Trinity College Dublin - Aristotle's lessons for outsourcing and Zola's tips for corporate networking

Terry Neill is a governor of London Business School and co-chair of the external advisory board of the Trinity Long Room Hub. "Within the arts and humanities," he says, "there's an extraordinary body of knowledge about human beings - how they behave, how they learn, what motivates or de-motivates them, their values, and what you can learn from their history - but most of the time only a tiny fraction of it is applied in business, government and society. It is somehow trapped in the halls of academia. There is an extraordinary challenge - and opportunity - to engage and bring that knowledge and insight to the wider world."

September 9, 2010

One person doing just that is Maurice Biriotti, who was recently appointed adjunct professor of humanities innovation at Trinity College Dublin. Biriotti's new role with the Trinity Long Room Hub will be to forge relationships between the arts, humanities and business, and to find new ideas and innovations for Trinity College. He will also be responsible for identifying and creating new research projects and spin-offs. "The best companies deserve the best thinking," he says.

Biriotti's background is as a lecturer in the humanities, mainly in literature. He left the academy with a determination to harness the wisdom and insights he found in the arts and humanities to help solve contemporary problems. He is chief executive of the agency SHM, which assists companies to answer awkward questions and solve thorny problems during times of crisis and change.

Its work is wide-ranging, from helping companies to transform their finance functions to aiding government organisations to create the right set of values to live by. In recent years, Biriotti has employed philosophers, historians and literary critics in various universities across Europe to help shed light on a variety of business problems.

He says: "The arts and humanities touch on all the biggest things that affect us in life: why we do what we do, what we believe in, what the right and wrong thing to do is. What keeps people who work in business, politics and policymaking up at night has nothing to do with spreadsheets, numbers or technical stuff. We in humanities are sitting on this amazing treasure trove - operas and plays, sonnets and poetry, philosophy and history. It is the humanities' best effort at working through what could be the best way to think about a whole variety of big questions."

Strange as it may sound, Greek philosophy helped Biriotti to advise companies how to manage relationships between several cultures in circumstances where work had been outsourced to companies abroad.

He explains: "Some of Aristotle's insights helped us reconceptualise these relationships. When we examined them through the lens of Aristotle, we found that a lot of outsourcing relationships begin with people being attracted to each other because they're different (quicker at doing a particular function, for example). But the minute the ink is dry on a contract, it seems that the very thing that attracted people to their partner often becomes the thing that repels them.

An obscure novel called Au Bonheur des Dames, by the French writer Émile Zola, was the rather unlikely basis for figuring out what exactly was going on. Zola's novel features a portrayal of the early days of department stores. It illustrates how gossip among staff, far from being a mere distraction from work, is what makes a department store run smoothly.

Biriotti says: "We realised the experts weren't communicating because, given the way their lives and professions were set up, they were devoid of any proper human contact. When we introduced human contact into the intranet - simply by asking people to create chat rooms, and the kind of social networking we would see years later on the likes of Facebook - usage rates, and communication generally, went through the roof."

Meanwhile, Neill believes the arts and humanities contain a rich vein of knowledge that is not merely useful in its applicability to the business world. That applicability, he predicts, may also yet bring a much-needed boost to Ireland's economy.

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