Humanities, Technology and Business: What to do with a BA

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There exists a popular notion that a Bachelor of Arts degree (or a Liberal Arts degree, depending on which continent you call home) is completely non-essential to the technology industry. In fact, this notion is popular in more than one industry: the notion is often held that Humanities don’t have any reason to be involved in the business at all! But Humanities graduates offer a critical perspective to these spheres; and it’s this perspective – an approach to critical thinking – that could make or break a business.

BAs in Business

One doesn’t have to search far and wide to find that there are many successful people in business and the technology industry who graduated with BAs. To mention just a few, Jack Ma (Alibaba) studied English, Susan Wojcicki (YouTube) studied History and Literature and Brian Chesky (Airbnb) studied Fine Arts (Olejarz 2017). These businesses aren’t flukes; they’re successful for a very specific reason. The people who run them understand their customers and users on a critical level, and exploited unexpected gaps in the market.

It’s not about knowing the right answers, but rather asking the right questions (Olejarz 2017). Because of this, there is a growing trend in the technology industry to attract and hire BA graduates. It seems that critical thinking is an incredibly important part of the success.

Technical knowledge vs. social knowledge

“The technology industry needs individuals who are proficient in their understanding of people in the same way a programmer is proficient in their understanding of Python or C++.”

In very broad terms – because I will not assume all tertiary institutions, qualifications and curricula are exactly the same – studies in technical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) degrees are about learning specific answers and their related questions. For example, a physicist might spend an entire career answering the question “What is the smallest unit of matter?” [Apparently, the answer is a quark (Moskowitz 2012)].

Non-technical studies in Humanities, however, are about learning how to come up with many investigative questions; it’s about being critical of the world around you. It is the study of what the facets of humanity are, was and will be.

Understanding this as a different point of departure in practice, allows one to change perspective. This could lead to breaking barriers in narrow fields in business – barriers that often need to be broken. For example, “Economics tends to ignore three things: culture’s effect on decision making, the usefulness of stories in explaining people’s actions, and ethical considerations. People don’t exist in a vacuum, and treating them as if they do is both reductive and potentially harmful.” (Olejarz 2017).

Understanding people

All of us have certainly encountered a piece of software that, in the description, sounded fantastic, but was unfortunately difficult to use, too complicated or time-consuming. Bringing that piece of software ‘closer’ to the user is exactly what a BA graduate could assist in doing.

The technology industry needs individuals who are proficient in their understanding of people in the same way a programmer is proficient in their understanding of Python or C++. In this way, Humanities graduates can make ‘progress seem pleasant’ (Anders 2015) to the customer or user. What this is, is a symbiotic relationship between seemingly non-adjacent professions (Anders 2015, Slack).

Its proof that having technical knowledge is not the only value someone can bring to a business. Critical thinking, understanding social dynamics, being able to positively relate to people, and following processes is also incredibly valuable.

Conclusion

This idea that those with an undergraduate degree in literature, philosophy or something similar really should have nothing to do with enterprise or innovation is unfounded. Humanities graduates clearly have much more to offer the technology industry and business in general. There is enormous potential in making sure that BA graduates work side-by-side with their technical counterparts, developers and programmers to exploit those previously unseen gaps in the market. And to those undergraduates out there – like yours truly – keep carrying on, there is definitely a need for your perspective once you graduate.

 

References:
Olejarz, J. M. 2017. Liberal Arts in the Digital Age. Harvard Business Review
Anders, G. 2015. That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket. Forbes.
Moskowitz, C. 2012. What is the Smallest Thing in the Universe? Live Science.

Author: Simon Pienaar

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