Bad Numbers

For those who major in business with the aim of making pots of money, there is little scope to discover one's own talents, develop one's own values or learn about a world wider than school or college.

One of the most interesting statistics I encountered recently was also the most depressing: the most popular subject for undergraduates in the USA is business studies. Twenty two percent of graduates will major in business, compared with a sad eight percent in education, five percent in healthcare and less than four percent in English.

I thought these numbers were depressing enough in themselves, but I’m even more aghast at the response from employees when I discuss them. They don’t find the data distressing at all. They tell me that students major in business studies because they believe it will enable them to make more money. And the tedium of the course doesn’t matter; what counts are the contacts made on the course, which will help later in a career. Business majors, they say, form an aristocracy that everyone wants to join. I don’t find any of this comforting.

What these numbers conjure up for me is a large swathe of the population who believe the most important thing for them to do is learn how to earn money and to build the networks of people who will help them make more money. In that trajectory, there is nothing about discovering your own talents, developing your own values or learning about a world wider than high school. It’s the rare individual who, at the age of eighteen, knows very much about the world or even herself. College, it seems to me, is a time to broaden, not constrict.

So these statistics depress me for two reasons. First, I’m saddened that so many individuals have, apparently, already given up on their hopes and dreams — or that their hopes and dreams are so narrow. Eighteen is not the age at which to be thinking about earning potential. It’s the age at which to be thinking about personal potential and finding out what that is. I am struck that those who argue the cash value of studying business tell me what they want to consume, never what they want to contribute.

Second, I think the numbers augur ill for our workforce. What are the characteristics of the current economy? Profound change, discontinuity, a demand for innovation, and the unceasing challenge of finding and managing creativity. What kind of mind do you need for that world? One that is richly equipped with a wide variety of mental models, different contexts, a sense of history and the analytical ability to analyze diverse, often conflicting information and make new sense of it. I have never seen these talents discussed, explored or developed in a business studies programme anywhere.

Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, is quite explicit about the kind of androgynous, flexible, creative mind that our challenging economy requires. Some people get annoyed with the book because he doesn’t talk about sales or operational infrastructure or margins. I share some of their frustration. But what he does talk about is that competitive advantage comes from the capacity to think well and communicate brilliantly. Sounds more like liberal arts to me than business studies.

Yes, I’m biased. I studied English and philosophy at Cambridge University with brilliant individuals who couldn’t run — and didn’t want to run — a lemonade stand. I spent months studying Hegel which sounds pretty irrelevant to the companies I’ve run subsequently except that Hegel did believe that nothing great in the world is ever accomplished without passion. That wasn’t such a bad starting point for my career — and what was greater still was being taught by people who pushed me very hard to think and question and think again. I couldn’t have built five businesses any other way.

So I’m not surprised that, in graduate exams like the GMAT, it tends to be the pure scientists and the liberal arts students who do better at analytical thinking and communication. What does surprise me is the number of employers who continue to regard pure science or liberal arts degrees as somehow flaky, unrealistic or romantic. Are these the same employers who complain that the single biggest obstacle to pursuing their strategies is that they can’t find the right people?

I’m not convinced there’s a lack of talent; I think there may be a failure to identify it. When I think back to my best employees, they had big, broad minds with the capacity to change, to challenge, to adapt. And one of the things I’m proudest of is seeing them now, years later, having built so imaginatively on the opportunities they found with me. There isn’t a business studies graduate among them.

Maybe that’s my narrow-mindedness. But if you want a company that’s going to grow, you need people that can grow too. If you want people who can stomach risk, then your arts or science major has probably already demonstrated that capacity by his choice of degree. And if you want commercial acumen, are you sure you want the students who have shelled out $120,000 to learn what a year or two working at McDonalds could teach them?

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