If music be the food of business

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People often talk about the intellectual schism between arts fans and science-lovers, but an equally wide gulch divides the arts from (please excuse a dirty word) business. The maestros of literature, drama, music and painting like little better than to complain about the philistine procedures of the grim moneymen who rule their lives. In the arts, businessmen appear usually only as heartless misers. Great musicians, in particular, have rarely been inspired by them. Beethoven dedicated symphonies to Napoleon, not to the chairman of Gaz de France.

But business likes the arts. Ever since Carnegie suggested that the point of having friends was to influence them, management manuals have turned to the humanities for classic-sounding advice on what they call interpersonal skills. At its worst, this looks merely like a corny use of broad insights in pursuit of narrow aims, but it can be a fertile subject. Salesmanship is a form of showmanship (see under Branson); leadership is akin to kingship (uneasy lies the head, etc); and the tussle between individuality and the daily grind, the chief subject of most fiction, is a pressing matter for both artists and personnel officers. Arthur's knightly round table is a useful metaphor in an industrial world which has traditionally preferred long, hierarchical oblongs in the boardroom.

In an unusual departure, tonight's Money Programme features a concert rehearsal given by the conductor of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, Roger Nierenberg. Executives from British Airways, Barclays, Reuters, Vauxhall, NatWest, SmithKline Beecham, Allied Domecq and others sit among the musicians and take lessons in the subtle art of extracting a harmonious performance from a collection of sometimes competitive and - how to put it? - differently gifted individuals. It's a seminar on leadership and communication. What Nierenberg calls "the music paradigm" is a way of thinking about the best way to get distinct departments to read - as the saying goes - from the same songsheet. He shows how easy it is for leaders to stifle and confuse as well as inspire their employees.

It's a refreshing and melodic initiative (the Brahms helps). Most grand art is about the clash between an idealised imagined world and the grubbier, compromised one we live in. It is quite useful to be reminded that the arts are real too, and that the fiction-versus-the-real-world formula is something of a fiction in itself. And an orchestra is a nice metaphor for company life. The conductor tries to make the sum amount to something more than the parts, just as the chief executive strives to juggle disparate raw materials (some of them human) in a single coherent business plan.

Orchestral life, of course, can be just as oppressive as the most heartless multinational company, and every bit as factional and splenetic. Musicians are great grumblers, and no wonder: they have overbearing conductors to contend with, as well as frightful prima donnas, ambitious first violinists and all those embittered bassoonists and viola players who hardly ever see the limelight. In his "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra", a waggish rumination on which instrument a humble young Christian should aim for, Garrison Keillor satirised the relations between the maestro and the pit as follows: "The first violinists believe that the conductor secretly takes his cue from watching their bows go up and down. This is what they believe in their hearts, that if the conductor died in the middle of a concert, the rest of the orchestra would simply follow the first violins, and that as his little body was carried off stage, no one would notice the difference - except that now they had an unobstructed view of the violin section."

There is clearly plenty of common ground between this envious social structure and the fierce routines of big business. The people playing second fiddle invariably feel that the boss - the overpaid soloist - is a lazy and exploitative egomaniac who utterly fails to appreciate the effort they are putting in; the bosses, meanwhile, feel that their underlings are whingeing mercenaries, completely unable to comprehend the stresses and burdens of leadership. Some things never change. There have been experiments with conductorless orchestras, but they have been brief ones.

It is possible, indeed, that artists have as much to learn from management science as the other way round. A couple of years at business school might do wonders for our poets; a spell in the gilt markets might be just what an actor needs. If Mozart had learnt to stroke his sponsors, if Kafka had kept office hours, if Keats had signed up for the company Bupa scheme - who knows? It would be nice to think that all those executives will go home wondering how to get the wind and the brass working together. But probably, they'll just take away another lesson in how to pull strings.

The Money Programme: BBC2, 5.30pm, tonight