Leadership in The Age of Computing: Why Data Needs Humanity

Want to learn a new language? Split the check? Meditate? Listen to music on demand? Throw a house party? Rock your baby to sleep? Break a bad habit? Play scrabble with a friend? Share a family calendar? Save an article for later? Count your daily caloric intake? Meet your soulmate?

Well, there’s an app for that.

And for every app that has ever been created, downloaded, and put to use within the Internet of Things, there are quintillions of data points — each attached to you and your user specific behavior. Today, companies are buying, selling, and trading these data points as if they are commodities on the New York Stock Exchange rather than their trusting customers’ information.

Certainly, not all data-driven business we observe is bad business. This communal sharing of data can lessen the smaller pain-points in our daily lives, such as simplifying the arduous process of finding that exact product which fits every single one of your needs. It is important, however, to consider the unintended consequences of allowing data to drive all decision-making. Namely, a lack of privacy and respect for our personal information.

Now, do not make the mistake of believing that there is any such thing as privacy in the matters of personal data. While your health records are stripped of the attached name, social security number, and private addresses, you and your information are given a unique identifier. This allows researchers to return to previous records and connect disparate data points — building and building upon your profile until it is rich enough to reap a profit. According to the popular science magazine, Scientific American, companies in the industries of insurance, pharmaceutical, and banking are currently purchasing your data to make their next sale, up-charge, or possibly, even refuse you service.

There is a visible lack of ethics and policy regarding the ever-growing world of big data in which we reside. For this reason, we as users and consumers must demand that the companies we buy from, governments we are a part of, and societies we live in implement leadership of a new kind — one that is based in the humanities.

Over the past decade, schools around the country have witnessed a sizeable increase of enrollment in their mathematics, economics, business, engineering, and computer science departments. As all balancing acts go, an influx of interest in some studies required that universities redistribute their budgets accordingly; leaving nearly all majors under the liberal arts umbrella to undergo serious budget cuts. The popular belief that these programs do not lead to jobs in emerging industries — subsequently, graduates will produce lesser incomes than their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) counterparts — perpetuates the distorted stereotype of individuals who graduate with “soft” degrees.

In a study of CEOs and entrepreneurs operating tech startups in Silicon Valley, Vivek Wadhwa, fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University found that, “47 percent of the 652 technology and engineering company founders surveyed held terminal degrees in the STEM fields, with 37 percent of those degrees being in either engineering or computer technology and 2 percent in mathematics.” The remainder — that’s 53% of tech founders — graduated with a balanced mix of liberal arts, healthcare and business degrees.

However misled, the societal trend to scoff at those who have pursued studies in the liberal arts continues to be an ongoing issue. In a 2013 national radio interview, North Carolina Governor Pat McCroy (R) made his case for subsidizing state colleges and universities based on the percentage of students able to enter the workforce upon graduation.

“…frankly, if you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job … It’s the tech jobs that we need right now.”

While this thinking may be rationalized in the short term — because: jobs, yay — we run into issues regarding our inability to keep up with technology at its rapidly increasing rate. As innovations in cloud storage, data warehousing, and real-time data analysis are consistently running faster, containing more information, and producing more accurate results, training people for these jobs is ultimately futile.

Now, this isn’t to say that we no longer require the business people, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists of the world. Their work and processes will always be meaningful, as they establish and maintain the world’s infrastructure. However, we cannot allow our leaders to fall victim to the bias of relying solely on numbers and analysis — this will certainly cross ethical boundaries in pursuit of a dollar that cannot be undone.

Many high-profile companies are currently run by individuals with a background in the “softer” studies. These leaders have not only experienced much success, but have also created many jobs during their long and varied careers. A report from Business Insider lists presidential candidate Mitt Romney, PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina as just a few successful individuals who focused their studies in a humanities discipline.

The importance of critical thinking, complex problem solving, and clear communication — all of which are the result of intensive study within the humanities — simply cannot be overlooked. It is this precise skillset that will lead businesses to implement data in ethical and meaningful ways. Specifically, leaders who create interactions that are mutually beneficial for both the consumer and business will find the most success overtime.

If businesses today are looking to have a competitive edge for tomorrow, they must look beyond their prototypical STEM employee and invest in humanity majors. These non-traditional individuals will bring a fresh perspective and dynamic ideas to tech-company teams, helping improve the service and offerings.

So, where can global businesses begin their preliminary search for these leaders and innovative thinkers? Here’s the answer: your very own alma mater’s depreciating and disappearing liberal arts department.

Remembering that talent is not restricted to any division of majors, is the key to finding well-balanced, transparent, and compassionate world leaders.

Written by Jessica Diehl, a graduate student of Business Analytics at the University of Montana.

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