Many will be familiar with the idea of the seven liberal arts and even with their division into a foundational three arts (Trivium or three roads) of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and then the four arts (Quadrivium or four roads) of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. In medieval Europe, they comprised the core subjects of higher learning and provided the preparation for those who would move onto studies in law, medicine and theology (at that time the main “professions”). I have been thinking about what the modern equivalent of the seven liberal arts might look like – what core subjects could be reasonably recommended to anyone seeking to advance as a professional (and regardless of what specialization he or she chooses to pursue).
Somewhat surprisingly, a candidate collection of subjects did emerge and happily (although clearly not by chance) they represent a set of seven professional arts.
Inverting the medieval model, the modern Quadrivium provides the foundation with the following four subjects:
- Communication: Perhaps subsuming grammar, rhetoric and logic, and supplementing them with modern practices, the centrality of communication in any workplace, or any endeavour, is rather obvious. Despite this obviousness, it is remarkable how many educational programs proceed on the assumption that communication will happen, and happen well, of its own accord – with this being a patently absurd assumption.
- Learning: Although something of a cliché nowadays, learning how to learn should be understood to be, along with communication, an essential part of any professional’s education. And learning can be taken in a quite broad sense so that it covers aspects of research, scholarship, and ultimately teaching, which can always be productively understood to be collaborative learning. In a very practical sense, professionals are required, indeed obligated, to master, and continually advance, their specialist domains, and the associated practices, and this alone should explain the central importance of learning as a foundational subject.
- Informatics: While some might find this an odd addition to the “foundational” set, the prominence of information and communication technologies in every organization and endeavour on the planet should help to underscore the importance of informatics. Now informatics is being used here in part because its meaning does not seem to have entirely settled. It can be taken to mean, and it is here understood in this way, the art and science of guiding, designing, evolving and exploiting technology so as to gain maximum leverage upon the knowledge resources of the enterprise and to achieve levels of scale, speed and precision that simply cannot be achieved or sustained otherwise.
- Business: While it is common to confuse the study of business with that of management or administration, it is in fact a distinct domain – one that is focused on creating, growing and exchanging value. And rightly considered, this does not really isolate this domain from the world inhabited by public servants or those working in the non-profit sector. All endeavours, it turns out, deliver something of value and to do so they must seek the support of others. In what we might first think of as a business (envision here a small market stall anywhere in the world) this exchange of value is seen as a good or service being traded for money. In the other sectors of the economy, a similar exchange happens when a proposal for program funding is put forward, or solicitations for donations are made, so that the organization can then deliver something of value to a constituency. Underneath this exchange framework are a wide range of practices, from accounting to, yes, sales, that need to be done and done well.
Success with the Quadrivium would permit candidates to move to the capstone subjects in the modern Trivium:
- Leadership: There remains something of a debate as to whether it is correct, or worthwhile, to talk about leadership and management as if they are two separate things. The reasonable resolution to the debate would seem to be that leadership and management can be usefully understood as separate domains although they must always occur together in the real world. A manager who is not a leader is a frightening prospect, but by a similar token a leader bereft of management skills is completely terrifying. Leadership is about embodying purpose. This bit of “poetic compression” distils a lot of meaning. By embodying purpose, the leader exemplifies and becomes inseparable from it – assuming total responsibility (which it turns out not everyone is in a rush to do). In embodying purpose, leaders collaborate to give a purpose substance (giving it a body) and this means working to ensure it is validated and worthwhile. Finally, in embodying purpose, leaders ensure that the goal is shared amongst the community that must collaborate to see it come to fruition and be sustained and evolved thereafter. Leadership has its domain boundaries that can be fruitfully understood as different from, while inexorably linked to, those of management.
- Management: In some ways, it can be useful to see management as the science that balances the art of leadership. Management is about embodying performance and this means assembling, integrating, orchestrating, monitoring, improving and evolving the systems whereby goals are achieved and value is created. These systems take all manner of forms including financial controls, organizational design, business intelligence, strategic planning, human resource development, legal mechanisms, logistics, marketing, infrastructure, communications, and technology. All of these elements operate under the increasing pressure to deal with, and more frequently to initiate, change. What we once called continuous improvement, and found to be challenging enough, has been morphing before our very eyes into agile evolution, a relentless pressure on all enterprises to adapt as part of a rapidly changing global economy.
- Sustainability: Often associated, erroneously, with environmentalism alone, sustainability should be understood to be more general still. The sustainability of an organization or a community extends in many directions and it ultimately becomes a question of how will the purpose and value of any enterprise be protected and enhanced as time marches on and as everything around it changes. This does have a very concrete connection with how these enterprises interact with the natural world and the discipline of sustainability should encourage us to look carefully at many of the investments currently being extolled as environmentally-friendly. The discipline of sustainability, as an example, would require that we carefully examine the full lifecycle effectiveness of “environmental technologies” - some flashy examples of which perform exceptionally well until the first malfunction, after which they spawn a nightmare of declining performance and unending maintenance (and, it should be added, absolutely dismal environmental defensibility). True sustainability should be resolutely focused on realizing the best overall outcome for all stakeholders, including the environment and our collective stake in it. These sustainable outcomes, it turns out, are a broad system attribute and not something that can be faked, demanded, imagined, or reverted to – no, it is something that must be planned, designed, built and sustained.
The ongoing pursuit of these professional arts would provide an essential foundation for any professional working in any field, where it is expected that those who are proficient in their practice will rise to assume leadership and management roles and thereby become responsible for guiding, positively, the evolution of their communities.
For those who will assume the highest positions of responsibility, there are yet more demands because it is these individuals who we would hope would also possess a broad understanding of the tools, techniques, and technologies that are being used in the modern world, where they came from and where they might lead. Often in medieval depictions of the seven liberal arts, the allegorical figure of Philosophia, the love of knowledge itself, is seen supporting and guiding (and dare I say sustaining) the liberal arts. Although distinctly out of step with the spirit of today, and in more ways than one, there is an element of irreducible truth to this association. Our ability to perform should always be kept within the sphere of what we understand and this reconnects us to sustainability in its broadest, and most important, sense.