This issue comes up every time the consulting market changes, but is it better to have a technical education or a liberal arts education as the foundation for management consulting?
This somewhat depends on what you mean by the terms "better" and "foundation." However, while both have value in many settings, a liberal arts foundation beats a technical foundation in most cases. Let me explain.
Every job involves three characteristics: knowledge, technique and judgment. Broad technical knowledge
is important to understand the character of a problem and generate a range of solutions. Analytical or implementation techniques
are essential to find and apply approaches to improve a client's situation. These are necessary but not sufficient to provide a complete solution. Judgment
, however, is not a technical skill and something that may be aided, but not replaced, by analytical and decision tools. Without judgment, solutions to problems temd to be based on experience and mechanical in scope. Judgment is the glue that lets us apply knowledge and technique, and judgment comes from broad exposure to the liberal arts.
The liberal arts education develops an ordered intellect and the ability to extend learning beyond just experience, teaches you how to listen and communicate in multiple ways, empowers you to recognize and connect patterns and solve problems, and gives you broad insights into how other people reason and feel. Every one of these capabilities are used in building a consulting practice and serving clients. Judgment requires exposure to a broad range of disciplines, subjects and situations. Having exposure to and practice in critical studies of history, philosophy, mathematics, physics, music, languages, logic, grammar and literature all contribute to your ability to recognize deeper patterns in a client situation and generate more creative solutions. Problem solving becomes synthetic in addition to the analytical approach made possible by a technical education.Tip:
Listen carefully to other consultants and you will begin to see differences between those with primarily a liberal arts and technical backgrounds. It becomes apparent in the precision of language, the breadth of solution space, and the ability to simplify and solve problems quickly. Liberal arts without technical skills, or vice versa, will generate limited solutions. However, even superior technical skills can only take a consultant so far. Without the ability to connect sciences and humanities from a liberal arts education, the consultant's ability to create innovative solutions and provide agile advice is limited. This is a good reason why continuous learning in a range of disciplines is critical to sustained consulting effectiveness. Read William Cronon's article on The Goals of a Liberal Education
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