In 2005, Daniel Pink made the bold statement that we are shifting "from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age." To prepare business leaders to meet the demands of this shift, he asserted that an MFA is the new MBA.
"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys."
Ten years later, design and creativity are buzz words in management dialogues and increasingly making inroads in today's business school curricula. My role for the last 6 years at the Fox School of Business has been predicated on the value of design thinking to enhance management education and practice by introducing design-based research and unstructured problem solving. The challenge I and others in similar roles face is in providing evidence that design in management is essential and more than a novelty.
Last month, I coordinated the 3rd annual Temple Analytics Challenge, a student competition to analyze data and visually communicate insights to solve problems for sponsoring organizations (for 2015 they were Merck, QVC and Pennsylvania Ballet). Open to students across all schools and disciplines, the art students dominated the competition for a second year in a row, winning First Place, Third Place and 2 Honorable Mentions. Even more surprising, the same student, Cassandra Reffner, won first place both years. This year alone, she beat out 394 other entries to take the coveted top spot. Reflecting on her success and the success of her peers from Tyler School of Art, it raises the question again - Is an MFA the new MBA? Could this provide the evidence that design skills are essential for successful management?
At first glance, one could dismiss the art students' success as the ability to produce eye candy to seduce the judges. However, the evaluation criteria emphasize the ability to use and understand the data to gain insights to aid in decision making over simply representation. The evaluation criteria are:
- Clarity (how well the graphic stands on its own without additional explanation)
- Novelty/creativity (originality of thought; surprising way of approaching the data)
- Provides meaningful insight into the data
- Integration of multiple data sets to yield new insights
- Utility of the visualization in aiding decision making
Maybe the answer is found in Daniel Pink's argument? Maybe the winners are the "creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers" he describes?
In his book A Whole New Mind, he describes six essential aptitudes for professional success: Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning.
- Design - "Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging."
- Story - "The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative."
- Symphony - "What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis—seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole."
- Empathy - "What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick ... "
- Play - "In the Conceptual Age, in work and in life, we all need to play."
- Meaning - "We live in a world of breathtaking material plenty. That has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment."
Not surprisingly, the winning entries displayed mastery of all six of the above. That they were well designed was expected. However, their real strength was in their ability to weave the data into a compelling story, make unexpected connections to yield important insights, and empathize with key stakeholders (including the subject organizations) to understand their intellectual and emotional drivers. Stories provided the necessary infrastructure to link multiple data analyses and additional external research together to break down the problems and build towards a recommended solution. Furthermore, each of the winning entries displayed experimentation (a willingness to play with the data), playfulness visually and intellectually, and whimsy to engage the viewers. Lastly, all found meaning in the data and ways to connect their findings into evidence-based solutions.
Using Ms. Reffner's winning entry as an example, the presence of Pink's 6 aptitudes become readily apparent. She approached the challenge presented by Pennsylvania Ballet (to determine how to best reach the right audience to grow ticket sales and increase charitable giving) by playfully adopting ballet references and imagery. She strategically organized her story into 4 parts, labeled as First, Second, Third and Fourth Positions, and used this as a narrative structure to sequence her analyses to progress toward her recommendations. This was smart. It positioned her analyses in the Ballet's world (through language and visually), making the numbers and final recommendations less foreign. It also enabled her to look at the problem and the data from multiple perspectives yet maintain a coherent thread of logic. Beginning with an analysis of their ticket sales, she could then easily move onto analyses of growing trends in the arts and the web and a competitive analysis of PAB's online performance compared to other ballet companies to finally yield recommendations to invest in their online presence. Numbers drove her story and connecting the results of her analysis to situationally relevant secondary research supported her findings.
Why is this important?
Data Analytics is a growing field and its importance is only increasing. As more companies rely on data to drive decision-making, the ability to use data to derive insights and make smarter strategic decisions is now a fundamental business skill. The problems solved by students in the Temple Analytics Challenge were real problems provided by real organizations. Each typifies the challenges facing organizations today.
The strategic decisions needed to solve these types of challenges and drive future growth need a more holistic view and use of both sides of the brain. As Pink notes, "Today, the defining skills of the previous era—the “left brain” capabilities that powered the Information Age [sequential, logical, and analytical] —are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the “right-brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders."
Each of the Challenge problems required the ability to:
- understand the problem from multiple points of view
- determine what information is relevant to the problem (both obvious and surprising)
- synthesize multiple sources of information to derive insights
- contextualize the specific problem and solution within a broader system
- find and convey meaning in ordinary and unexpected relationships
The success of the art students in this competition demonstrated that the "best and brightest" will need to to do more than crunch numbers. (Many of these students had to take an introductory workshop in Excel - just to learn how to work with data.) Instead, what is more important is that they are very well prepared as "creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers". These are the skills necessary to succeed in a data-driven business world. As business moves more in this direction an MFA may be the new MBA.