Published on 2016/04/04
TheEvoLLLution | Humanistic Studies and the T-Shaped Professional
Thinking about the liberal arts or professional training as two separate entities rather than finding ways to tie them together limits the development of an innovative and entrepreneurial economy.

There’s one question managers and senior leaders ask all the time: “How do we engineer a workplace where employees use their analytical capabilities to make smart decisions, as opportunities unfold in real time, so organizations can be more agile?”

Often, this requires both flexible, expansive thinking and a collaborative environment. Employees might know what the organization needs to do, but getting the organization to do it is a challenge. These are two different concerns: having smart, analytically-sharp employees, and organizational landscapes that support quick, collaborative decision making. Workers who share more—who get together to collaborate, socialize, even argue and work through differences—tend to trust each other more, and that opens the door to better and more creative cooperation. Ingenuity and inventiveness come from collaboration, not solitary effort. You need workers who can engage in productive arguments. Push overs, yes men, sycophants and conformists won’t help your organization attack challenges. Firms need people who can analyze a problem, formulate a response, defend that response against alternate approaches, and, when confronted with better ideas, acknowledge those ideas and work to construct viable and robust solutions that weave together the best elements of several proposals. Only rigorous and confident thinkers can do this.

I was reminded of this while thinking about a program offered by Bell Telephone in the late 1950s, called the Institute of Humanistic Study for Executives. The program was ambitious—a 10-month-long series of lectures, course work and reading assignments, designed to create employees who were “capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.”[1] Wilfred D. Gillen, the President of Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania at the time, believed his young executives, who were engineers by training, had “neither the background nor the ability to make the sort of broad decisions that modern business demands.”[2] The question: How would they create that skill? The answer: the humanities. Bell decided to send their young executives back to school to study, and the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was launched.

The Institute didn’t last the decade. It was shuttered because, in the end, the company came to believe it created leaders who were concerned about matters beyond the bottom line. In short, it was shut down because it succeeded. The program wasn’t abandoned because it failed. Rather, it was put aside because senior leaders lost confidence in the value of the aims the program was created to accomplish.

Innovative leaders at approached leadership, including me, at the University of Chicago’s Graham School several years ago to discuss a program that, while less far-reaching than the Bell Telephone program, brought University of Chicago instructors into the Careerbuilder’s offices every month to teach seminars on Shakespeare’s Henry V, Plato, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and other readings unlikely for a Friday afternoon at work. Careerbuilder’s CEO believed the firm’s employees would think clearly and more attentively if they were exposed to “great thinkers, thinking at the top of their games.” It also brought employees from all across the firm’s landscape together for a few hours each month, creating contacts and friendships, and building trust that might not have otherwise existed.

Here at the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, we work constantly to join the curriculum of our Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program to applied aims. We have a name for it now that executives at Bell Telephone didn’t have in the 1950s: T-Shaping.[3] As we talk about it in our school, “T-shaped” professionals have broad analytical capabilities and soft skills, shaped by a comprehensive liberal arts education, joined with narrow-band skills in technical or applied fields. Courses drawing from philosophy and literature, art history and architecture, history and the social sciences—including Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Thucydides, Marx and Weber—help remind us that leadership and workplace issues deal with the oldest and most persistent questions we face: What motivates us, how does our work matter, what is the glue that binds us together, and what will the future look like?

One complaint we hear: none of this is practical. But it is. This isn’t coursework that replaces business and technical classes, but enhances and contextualizes these applied courses. We are talking about a curriculum, broad in reach, that uses important authors and valuable texts to create a window into history, and what motivates us, and encourages us to ask deep, penetrating questions.

As an example, let’s consider one valuable lesson we can take away from Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. Burnham was a path-setting architect, famous enough in the 19th Century to be chosen to design the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. Burnham’s Plan of Chicago is a refreshingly ambitious approach to planning. At the core of Burnham’s Plan of Chicago was this truth: We don’t know what the future will bring, and our plans should be audacious and scalable (to use a contemporary business term). Don’t focus only on what is practical or necessary, given one’s narrow assessments of present needs and circumstances. Don’t fix today’s problems. Plans should be more far-reaching, more aspirational.

The problem with the way Chicago developed, Burnham believed, was that it emerged as a collage of uncountable pragmatic decisions or accommodations. There was no plan. How many workplaces are just like this? This approach to development (of a city or an organization) inevitably leads to dysfunctionalities. But the response shouldn’t be to assemble a plan that addresses these dysfunctionalities, this chaos, and these shortcomings. Instead, plans need to look beyond the present and plan for the future. This is what students can learn from Burnham. Too many organizations—guided by leaders and employees who can’t think more expansively—create processes to fix problems, rather than plans to move beyond these problems and into a future that can only be imperfectly viewed from our present vantage point.

To return to the question about agility in making crucial decisions, we often find we are paralyzed because we worry that we don’t know all the variables at play. What are the costs, what will the benefits be if we choose a particular choice, or navigate a change in direction, or make any decision of consequence? We can’t know for certain, of course, but analytically capable employees will be able to model consequences across a broad landscape of possibilities, beyond simple bottom-line criteria. They will be able to think about acceptable risk, and design strategies to mitigate or manage risks.

When these choices are embedded in a workplace landscape characterized by a collaborative architecture, where employees are connected by multiple, overlapping ties, and expectations of trust and reciprocity, managing unintended consequences becomes easier. It’s easy to imagine how T-shaped learning crafts analytically capable employees. But we also believe that workplaces made up of T-shaped employees tend to be more collaborative. Why do we believe that? To state it simply, broadly educated employees have superior soft skills – they understand human psychology, they grasp how ambition, and diverse motivations, and fear of risk and failure shape workplace outcomes, they understand the things that bind us together, and can leverage this to build team cohesion. They are more empathetic, better positioned to understand what makes co-workers anxious, better able to address those anxieties. As Bell executives knew, before they lost their courage, contemporary business needs not only technical know-how, but also a broadened knowledge encompassing “many fields and many phases of human behavior.”[4] We believe joining the humanities and the liberal arts with applied and technical knowledge is the path to this broadened knowledge.

For too long the conversation has been shaped by a question that we think is entirely wrong: Which is more valuable, the liberal arts or professional training? We think the two are strongest when paired.

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[1] Wes Davis, The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone, New York Times, June 15, 2010.

[2] University of Pennsylvania Almanac, vol.1, no. 5, March 1955.

[3] Educational Advisory Board, Creating T-shaped Professionals, COE Forum, July 30, 2014.

[4] University of Pennsylvania Almanac, vol.1, no. 5, March 1955.

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