The fetish for creativity is linked to the rising importance of knowledge management and the need for innovation. By David James
Creativity is often described as a primary aim of contemporary management. Tom Peters, arguably the world’s greatest populist management thinker, argues that managers must attempt to develop “crazy organisations for crazy times”. This means stimulating creativity. “Even our new theories of management steadfastly ignore the issues of creativity and zest. In fact, more than a few of today’s theories actually imply strangling creativity and suppressing zest at a time when they’ve become the prime creators of economic value.”
It was perhaps inevitable that analogies between the creative arts and management would become popular. John Kao, a professor at Harvard Business School argued that management should be like jazz, with leaders setting the overall direction but each individual improvising. This approach was taken to an extreme in 1995 when one “paper” at the American Management Association was a band of jazz musicians improvising.
The fetish for creativity is linked to the rising importance of knowledge management and the need for innovation. The UK Centre for Management Creativity has a strong emphasis on fostering knowledge. The organisation’s motto is: “If you tell me, I will forget; if you show me, I may remember; if you involve me, I will understand.” In other words, to develop commercially useful knowledge, it is necessary to have a co-operative workplace environment. Edward de Bono’s “six thinking hats” technique is likewise a method for using workers’ creativity in improving productivity.
In the UK, a network called Arts & Business has been established to encourage interaction between artists and the commercial sector. Companies such as Birdseye-Walls and Scottish & National breweries are using actors to help in management training. Law firm Clifford Chance brought in a poet to write poems about the workplace and musicians to play lunchtime concerts. In Australia, attempts to bring arts and business together have been faltering, although there have been some attempts by the Global Business Network to use artists in Australia to help with long-term planning. Several artists were involved, including the composer Peter Sculthorpe.
Is creativity good business?
How useful is such an approach to generating creativity? To answer the question, it is worth defining exactly what is meant by creativity. In the business environment, it means: “Finding new ways of doing tasks or developing new products to generate revenue and maintain competitive advantage.” In the artistic environment, it means: “finding new forms of expression that inspire people and remain unique.” The two imperatives may overlap, but they are far from identical.
The primary purpose of creativity in business and the arts also differs sharply. The aim of business is to generate sufficient revenue to remain in business. The aim of the arts is aesthetic: to create beauty.
So, if the two endeavors differ so much, why the sudden interest in the arts and creativity? One reason is that management, which is mainly concerned with creating efficient processes, is threatening to become a prisoner of its own success. As management techniques such as Total Quality Management (TQM), business process re-engineering (BPR), outsourcing and supply-chain management are absorbed and refined, the increased efficiency can easily lead to rigidity and inflexibility. The contradiction is that efficient processes can start to dominate the workforce and limit the development and use of new ideas.
This would not be so much of a problem except that ideas (or knowledge) are becoming vital to competitive advantage. Again, the reason is the increasing sophistication of management. When Japanese car companies were dominating the world market through their superior adoption of TQM, their skill with processes was the competitive edge. But, when US and European car companies caught up, using the same techniques, the battle shifted away from process efficiency to intangibles such as brand strength and knowledge. This pattern has been played out across many industry sectors; management skill is increasingly a pre-requisite for being in business, not a source of competitive advantage.
As corporations wrestle, mostly unsuccessfully, with the demands of knowledge management, it is not surprising that they should turn to those who have the most familiarity with finding new and surprising ways of seeing the world: artists.
Science v Art
Just how valuable this can be is perhaps best explored by looking at another distinction: that between creativity in the arts and creativity in the sciences. Juan Enriquez, director of the life sciences project at Harvard University, puts a higher emphasis on creativity and knowledge formation in the sciences than in the arts. He says that the fate of nations increasingly depends on the implementation of scientific knowledge: “One of the questions I have tried to answer is, Why Latin America has not developed economically? If you look at any encyclopaedia from Latin America, you will see many poets and painters and musicians – artists – but you will not see many people who excelled in the sciences. At a time when knowledge has become the critical element of national economic development, the approach to developing scientific knowledge is critical.”
Enriquez says that more than 95% of US patents come from only 12 countries: “If it is not patented in the US, you are not serious.” The implication is that scientific creativity – an activity that is typically more collective than creativity in the arts – is of far greater commercial significance.
Indeed, creativity in the sciences occurs differently to creativity in the arts. Science is an aggregation of knowledge over centuries (the most remarkable accretion ever), and creativity is defined by the ability to extend existing knowledge, to take what is known and show where it is insufficient. To that extent, it is a dominant and stable tradition.
Creativity in the arts is more violent; it is defined by the ability to depart from what has been done before. This involves a knowledge of tradition (because, without knowing what has happened already it is not possible to take a different course), but it need not be an extension of what has already occurred. Thus, artistic innovations like the dissonant harmonies of the composer Stravinsky, or Pablo Picasso’s radical approach to painting, tend to be shocks. Such shocks rarely occur in science, except when geniuses like Albert Einstein generate dramatic insights. Scientific innovations tend to be more steady and frequent; the effect more one of mild surprise (often innovations have been the themes of speculation decades previously in science fiction writings).
Managers need to take a different approach to scientific and artistic creativity. Artistic creativity can be used to shake up overly rigid processes and examine some of the “people” issues in new and more intelligent ways. Some artistic endeavors, such as music ensembles, can serve as valuable metaphors for organisational design and the creation of volition. Getting input from artists can inspire workers. The disciplines of art can shed light on the disciplines of work. But this will tend to be external to the organisation; a useful insight from outside but not reflective of the essential character of the work.
Scientific or technical creativity, on the other hand, is becoming the most important “asset” of many organisations. In this sense, artistic creativity will tend to be extrinsic to most management and work (unless the operations are themselves artistic), but scientific or technical creativity is intrinsic and becoming critical to the survival of many enterprises.
Consider, for example, the global chemical company Unichema International. The company undertook a knowledge management program designed to use “the creativity of its people.” Formal “what if?” experiments were introduced, a common approach to problem solving. Company activities were divided into four levels of complexity: access to knowledge, adding value to knowledge, modelling knowledge, and knowledge discovery. The intention was to create a managerial process for the accumulation and use of technical knowledge; a version of scientific creativity. Unichema is just one example among many.
Virtually all the larger global companies are attempting to develop management processes that foster scientific or technical creativity, spurred by the fact that their survival will almost certainly depend on the degree to which they are successful.
The art of business?
Creativity is something that managers should approach with scepticism. There is no escaping the fact that most work is routine, and good management involves the creation of efficient repetition: repeated revenue creation, repeated financial discipline, repeated innovation. Creativity, which often involves the unique – the moment of unrepeatable inspiration – does not sit easily with administration. Much of the vagueness of knowledge management is a result of trying to deal with this contradiction: how to create a process of repeatedly generating new forms of knowledge, when by definition those new forms of knowledge are not known and cannot be controlled.
One way to look at the problem is from an “environmental” perspective. The great Australian management theorist, Fred Emery, invented a management approach known as “socio-technical systems”. Emery said: “You are alienated from your product in any modern industry: individuals are not going to feel close to the building of a space shuttle or a crane.”
If this is true, it is another reason why creative pursuits are different from most work, because artists are deeply connected to what they produce.
The challenge for managers, Emery believed, was to prevent workers being alienated from their activity. To achieve this, it was necessary to look at the sociological significance of the activities being undertaken.
In modern society, this increasingly means looking at creativity. Much of the culture of work is defined by the way it is depicted by creative media: film, music, visual arts, drama, literature. To understand how workers see their work, it is useful for managers to familiarise themselves with the creative depiction of work activities. A worker’s wellbeing will, in part, depend on how they see their work in relation to the creative myths generated in popular culture. Computer programmers may, for example, be strongly attracted to a film such as The Matrix. Understanding the appeal of the film may be useful to understanding this kind of staff. The changing imagery of finance dealers – from Wall Street to The Bank – can be instructive to managers wanting to understand how such workers see themselves.
In an economy in which creative fictions are dominant – whether it be film, music or video games – an appreciation of the thinking of staff increasingly depends on the ability to understand the creative influences to which they are subject.
Jeremy Rifkin writes in The Age of Access that cultural production is beginning to eclipse physical production in world commerce and trade: “More and more, cutting-edge commerce in the future will involve the marketing of a vast array of cultural experiences rather than just the traditional industrial-based goods and services … some observers worry that the dot.commers may begin to experience reality as little more than shifting story lines and entertainments.”
This is surely an exaggeration, but it is certain that the boundary between commerce and culture is blurring. Work may still be different from pure artistic endeavor, but managers ignore the creative at their peril.
Michael Tortoni’s introduction to derivatives, futures and options came through the music business.
A former bassist in the 1970s rock band, Taste, Tortoni says music might have helped him grasp the intricacies of buying and selling time when he started work as a stockbroker. Now the managing director of retail broking services at Terrain Securities, he still plays bass and runs Melbourne’s premier jazz club, Bennetts Lane.
“Whether it’s because of my musical training that I understood derivatives better than the other brokers, or whether it was because they were just more interested in buying and selling BHP instead of time, it worked,” Tortoni says.
“Sometimes it takes a fresh approach for you to see other things.”
Tortoni’s experience reflects something about the forces underpinning creativity. Organisational philosophers including Donald Schon and Charles Handy call it “displacement of concepts”, in which ideas are taken from one field of life and applied to another in order to deliver fresh insights.
Handy, for example, has drawn parallels between Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard and change management, between Shakespeare’s King Lear and the dramas of keeping a family business from imploding.
The inventor of the telescope, an obscure Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey, changed the world when two children were playing in his shop in Middleburg about 1600. The story goes that they put two lenses together, one convex and the other concave and looked through them towards a distant weathervane on the town church and discovered it was wonderfully magnified. Pure luck, perhaps; but this combination of lenses would have probably happened in many other spectacle shops. It took an “illiterate mechanick” like Lippershey to realise the significance of what had happened.
But, displacement also means creative destruction and chaos, perhaps even cannibalisation. When Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s world-renowned Media Lab and the author of Being Digital, decided to establish a European base, he said he wanted to create the “seamless, anti-establishment chaotic” approach to research that had characterised the United States lab. He chose Dublin, he said, in part, because of Ireland’s “great respect for madness”.
With canvas hammocks in which researchers can relax, the MLE facility in a converted Guinness warehouse on the river Liffey is not a typical workspace. “Most of the interesting things will not happen at a computer terminal but over a cup of coffee in the rest area,” John Callinan, the Irish Government official who acts as chief operations officer, told the Financial Times last year.
A little madness is a wonderful thing. But innovative companies also need to be level-headed enough to balance the tensions of chaos and creativity. These are the change agents of capitalism; but they can only operate in equilibrium. And, because businesses thrive on certainty, it’s a difficult balance to strike.
Reuben Zylberszpic, a musician and promoter behind such acts as world-renowned classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan, says that there can be common ground in the artistic and commercial mind-sets. “When I’m putting on a show and cutting deals, it’s like any other business where you are cutting costs and trying to get it past break-even,” Zylberszpic says. “We’re selling a product.”
But, being creative in business is different from being creative artistically. In the past, Zylberszpic, a talented trumpeter himself, was prepared to do gigs for less money than the acts his companies Bold Jack Productions and Razz Music were promoting. The only reason it doesn’t happen now, he says, is because he could afford to knock back low-paying gigs.
Artists and business people can both be creative, he says, but they do not necessarily occupy the same space. “Most of the people who get into the business side of rock and roll are not in it for the music. They get into it because they know that musicians don’t have a business bone in their body. They see it as a way of making quick bucks and getting kudos.”
Caroline Ward, whose Melbourne-based consultancy About People runs theatrical productions, role-playing and improvisation workshops to help companies manage change, says many businesses struggle to accommodate artistic creativity. “You can bring in the arts; but, for many, it’s still outcome driven,” she says. “They’re not in it for the pure joy, so it doesn’t quite have the magic.”
A former actor, agent and casting producer, Ward’s clients now include lawyers, accountants, utilities, oil companies and government departments. Her group was also involved in the Westpac-Bank of Melbourne merger. She says that the challenge of creativity was about withstanding the shock of the new. “Mostly it’s fear that is stopping the normal creative process. People don’t want to feel fear, especially if they have a need for security or if they have low self-esteem. But, creativity is about newness; and the whole point of conformity is about being secure. People trade off something when they go into the corporate world and they will conform to the norms if the organisation provides them something for it. It used to be job for life, now it’s about money.”
The key to unleashing that creativity, then, is greater self-awareness.
Tortoni sees links between creativity and business success. He says that successful entrepreneurs who make a difference are no less creative than stand-out musicians: “Changes are being made all the time by people who are making a difference in organisations with their ideas. You can’t grow without creativity.”
Obviously, running a broking house is very different from a jazz club, and Tortoni says he is less hard-nosed about the club: “For a return on investment, you’d get more by leasing it out. But, I’m happy to subsidise jazz, because that’s where my heart lies.”
Still, he knows where to draw the line; which might explain why the club is still going strong after almost 10 years.
“There is a logic connecting the two, because, essentially, business is business.” – Leon Gettler