Hail the Humanities

Lord Karan Bilimoria is founder and chairman of Cobra beer
Page 1 of 1

The importance of a well-rounded education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World | Scott Hartley | Portfolio | 320 Pages | Rs 599

SCOTT HARTLEY HAS spent most of his career in Silicon Valley, leaving aside a year spent leading Google’s teams in Gurgaon and my own birthplace of Hyderabad. In The Fuzzy and The Techie, he shares an important lesson from his work with Google, Facebook and other large firms.

It is a timely book. Change across the industrial world is accelerating as the influence of digital technology spreads from Silicon Valley—where four of the five largest technology businesses on the Fortune 500 list are headquartered—to the global manufacturing, energy, agriculture and transport sectors. We have entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While understanding new technology has become central across every sector, Hartley says the value of ‘Liberal Arts’ education offered by many Ivy League universities has been overlooked. Few have commented on the importance of the ‘well-rounded’ education they may have received in their first year of university prior to specialising in a particular field.

Hartley reminds us that the ‘soft’ skills imparted by ‘Liberal Arts’ have a huge influence in the tech world. The arts and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) complement each other. Communication and collaboration skills, and a grasp of the industry context and the ‘bigger picture’ are vital in these fields. As an alumnus— through executive education of—the Cranfield School of Management, London Business School and Harvard Business School, I have learnt that these skills are an essential component of lifelong learning. Hartley writes, ‘These are not separate or add-on skills, but the imperative components alongside any technological literacy.’

Though recent transformations in society and business have been driven by new technologies, adapting to them will require a wider pool of expertise.

There are other popular books which make this case in different ways, including Geoff Colvin’s Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. Jamie Bartlett covers the topic from another angle in his recent The People vs Tech.

The Fuzzie and the Techie is the most relevant of these to the Indian reader; India sees its technology sector as an area of global competitiveness. Hartley’s book addresses exactly that point: arts and humanities graduates can play a business- critical role in the technology sector.

To demonstrate this, Hartley highlights the number of digital technology sector leaders with a ‘Liberal Arts’ background: Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr and Slack; Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chair of Alibaba; Brian Chesky, co-founder of AirBnb; there are countless others.

Hartley’s book also demands the attention from Indian policymakers, public university leaders and private education providers. India, with regard to its higher education and skills-training sectors, needs to leave behind the ‘developing world’ association altogether; the country needs many more world-class universities. It currently does not have a single institution among the top 100 global universities—which is a matter of increased funding and international collaborations, among other measures.

Increasingly, those looking for the next major disruptive force across the business world—the next Google or Amazon—should look towards India. Indian-origin business leaders already occupy top positions at several of the world’s largest tech businesses. Satya Nadella, for example, the CEO of Microsoft who, like me, attended Hyderabad Public School, and Sundar Pichai, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur who is now CEO of Google.

Hartley’s evidence suggests that even Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai will have worked with large teams of people in whose careers ‘Liberal Arts’ played a significant role.

It is crucial for India to develop its own version of this ‘Liberal Arts’ approach. Hartley hails the timeless poetry of writers from Bengal and Bangalore. India’s technology sector should take its cue from its own literary and artistic heritage, not just from Stanford and Silicon Valley.