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Humanities and business – three steps towards bridging the gap

I believe you all heard of recent the trouble at Spotify?

It started with vaccine misinformation but brought into bright daylight the platform’s tacit endorsement of racism and unfavorable treatment of content by Black artists, the company’s vague attempt to remedy the situation with money, and their stumbling approach to diversity in general.

It also made glaringly obvious how badly prepared Spotify was to answer the public outrage that followed.

It’s probably not much of a comfort for Spotify to know that they are hardly alone. A global movement for social justice has gradually brought issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the doorstep of the corporate world. Business leaders from podcast platforms to paper mills need to stay tuned to issues of cultural and social identities, representation, and fairness.

No longer is DEI only a question for HR departments, either, but deeply ingrained in company strategy – even by oversight, if not by design.

Spotify’s troubles show the power and complexity of cultural identities and social distinctions in a global world. It is these complexities of identity and social justice, where they come from, and how we talk about them, that are the bread and butter of research in the humanities.

As it happens, the intersecting histories of gender, sexuality, race, and nation was also the subject of my own PhD dissertation, back in the day.

Little by little, knowledge from the humanities research percolates into policy and mainstream public discourse, even the corporate board rooms. It was a sweet moment when – 10 years after being among the first scholars to use the term in Finnish – I found “intersectionality” trending in Twitter with the publication of the Finnish government’s latest gender equality plan.

But ten years is a long time. What I’m interested now is how to facilitate a speedier transfer and translation of that knowledge from academia to other sectors, including the business world.

In the last post I wrote about the Spanning Boundaries training that took place this past winter. For accreditation, the requirements included a practically oriented Personal Application Project – a.k.a. PAP – related to mutual engagement between universities and business.

My PAP was obviously focused on the challenges and opportunities of engagement between humanities and business.

There are problems on both sides of the humanities/business boundary.

Even when companies are in need of knowledge that is at the core of the humanities, it does not easily occur to them to seek for advice from scholars and experts trained in humanities.

Universities are developing services supporting technology transfer, knowledge exchange, and business collaboration, but there remains an overall lack in skills and knowledge regarding tools that would be suitable also for the humanities.

In my PAP I wanted to start developing a better understanding of the humanities-business conundrum and take the first steps towards facilitating the transfer and translation of knowledge created by humanities research to companies.

To take those steps, I needed to hear from different sides about their experiences and needs.

I started with two colleagues who are experts in university-business collaboration and have the rare experience of also working with the humanities.

After initial struggles – academics involved with business engagement on top of their other activities are outstandingly busy! – I found a researcher who has built her non-tenured but still successful academic career on projects where business collaboration plays a significant role.

Through family contacts I connected with a long-standing academic entrepreneur, and through my day job I was lucky to get to talk to a corporate executive vice-president responsible for sustainability and public affairs.

Five interviews are hardly enough to make me an expert, but I do think I gained some important insights. I dare to offer the following three takeaways as the first steps towards bridging the gap between humanities and business:

1. Understand the context of application. From the company perspective, the question is not about humanities. To state their relevance, researchers in the humanities need to transform their critical insights into practical solutions to specific business problems. In doing that, they can also contribute to the formulation of the problems. In the case of cultural identities and social hierarchies, for example, the question could be about navigating the global landscape of increasingly diverse and intersecting identities for the benefit of socially sustainable business strategy and company culture.

2. Find the right counterparts. In science and technology, the business counterparts tend to be people involved in company R&D. Sometimes this may well be true for humanities and social sciences, too, but their relevant counterparts can also be found in public relations and HR – that is to say, in departments that are in charge of developing strategies for corporate social responsibility, company culture, and organizational learning.

3. Recognize the value of your knowledge. Because humanities don’t usually deal with patents or licencing agreements, it is more difficult to recognize when and where knowledge transfer takes place. This can easily mean that the knowledge goes undervalued – even by the scholars themselves. To return to Spotify: they decided to put a hundred million dollars to increase the platform’s diversity, but those millions will go down the drain if they don’t know what they are doing. Experts in the humanities should not be naive about the value of what they have to offer.

Photo by raffaele brivio on Unsplash