxford. Furthermore, a third of Fortune 500 companies have liberal arts degrees.

Going forward, this business need may even intensify. Mark Cuban, the billionaire tech investor, said that the future belongs to liberal arts graduates rather than programmers or engineers because when the data and options are being spat out, you need to make a judgement on them, and you need a different perspective to have a different view of the data.

Steve Jobs famously said: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

There is absolutely nothing new in this. The first higher degrees were awarded at Bologna, which offered specialisms in Roman law, medicine (and associated astrology). But all students had done the preparatory work of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, followed by the more advanced quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Magic can happen when the humanities meets science and technology. About nine years ago, I wrote a report called The Fuse about the explosive potential of the fusing of the creative, digital and technology sectors (a kind of business equivalent of a hermeneutic spiral.) I worked with the AHRC to see if we could really get under the skin of it, and we choose to explore the tech sector in Brighton.  The subsequent programme of work was the Brighton Fuse, and we proved without a shadow of doubt that tech companies driven by humanities and design graduates grew firms faster than others with a pure science background. http://www.brightonfuse.com/

Of course, we need engineers and technologists, but the fourth industrial revolution which will challenge all our assumptions of what a sector looks like, what skills and talents will be required for success, and what sustainable growth is. The engineers know this. The last time there was a global revision of the engineering curriculum was way back in the 1950s, but across the educational sector, and in business, there are calls for a new kind of engineering degree – one that emphasises team building, interdisciplinarity, problem solving, design, communication skills, and ethical decision making. Some people call it liberal engineering. I might call it humanist engineering.

The humanities have little to fear from engaging with business. It might even result in shared horizons.



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