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The secret sauce for smart managers

Can studying history, anthropology and political science make you a better management student and, then, a better manager?

As a strategy manager at multinational company Microsoft, 27-year-old Utkarsh Amitabh is glad he spent time studying liberal arts. Amitabh graduated as a mechanical engineer from the Delhi College of Engineering in 2009. In 2011-12, he studied subjects like anthropology, sociology, leadership and history as part of a fellowship programme at the newly set up Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana. “That was a defining year for me as it taught me about myself and the interconnectedness of different strands of knowledge," he says.

While doing his master’s in business administration (MBA) as part of the Insead-Wharton programme in France and the US in 2013-14, Amitabh found himself at an advantage. “I had knowledge of marketing, organizational behaviour and macro-economics, (which) many who came from pure engineering backgrounds did not have," says Amitabh, who now divides his time between Seattle (US), New Delhi and Hyderabad.

Utkarsh Amitabh says liberal arts taught him about the way the world works. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Utkarsh Amitabh says liberal arts taught him about the way the world works. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Multiple perspectives

“A liberal arts education prepares you for life in a somewhat different way," agrees Indivar Kamtekar, associate professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “It allows you to exercise your judgement. You can read different texts and interpretations and decide which you think is right, and why. If you are studying Einstein, on the other hand, your opinions count for nothing." Kamtekar, who earlier taught Indian economic and political history at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, says such abilities could be useful for managers who sometimes have to make decisions in the absence of complete information.

The ability to think, to communicate better, to compare and analyse—all these skills are particularly important in the 21st century, says Ashish Dhawan, co-founder of the Ashoka University. “The cycle of reading, writing and reasoning, asking the right questions, is really what builds your ability to think critically and independently," says Dhawan.

“Management is both an art as well as a science," says Narayanan Ramaswamy, national lead for education advisory services at consulting firm KPMG. “But in India it has been the science aspect of management, with mathematical structures and equations, that has been propagated. A good dose of liberal arts is the big missing piece," he adds.

“Don’t close your mind to (different) subjects," says “Tiger" N.V. Tyagarajan, chief executive officer of Genpact, a multinational business process outsourcing and information technology services company. The Asian models of education have traditionally focused on the hard sciences, excluding disciplines like the liberal arts. “While focus on science is a positive thing, it can get very one-dimensional. There needs to be a curriculum that exposes students to multiple perspectives, else people approach every situation as if there is one right answer. In many situations there are five right answers, and not all of them are perfect," he says.

“For example, many people believe studying history is a waste of time. But it isn’t. History allows you to understand how great leaders have driven change. The idea is to have the best of both worlds by following a curriculum that exposes one to multiple streams of thinking."

Adding to the knowledge base

Tara Antony believes political science gave her insights into why and how people make decisions. Harsha Vadlamani
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Tara Antony believes political science gave her insights into why and how people make decisions. Harsha Vadlamani

Another benefit of studying political science, she adds, is that it gave her insights into why and how people make decisions. “Today, as I study consumer behaviour as part of the marketing curriculum at ISB, I find myself in a position to understand it better. Studying people’s motivations and their political behaviour has helped me understand them better as consumers as well," says Antony.

Management institutions are now trying actively to enrol students who can provide different perspectives. “We have to give value to people with diverse backgrounds," says Ashish Nanda, director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A). Nanda says an admissions review committee has been constituted to analyse and perhaps modify the selection process to admit a more diverse mix of students. “We want to work on the selection process, make sure it has meritocracy, and not just take people based on how good they are in advanced math," says Nanda. The system so far has been skewed too heavily in favour of an aptitude for quantitative abilities, he adds.

Subjects like anthropology, sociology and literature are not so removed from high finance, marketing or organizational behaviour as they might seem. “Organizational Behaviour 1 and 2 (courses that are part of an MBA curriculum) actually derive from sociology," says Amitabh.

Anthropologist Karen Ho’s study of Wall Street, for instance, he says, was an eye-opener. “Ho analyses the character and the behaviour of investment bankers at Wall Street, even how they socialize after work, in terms of the ethnography of a tribe. It isn’t very different (from the behaviour patterns of a tribe)!"

“Middle-class parents push their children to pursue a specialized education like engineering, medicine, accountancy. But there are many jobs—in sales, in general management, in the services industry—which don’t require narrow vertical skills," says Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder of employment portal Most jobs, he says, require broader experience. “Even the more specialized jobs," he says, “often require additional skills. For example, a computer programmer will be required to interact with customers as he moves up the organization; he will need communication skills and the ability to scan the environment. I would like to bust the myth that liberal arts graduates don’t get jobs.

“Good students will find good jobs. The best organizations in the world just want bright people, they don’t want preprogrammed number geeks who have spreadsheets in their heads," he adds.

“To be a successful investor, you need to know some math and some economics. But you also need to have some understanding of psychology," says Dhawan. He gives the example of the legendary investor Warren Buffett. “He is as good a psychologist as he is an economist. He is also a great student of history. He takes his wisdom and puts it into the wonderful nuggets and letters he writes to investors; that’s ability too, it’s his thinking but it is also his writing skill."

Read a lot, is Tyagarajan’s advice to managers and management students. “Reading literature teaches you the language, and exposes you to different people and situations," he says. “After all," he adds, “human beings are social animals, driven not just by data, but by emotions and the biases borne of that."

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