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Should Businesses Be Hiring Anthropologists Instead of MBAs?

Image Credit: Zapier

The language of business can be combative (launch, target, strategize), or very often it is about profits, sales, shared value - the language of money. We are either warriors or accountants when it comes to business. However, both warring and counting money are inherently non-productive. In themselves, as actions, they are incapable of producing growth.

Where does growth in business come from? The answer, no surprise, is that it results from people. People’s hidden desires and dilemmas create opportunity for products and services. The rise of companies such as Airbnb and Tesla cannot be explained by business logic. They are not logical extensions of the hotel and automobile industry. Nobody imagined that home-stay would one day challenge the hotel industry or that alternative energy vehicles and storage would have such mass popularity.

However, the rise of Tesla and Airbnb can be explained by the notion of ‘Human Sense.’

Our success as a race has everything to do with our human sense to use imagination and bond together around ‘fictions’ - meaning systems that we all agree upon. Ideas such as nationhood and money are especially potent fictions that all of us collectively buy into; we have largely come to agree that big, solid bikes mean masculinity and larger diamonds mean deeper love.

Our support for Elon Musk comes from our belief in the fiction of ‘The Super Race.’ After guns, germs and steel it is time for us to master renewable energy if we are to survive and thrive as a race. The people who support Tesla want to be the vanguards of this movement! And our love for Airbnb comes from our belief in the fiction of ‘Universal Brotherhood.’ Irrespective of our roots, many of us desire to soulfully unite with the local culture wherever we go, yearning for universal identity. This becomes possible only if we avoid staying in stuffy hotels and immerse ourselves in the homes of ‘real’ people.

If Einstein told us that ‘imagination is greater than knowledge,’ then the Sapiens tell us that ‘fiction is greater than facts.’ Fictions are what make us thrive and unlock people-centered growth.

And to unlock people-centered growth, we all need to embrace the capacity to see, be and do with human sense. We call these the 3 “See, Be, Do” principles of human sense:

1. Seeing with human sense is when we see business challenges through the lens of people, culture, and identity.

With the evolving culture of masculinity, AXE could no longer be just a ‘babe-magnet.’ That fiction, that narrative built upon biological superiority, was no longer societally relevant. In respecting the equality of genders, AXE had to reframe its narrative to one in which it ‘helps find your magic.’

2. Being with human sense is when we as an organization decide to embody the fiction that we serve to our customers, effectively becoming an empathic organization. We dress up and behave as per our brand narrative on an everyday basis and not limit it to commercials.

Harley Davidson offers a great example of an empathic organization. The marketing executives dress up like riders and often go camping with them. The company’s office walls are plastered with pictures and stories of riders. The parking lot only has space for bikes, so cars have to sheepishly find their spot behind the office. The Harley Davidson office is thus a living manifestation of the brand’s fiction, ‘Born to be wild.’

Image Credit: CJ Schmit
Image Credit: CJ Schmit

3. Doing with human sense is when business begins to act out its own fiction and invites participation from people in the real world, which in turn enriches its brand narrative.

Coca-Cola is a great example of this. As an icon of happiness committed to ending divisiveness, the brand routinely aims to help people to forget their differences.

In short, the sensibility that business needs to cultivate most is ‘human-sense making.’ Instead of always recruiting MBAs, companies should embrace the liberal arts, anthropology, social sciences, cinema and literature experience in their new hires. Human-sense making should not be dismissed as soft, touchy-feely stuff, but the powerful seed out of which new worlds spring forth; it is the stuff of growth. We need to apply human sense to business in a world that applies too much business sense to humans.


Subodh was fascinated by creative ideas, theater and cinema. This obsession with creativity led him to a career in advertising in Mumbai, India. He moved into a role that focused on culture-based brand planning with McCann Erickson India. He was… [Read more about Subodh Deshpande]