The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the Humanities

The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the HumanitiesBusiness problems are in most cases solved using specialised business knowledge. Practical managerial discussions are to the point, directed towards the problem and utilitarian—aimed at solving problems and improving the bottom line. But in that goal-directed behaviour, management often loses purpose.1

The Lucid Manager advises that to become the best possible manager, you should invest time in acquiring ‘useless knowledge’. The type of knowledge that does not directly enhance the bottom line, but enhances the individual.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once beautifully expressed the importance of useless knowledge:2

I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era … All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

To enlarge and sweeten the fruits of management, business people need to embrace so-called useless knowledge. This knowledge is not the type of useless knowledge that hits you in the face when reading the trivialities on Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. The canon of useless knowledge is deeper than that and includes philosophy and its continuous questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities.

There is no such thing as useless knowledge

The term useless knowledge is problematic. There is no such thing as useless knowledge, and a better term would be indirect knowledge, the type of knowledge that creates a holistic person and helps to solve problems through introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, excellent knowledge of the humanities will make you a better manager.

Knowing the basics of philosophy of science helps to understand ‘evidence-based management’. Understanding ethical dilemmas and the solutions proposed by philosophers might prevent managers from making morally wrong decisions. A well-grounded appreciation of the arts beyond economic value helps in making beautiful products.

The best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is Apple computer. In the words of Steve Jobs:

It’s 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 result that makes our heart sing …

Useless knowledge makes you question the certainties of life; it creates a thoughtful and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making.

Lucid managers embrace useless knowledge and study the classics and the humanities. Read some of Plato’s dialogues and learn from Socrates how deviant behaviour leads to innovation.

  1. This post is based on an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw by Jonah Kahn. 

  2. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays (1935). 

The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from Socrates

The social gadflyWhen studying business, there is little time for critical reflection on what has been learnt. Newly minted MBAs are armed with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the BGC Matrix, Porter’s Generic Strategies and other tools to solve business problems. Their acceptance as valid tools is, however, often not based on critical reflection or solid empirical research but on mythical stories of how they were used successfully in the past.1 The study of business and most of writing about business is based on the case method. In this system, students are presented with a business problem and placed in the shoes of the decision maker charged with solving the problem.

In the Critical Perspectives on Management course, Rolf Strom-Olsen advocates an approach that deviates from the standard case methods and draws from the more critical humanities. He sees the life of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as a signpost for a different way to think about business.

Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”

We know about Socrates from the vivid writings of Plato who was one of his followers. His writings form the foundation of European philosophy and in fact profoundly influenced Western civilisation as we know it. Socrates spent his time meeting people in the market place in Athens and questioned their opinions and cherished beliefs. Socrates was like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?” to find the foundations of what we hold to be true. The Athenians themselves compared him with a gadfly, a fly that annoys horses and other livestock. A lifetime annoying people by questioning everything they know is, in the words of Rolf, not a way to Win Friends and Influence People. Socrates thus paid the highest price for his life as a social gadfly—he was convicted of drinking a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

The Socratic path: philosophical deviance

From my experience, it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career suicide. For me, following the Socratic path has helped me to be very successful in solving business problems. Only by daring to ask the hard questions and draw from disciplines outside business we can see perspectives on issues that a case method cannot provide. The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the analytical method from the humanities allows us to draw from entirely different perspectives and analyse problems in creative ways. Business is an applied social science, and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

The Lucid Manager is courageous and not afraid to be a social gadfly. The Lucid Manager stops asking “Why?” (go beyond The Five Whys if needed) and try to view your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates teaches the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success. Following the path of Socrates will help you to develop those cherished innovative solutions.

  1. See my earlier blog post on the classification of business theories

Organisations do not exist—a Buddhist perspective

One of Cyndi's slides

One of Cyndi’s slides.

Yesterday Cyndi Laurin presented at the World Business Capability Conference about The Four Pillars of Organizational Greatness. One analogy presented by Cyndi used stuck in my mind as it took me back to my days as a philosophy student.

Cyndi asked which part of a car is the most essential. The audience mentioned several options, and then it dawned on me that this analogy is much like a famous line of reasoning in Buddhist philosophy about the self, which I will use to show that there is no such thing as an organisation.

the idea of the firm

The Buddhist view of the firm would be that there is no such entity, illustrated by a debate between King Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.1 Following the analogy used by the monk, we can compare a firm with a chariot, or in more modern terms a car. None of the individual parts of the car (the wheels, the engine, the radio and so on), are the car. Nor can you say that the combination of the parts is the car. We can not discover a firm at all, only the word that denotes the idea of the business. A business consists of its parts, just like a car does. None of the parts of the firm, however, are the firm. No part is less important than the other—although followers of the Lean philosophy will disagree on this one.

The Buddhist argument extends to management in that a firm is not about its constitute parts, but a firm is a cycle of cause and effect, or in Buddhist terms, Karma. A firm is not about its CEO, the share price, employees, customers or fancy headquarters. A company, just like a person, is defined by the actions it takes and their results.

Following the Buddhist view to its conclusion, there is only one pillar of organisational greatness: the actions taken by the organisation.

  1. Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959), pp. 147–149. 

Reinventing the wheel?—Repetitiveness in business theory

aha-erlebnis - is business theory about reinventing the wheel?I am presenting my work at the World Business Conference in Auckland. One of the things that struck me listening to fellow presenters is the repetitive nature of the presentations. Not that they are bad presentations, but it seems that research is repeating itself. When a presenter throws up the next slide with profound truths many people think “duh, common sense”, others have an ‘aha-erlebnis‘—a moment of sudden insight, and the rest of the audience does not notice as they gently fall asleep due to Powerpoint overload.

Is business theory busy reinventing the wheel or is something else going on?

Some business theories are based on rigorous research while others are intuitive and akin to pop-psychology. What all business theories have in common is that they aim to influence behaviour. Management is about changing or controlling the conduct of employees; marketing seeks to modify the behaviour of customers and strategy is about the conduct of stakeholders and the competition.

Most business theories are unintentionally based on the idea that people are rational. But contemporary economics and marketing have found that our rationality is limited. Our brains stop us from following the normative theories in business. Being in business is a constant struggle between the rational part of our brains and its natural tendencies. Plato described humans as a chariot pulled in different directions by two horses: reason and the emotions. Going to business conferences and hearing the same stories over and over again might be a way to give the horse of reason more power.

Maybe it is not about reinventing the wheel, but perhaps management theory is about keeping the wheel turning. We need to be constantly reminded of the obvious through variations on the theme.

The harder question is to ask whether we need to keep this wheel turning and maybe we should give some more credence to the non-rational dimension in management.

Learning to Drive a Bus

One day last summer, on my way to work and dressed in my business suit, I boarded the bus to find only two other people on board: a trainee driver and his instructor sitting two rows back from him. As I boarded, I said, “Good morning” to the driver. When I walked past the instructor he said, “It’s going to be easy for you, working in your air conditioned office all day while we’re stuck in this thing for ten-and-a-half hours in this heat.”

Admittedly the weather forecast was for 42°C throughout the day: I did feel some sympathy for their situation and responded, “I hope it won’t be too bad for you today”.

I sat down and thought about how, despite it being the Monday after an excellent weekend, I was going to work feeling that the following week held many possible opportunities and felt quite positive. The instructor’s remarks were, however, as the arrival of dark clouds.

I sat quietly and decided not to allow someone else to choose my mood for me, so I set aside his remarks and mentally prepared for the day ahead. He decided, however, that he wasn’t finished with me yet …

Apropos of nothing, he told me that his philosophy on life was to “Trust no bastard and hate everyone”. I had come across people that had a bleak view of humanity in the past, but few who rivalled the instructor’s point of view. I decided to listen but not challenge him politely—I could tell from his attitude that he was looking for an argument so that I could confirm his beliefs.

“I’m going to be stuck in this glass chamber all day, in this heat and so will he,” he said as he pointed to his student, “but I feel sorry for him: he has to drive all bloody day.”

I wondered if this man’s philosophy on life placed him directly in the middle of his current misery. Feeling little sympathy for him by this point, I was looking forward to arriving at my bus stop. I thought about what negative thoughts and attitudes I held that made me miserable. I would need to be more aware of this in the future but, my stop was approaching.

The Trainer then decided to share another of his views with me, that anyone with “dark skin, slanty eyes or a straw hat had benefits handed out to them by the government and if you’re white ya get nothin’.”

It was then that any sympathy I had for him evaporated and all my sympathy was with the driver. I wished the driver “Good luck” as I stepped off the bus.

As I walked to work, I moved my mind to the coming week and all that I might achieve in my “fancy air-conditioned office”. I felt good and am acutely aware that I have a lot to be thankful for: a wonderful family, a beautiful house, a steady job, and so much more. Today, however, I had one more thing to be thankful for—that I’m not learning how to drive a bus.

Why study an MBA? Nothing is more practical than a good theory

MBA GraduateI have asked myself several times why I should drag myself through an MBA course as management is not the most invigorating line of study I can imagine. Only last year, I have completed my Arts degree, specialising in philosophy and sociology, with a smitten of psychology. As an elective for this degree, I studied one unit of Strategic Management and became very interested in the work of Henry Mintzberg, especially concerning his line of inquiry regarding the usefulness of formal planning systems as a sufficient or necessary means to improve company performance. In a recent book, he argues against the whole idea of an MBA as a prerequisite for senior management1.

Am I wasting my time? Is an academic education useful in managerial practice?

My philosophy studies have strongly influenced my thinking about good management and have moved me from a systems approach to a more human resource focussed perspective. Management is a social science through and through, and I am treating it as such. I have argued previously that:

“an organisation can not rely solely on formal systems to develop corporate strategy. Although empirical research points towards a positive correlation between strategic planning and company performance, these studies suffer from some methodological problems. Because strategic management is not an exact science, strategy formulation requires a great deal of intuition and company performance relies to some extent on serendipity. This does, however, not imply that strategic planning as a formal exercise is futile. Strategic planning is vital for good management of an organisation. Not as a means to plot the course for years ahead, but as a way to be able to anticipate the unpredictability of external influences”.

I think this sums op Mintzberg’s issue with an MBA—no education can teach intuition, creativity, insight and so on. But I hope that it will certainly help in shaping my ability to make better decisions. In the end, nothing is more practical than a good theory.

  1. Henry Mintzberg, Managers, not MBAs, Berret-Koehler, 2004