Edited by Bob Dunkerley
As the needs for schools and businesses to increase productivity in the 21st century become more apparent, I have been thinking about the common denominators within this shared quest and how one system can support the other. The obvious common denominators are people. The humanistic qualities that fire the eternal flames, leading individuals towards their interests, passions – their “niche” are paramount for developing effective engagement within schooling as well as business. As Sir Ken Robinson says: "I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our concept of the richness in human capacity."
The path to success used to be simpler. Information was scarce. It was a big deal to own an Encyclopedia Britannica in your home. You went to school and tried to learn as much as you could. If you worked hard, made good grades, and stuffed a lot of information into your brain then you were on your way. The Internet and the global economy have shaken this all up. Now, anyone with access to a computer can go to Google™ and find out any information or fact in a matter of seconds – no degree required. Outsourcing began with manufacturing jobs, now it is rapidly expanding to the service sector. Even traditionally “safe” jobs like law and accounting are being outsourced to reduce costs. If your job can be done cheaper and faster overseas, you are in jeopardy. Today, it is not about having access to information; it is what you do with it that counts.
Anyone in business knows that competition in the marketplace has become brutal. You don’t just compete with local businesses; you also have a whole new array of competitors online seeking to take that customer from you. For the bold, this spells opportunity. For the timid, this becomes tragic. For the business owner and employee alike, there is a critical need to become indispensable to stay in the game. Author Seth Godin in his new book Linchpin, uses the title to describe the need to become irreplaceable. Godin argues that we are all artists, and that to become indispensable, we need to change our paradigm to view our work as our landscape to be artists.
The Artistic Business
In order to evaluate this argument, we first need to reframe our thinking about art and business. Traditionally, we think of artists as being painters, sculptors, and musicians who are supported in their artistic endeavors by the business community. However, these lines are becoming blurred. Businesses are realizing that they need to be creative in order to be successful in today’s economy. Author Dan Pink in his book A Whole New Mind, makes the case that we are in a new age which he calls the Conceptual Age that will be ruled by artistry, empathy, and emotion versus the left brain, linear, analytic skills required for the Information Age. The Harvard Business Review (Feb. 2004) noted that “Businesses are realizing that the only way to differentiate their goods and services in today’s overstocked, materially abundant marketplace is to make their offerings transcendent, physically beautiful and emotionally appealing.” Apple® and its IPod are an obvious example of this trend. Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs is hailed as a visionary business artist.
You can summarize this new paradigm of business by stating that we should view ourselves as artists and our work as our art. Our employer or customers are our audience, and we learn from our competitors as teachers. Does this mean that we need to bring our paintbrush to work? No, it does mean that we should be creative, passionate, and personal about our jobs. Think of when you were last “Wowed” by great service. It was probably by someone who treated their work as their art and over-delivered. Most people give a day’s effort for a day’s pay. Artists over-deliver. They give the gift of themselves each day. Which one do you think makes for a happier employee? What kind of employee would you rather have in your organization?
Businesses of all sizes are getting this. Numerous Fortune 500 companies including American Express, AT&T, IBM, and Coca-Cola are using the arts for training purposes. These companies have realized that art is a catalyst for deeper inquiry into solving business issues. Art based learning includes leadership and team development, strategic planning, values creation, meetings and think tanks, and brand development.
Barriers to the Artistic Work Place
Unfortunately, the process for unlocking our “inner artist” is easier said than done. Remember, we are not training our children to be artists. We are still training them in industrial schools for a prior Industrial Age. We used to need workers who could simply follow the rules and punch the clock. Our school systems are designed to train exactly that type of worker. While some of those jobs remain, they are becoming scarce and are undervalued economically in the marketplace. In addition, our own fears prevent us from being artists. We don’t want to expose ourselves to criticism or negative feedback. We want to conform versus standing out from the crowd. For some reason, our brains seem to be hardwired for survival and mediocrity versus greatness. The journey begins by reframing our mindset and realizing that we are all people who have tremendous talent that we can offer each and every day in big and small ways in our daily work.
The Opportunity for Greatness
As employers, we need to create environments that foster creativity and passion. In order to become indispensable to our customers, our organizations must be comprised of indispensable employees. While this makes us nervous as employers, it is becoming a necessary reality. We need to seek out and cultivate people who are willing to bring their full abilities and energy to work. In this environment, we have the ability to truly build great organizations where people enjoy their work and provide outstanding service to customers. We spend too much of our lives at work for it to be a sterile, unfulfilling place. Work ought to be a place where we give the best of ourselves and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Having worked in education for 34 in West Virginia gives me insight into the naturally creative and passionate nature of my colleagues, students and fellow musicians…. “richness in human capacity”. This insight gives me great hope that if we also unlock this creative potential in our workplaces we will then be leaders, and not followers, in the global worlds of business and education of the new Conceptual Age.