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monday morning manager

Management theorists will occasionally debate whether management is an art or a science. And sometimes executives with a university arts background will talk of the value of such training in their management career. But the reality is that recruiters aren't lined up outside poetry, archaeology, history or art classes at universities. They still seek people with a management degree or analytical, scientific training.

The belief is such analytically inclined students have been trained in the scientific inquiry process, which will give them a solid footing in tackling the problems their companies encounter. But Hilary Austen, an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and semi-retired consultant, pushes back at such notions.

It's not that a scientific background is unhelpful. But she believes there is a balancing approach, artistic inquiry, which in many cases will prove just as valuable. Those students in poetry, archaeology, history, and art classes also have an anchor, a valuable investigative process for their work that can help in the executive suite.

"I don't think either method is superior. We need both to flourish," she said in an interview.

In mid-career, she went back to get her PhD and her dissertation involved watching what managers did, a study that did not fit with the scientific, hard numbers approach favoured in much of academe. Her mentor, the late Stanford professor Elliot Eisner, believed, echoing Albert Einstein: "Not everything that can be measured matters; and not everything that matters can be measured." Prof. Eisner wrote a book in 1981, On the Differences between Scientific and Artistic Approaches to Qualitative Research, which delineated the different approaches of both forms of inquiry.

The validity of the scientific approach depends on bias-free methods and conclusions. It records measurable observations. Generalizations come from sound statistical sampling. Artistic inquiry, on the other hand, captures important experiences and their meaning. Generalizations are informed by qualitatively vivid single samples. Their validity depends on their power to shape our conception of the world. Knowing is emotionally neutral for scientific inquiry but rooted in emotion for artistic inquiry.

You may prefer hard facts. But she quotes her mentor: "We can't say something only counts as knowledge if it's algorithmic and neutral."

Many professionals live in a qualitative world. Managers and doctors, for example, can't do a scientific study to determine next actions. They immerse themselves in situations, observe, think, perhaps quickly test ideas, and decide. The lack of a scientific study, she says, doesn't render their inquiry process invalid and their knowledge unimportant.

Indeed, she warns that some analytically inclined executives can become so immersed in data and reports that they become estranged from the companies they run. They have little first-hand experience of what is happening on the front lines, relying instead on reports that filter up to them. Observing what is actually going on would be a good thing.

Managers won't learn the artistic approach in business school, however. "We don't have a class on qualitative thinking in business. I wish we did," she said. But in the recent Rotman Management magazine, she sets out three basic capabilities that might be part of the curriculum for Artistic Inquiry 101:

1. Use yourself as a perceptive tool

Directly engage with employees, customers, and products so that your personal experience helps you to understand their qualities. "In business, this might mean being in close contact with individual customers, rather than relying solely on a pre-existing analysis of demographic categories or market segmentation," she writes. It's vital you be alert to new ways of understanding your marketplace that data alone cannot reveal and be willing to explore hunches that you can't prove with quantitative data.

2. Undergo qualitative experiences

Artistic inquiry, she said, "is not a spectator sport. You have to have something happen to you." Your model might be George Plimpton, who decided to try the major league sports he was reporting on, joining teams and writing about the experiences. You may not want to go as far as Farley Mowat, however, who tried eating mice to understand whether Arctic wolves were surviving on that fare. But he did prove his theory.

3. Express understanding in qualitative forms

Find words and other ways to share what you have learned. In the end, you will still likely use reports, but infuse them with descriptions that make your findings come alive.

She recognizes that it's hard for a CEO to say: "I didn't have any data so I hung around the marketplace and had this notion." They don't want to sound like they're guessing. At the same time, she insists both scientific and artistic thinking matter. The interaction between them creates knowledge.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter