Managing the liberal arts and sciences

TO BE successful managers need to be lifted out of the realm of expertise in technical

disciplines and into the realm of expertise in metamanagement.

Metamanagement is a higher or second level of management – as metacommunication is a higher or second level of communication.

It transcends technical expertise and basic skill in planning, controlling, organising and directing and involves application of a whole range of relatively intangible and qualitative elements that are easier to recognise and observe in action than to describe and learn.

In his publication The Folklore of Management American industrialist and presidential advisor Clarence B. Randell devoted a chapter to the myth of the specialist and said, “unless the danger is seen in time, galloping specialisation can bring any company to the brink of chaos”. He says the remedy to galloping specialisation is top managers with the breadth of vision only a liberal education can provide.

Thus basic, and in some cases advanced, studies in sociology, anthropology, history, literature, philosophy and even comparative religion would give these people insights and understanding about the second level attributes that are necessary to be a metamanager. For example, study of Iago’s role in Shakespeare’s Othello would give invaluable insights into the effects of naked ambition and organisational intrigue and a knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam would provide an understanding of many of the cultural aspects of Asian society which are necessary to do business successfully in Asian countries.

It is time to build education programs around a core of liberal arts subjects as well as traditional “what it is and how you do it” subjects or to allow student managers the liberty of pursuing some of these management tributaries as electives.

We have tended to separate management from the mainstream of life and set it up as a unique entity with its own jargon, rituals and rites.

Management is more an art than a science but in our efforts to make it more scientific, we have ignored the arts legacy of the world that would give substance to the artistic side of management.

I have no doubt that most readers of this article have known a metamanager. There may not be many around and they may not be easy to describe but we know them when we see them in action. They have what I call an “essential essence” which gives you confidence in what they do, how they do it and where they are going.

What Australian managers and management educators need to do is recognise the fact that such people manifest the attributes of the well rounded, well read and liberally educated (formally or informally) person and insist that management education program contain at least some content of a liberal arts nature.

n Roger Smith is director International Programs, Graduate School of Management, University of WA

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