Grenoble Ecole de Management, the French business school, is offering its students the chance to graduate with joint honours in literature and management. More than that, the school is now making all first years do a course in management epistemology, to teach them how to analyse business issues and develop critical thinking.
"Quelle surprise," you may think. The French education system has always prized the philosophical line of inquiry. Hard-bitten businessmen may scoff – but the move represents a coming sea change in business education, not just in France but across Europe, as schools open up to the humanities subjects in what some say is a reaction to the current financial crisis.
"Our mission is to be a service for companies [and] the companies say that now they need people with general culture and general knowledge," says Jean-François Fiorina, director of the Grande-Ecole section at Grenoble.
"The companies don't want super-technicians. They are going to face complex situations and for that they need students who have the theory to think and propose some solutions for the financial crisis."
This sentiment is reflected across Europe and indicates a drive for more rounded business graduates. Last year Madrid's IE Business School introduced humanities to the core curriculum on the MBA. Students do a two-week "launch" module at the start of their course which includes an introduction to moral philosophy, eastern and western civilisations and modern art. Copenhagen Business School offers a two-year Masters in business, language and culture, as well as an MSc in social science that focuses on the creative business process. It runs a similar programme in partnership with SDA Bocconi, the Italian business school.
Ken Starkey, professor of management and organisational learning at Nottingham university Business School, believes that business schools need to think about how management education has contributed to the philosophy behind the excesses of the last two decades. He has written a paper on the need for change with the French school, Ecole des Mines de Paris.
"With the financial crisis we're seeing that the whole driver around business has been quasi-science," he says. "Clearly it's not a science. We know that the MBA is implicated in the current crisis – and look where it's got us."
Starkey says that business schools need to work towards a curriculum that balances the analytical, the economic and the financial, with a more philosophical understanding of management. "You need the science, but thats got to be balanced by culture, and that's what's been driven out."
He is encouraged by Grenoble's decision to offer literature with management: "I think literature is the vehicle that brings together the complex and provides the deep lessons that you need," he says.
Using literature as a platform for business education is nothing new. Stanford University professor Jim March famously used the literary hero Don Quixote as a model for good business leaders. And Roffey Park, an executive education and research institute in West Sussex, has been teaching Shakespeare to business leaders for years.
Henry V is used to demonstrate inspirational leadership; Julius Caesar is used to illustrate power and politics in the workplace; and The Tempest gives people an idea of how to lead through change. "We've used a number of different plays to illustrate key messages in management and leadership," says Gary Miles, head of open programmes and events at Roffey Park.
"Why these examples work so well is you can make analogies back to the business world. It gives you a sense of purpose and there are some really good examples in Shakespeare – it's full of calls to imagination and visualising the future, and that's really key in management. It gives people the strength to go back and do things differently."
Jochen Runde, the new MBA director at Judge Business School, recently presented a masterclass on how ontology – the branch of philosophy concerning modes of existence – can be applied to business. "We are trying to show how, from a philosophical starting point, one can come up with a different way of looking at technological change," says Runde.
On the Judge MBA this year, for the first time, the philosophy of business and business ethics module will be taught by the chair of the Cambridge University philosophy department - a clear sign that Runde is keen to reach out to the wider university community. "They'll be taught by a very good lecturer coming at the subject from a slightly different angle," he says.
'The best future leaders will be generalists'
Theodore Zeldin, historian, author, and lecturer, has been pressing for a more philosophical approach to business. He has written the syllabus for an "MCA", an introduction to culture and creativity for all MBA graduates.
"What I'm trying to do is rethink what business education should be about and how one can give prospective business people a broader knowledge of human experience than they get from the largely technical work that business schools provide," he says.
Zeldin is founder and president of the Oxford Muse ( www.oxfordmuse.com), a foundation that aims to stimulate "courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life". He is associate fellow of Saïd Business School, emeritus fellow of St Antony's college, Oxford and honorary professor of HEC Paris.
The MCA syllabus which he has developed – and for which he still needs financial support – aims to give people an outlook that is international, that looks at the past, and takes in scientific knowledge. It's about turning them into generalists.
"It is a reaction against the MBA. The MBA is a specialism and it is now accepted as the standard, he says. "But CEOs, when questioned, always say that the best future leaders will be generalists.
"The reaction to the financial crisis should be: how can we mend the system? This is an opportunity to rethink what we want to get out of our financial activities. We've got to create a new generation of business leaders who are generalists and can understand new ways of thinking."