Liberal Arts in the Digital Age

April 21, 2015 Chris Barbin


Bates College, my alma mater, recently hosted a forum in San Francisco titled “Liberal Arts in the Digital Age.” I had the privilege of joining Google CFO Patrick Pichette and President Spencer in a discussion that centered on the intersection of Liberal Arts and the tech industry. With the major digital disruption going on in society and academia, it may seem that the future of institutions like Bates are unclear. But the things today’s Liberal Arts colleges teach are desperately needed in the digital world.

Part of Appirio’s mission is to democratize innovation. That means we want to make it easier to build technology solutions with our global crowdsourcing platform. Organizations can use this platform to tap into a global community of 800,000+ designers, developers, and data scientists they may not otherwise be able to access. For companies struggling to innovate, this means gaining the ability to turn ideas into technical solutions. While we are making the design and coding part of technology easier, there will always be a need for people with imagination. Businesses need people with imagination to reimagine the way people work and how they connect to customers. Liberal Arts colleges support creative endeavors and help imagination thrive.

A Liberal Arts education also makes storytelling a priority. People have used stories to convey meaning throughout human history. When Appirio hires a sales rep or a marketer, we look for good storytellers. These are people who understand what our customers are doing, and what our technology experts have accomplished, and can package it into an accessible story. We use stories to help our customers imagine how they can transform the way they work. And in addition to sales and marketing, our consultants need to be able to tell stories too. Our business analysts, for instance, gather technical requirements as “user stories.” Now a user story about a feature on a mobile app may not be Shakespeare, but any great story is a great way to communicate. The better Appirio is at storytelling, the more successful we will be.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson Liberal Arts colleges teach us is what it means to be a good all around human. In a tech-infused society, we run the risk of forgetting that there are real human beings behind the social, mobile, analytics and cloud tools. Today’s workforce needs to be proficient in technology, but they also need to understand people. Social technologies can’t make us all anti-social in the end. The best workers in the digital age are good communicators and great all around humans. They have the ability to synthesize information and express their opinions in a respectful manner. Liberal Arts colleges provide a laboratory for people to grow these essential skills.

The good news for places like Bates College is that there is a steady demand for the type of people they help shape. That said, Liberal Arts colleges, like many aging institutions, need to adapt to survive. Part of this adaption will happen through pressure from the students — people who grew up with technology all around them. The rest will come from the need to make sure they are connected to an increasingly interconnected world. I look forward to seeing Bates adapt, thrive and support innovation in businesses and individuals alike and I feel honored to be a part of their ever-evolving community.

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