Should businesses be hiring anthropologists instead of MBAs?

February 17, 2017 | Subodh Deshpande

The language of business can be combative; launch, target, strategize, or very often it is about profits, sales, share value, the language of money. We are either warriors or accountants when it comes to business. However, both these activities of warring and counting money are inherently non-productive. In themselves, as actions, they are incapable of producing growth.

Where does growth in business come from? The answer, no surprise, is that it results from people. People’s hidden desires and dilemmas create opportunity for products and services.The rise of AirBnB and Tesla cannot be explained by business logic. They are not logical extensions of the hotel and automobile industry. Nobody imagined that home-stay would one day challenge the luxurious hotel industry or that alternative energy would have such mass popularity.

However, the notion that does explain the rise of Tesla and AirBnB is ‘Human Sense’.

Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens argues that the Sapiens thrived because they could relate to each other and the environment exceptionally well when compared to the Neanderthals. They did this by constructing a fictional reality beyond the objective reality. The first ever fictional object of a half-lion, half-man was made by the Sapiens.

Anthropology or MBA

Our success as a race has everything to do with our human sense to use imagination and bond  together around ‘fictions’. These are meaning systems that we all agree upon. Ideas like nationhood and money are especially potent fictions that all of us collectively buy into. We all agree that bigger, solid bikes mean stronger masculinity and larger diamonds mean deeper love.

Our support for Elon Musk comes from our belief in the fiction of ‘The Super Race’. After guns, germs and steel it is time for us to master renewable energy if we are to survive and thrive as a race. The people who support Tesla want to be the vanguards of this movement!

Our love for AirBnB comes from our belief in the fiction of ‘Universal Brotherhood’. Irrespective of our roots we desire to soulfully unite with the local culture wherever we go, yearning for universal identity. This becomes possible only if we avoid staying in stuffy hotels and seek to belong in the homes of ‘real’ people.

If Einstein told us that ‘imagination is greater than knowledge’, then the Sapiens tell us that ‘fiction is greater than facts’. Fictions are what make us thrive and unlock people centered growth.

To unlock people centered growth we all need to embrace the capacity to see, be, do with human sense. We call these the 3 “See, Be, Do” principles of human sense.

1. Seeing with human sense is when we see business challenges through the lens of people, culture, and identity.

With the evolving culture of masculinity AXE could no longer be a ‘babe-magnet’. That fiction, that narrative built upon biological superiority was no longer societally relevant. In respecting the equality of genders AXE had to re-frame its narrative to ‘helps find your magic’.

2. Being with human sense is when we as an organization decide to embody the fiction that we serve to our customers. We become an empathic organization. We dress up and behave as per our brand narrative on an everyday basis and not limit it to commercials.

Harley Davidson offers a great example of an empathic organization. The marketing executives dress up like riders and often go camping with them. The Harley office walls are plastered with pictures and stories of riders. The parking lot only has space for bikes and the cars have to sheepishly find their spot behind the office. The Harley office is thus a living manifestation of  the Harley fiction, ‘Born to be wild’.

Harley Davidson

3. Doing with human sense is when business begins to act out the fiction they believe in and invites participation from people in the real world. They invite people to join in and enrich their brand narrative.

Coke is a great example of this. As an icon of happiness committed to ending divisiveness, it routinely helped people to forget their differences.

In conclusion, the sensibility that business needs to cultivate most is human sense making. Instead of hiring B-school students, businesses need to embrace the liberal arts, anthropology, social sciences, cinema and literature. Human sense making should not to be ignored as the soft stuff, the touchy-feely bit, but the powerful seed out of which new worlds spring forth. It is the stuff of growth.

We need to apply human sense to business in a world that applies too much business sense to humans. Putting human sense first, makes business sense.


Posted By Subodh Deshpande

Subodh was fascinated by creative ideas, theatre and cinema. This obsession with creativity led him to a career in advertising in Mumbai, India. He moved into a role that focused on culture based brand planning. He was driven by a desire to create ideas that shape ‘meaning’ for brands on a strong cultural foundation. During his advertising career, he worked in Mumbai and Singapore on iconic brands from The Coca-Cola Company, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever. He is currently based in Singapore, and now exploring how human empathy can make companies and brands relevant and powerful. His work focuses on strategic brand development & innovation projects with global and Asian companies. His recent projects with leading global brands have focussed on building capability in human insights, brand positioning and creative excellence capabilities.

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