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Lucky country perhaps, but not the creative country: Forget the MBA, get a MFA

By Ralph Kerle - posted Thursday, 7 October 2004

Creativity and Business

In today's economy, where most goods and services are commoditised and where the battleground in the marketplace is about differentiation in the hearts and minds of the consumer, US corporations are demanding a new breed of executive: one with an understanding and knowledge of creativity and how the creative process works. Globalisation demands skills in excess of technical or even business systems thinking. It calls for concepts in systems, design, affective response, and human factors: the domain of creative thinking, a field developed over the past seven decades.

The Harvard Business Review’s "Breakthrough Ideas for 2004" February issue presents The Creativity Index, an indicator of a country’s ability to achieve growth through the use of technology, talent, and tolerance. The index reveals Australia did not place even among the top 15 countries in the world. Daniel H Pinks’ accompanying article, entitled "The MFA is the New MBA", offers some important clues as to why Australia doesn't rate as a creative country.

US corporations now see business degrees as second in importance to arts degrees: 61 per cent of McKinsey’s new hires are MFA as opposed to MBA. MBAs in America are seen as secondary degrees that provide excellent number crunchers and financial modelers - but countries such as India can provide those in abundance at $US800 per month.


Two facts:

  • All top-ten business universities in the US include formal courses in studies of applied creativity and innovation. 
  • It is harder to get into the graduate program at the UCLA Department of Art than into Harvard Business School.

Based on research recently completed in Australia, there are only three Business Management Schools offering any form of graduate study in creativity and innovation. Indeed, a professor at one business school was heard to remark, "We take these rich creative young talents and in three or four years have squeezed every bit of creativity out of them..." Off-handed as this sentiment was at the time, it contains more than an element of truth.

Australia has been well served for over 75 years by one of the world's leading scientific research organisations, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). It is a federally funded and internationally respected organisation with a poor track record of commercial success. A retired chairman of the Dupont Center of Excellence at the 2002 American Creativity Association national conference summed it up when he said, "Australian scientists are some of the best in the world, absolutely no doubt. But they couldn't sell water to Arabs in the desert."

Business, Art, and Politics

The prevailing view among Australian business leaders is an old one - that creativity is the domain of the artist.

Robyn Nevin, Artistic Director, the Sydney Theatre Company captured this attitude in her Australia Day Speech 2004 when she reflected on the "unease of Australians towards a softer appreciation of things. Australians have traditionally been uneasy around overt expression of emotion, around sensitive people expressing that sensitivity". Call it Anglo-Saxon reticence, or the need to show only the famous “game face” of business.


US corporations have now realised that those best trained to express their emotions are practicing artists because they provide a rich design resource for product or service differentiation. By contrast, Australian companies’ only real association with the arts has been through sponsorship, not education or appropriation. Sponsorship of the arts in Australia allows “corporates” to network with the art elites and offer clients access to first-night openings or celebrations. But neither arts theory nor the skills and knowledge base is pursued for its relevance to industry.

Conversely, process and content are considered an artist’s-only privilege and domain. Artists see sponsorship of this privilege by the coffers of business as a necessary evil to stoke their wheels of production. Arts content is not available for commercial consideration, nor should it be. It is what it is. The artistic inward journey to discover their own creative processes has been torturous, unsystematic, and highly self-reflective. From an artist's perspective, corporations are heartless, existing only for commercial as opposed to personal fulfilment or emotional “profit.” (See “The Office” BBC series for confirmation.)

Following this inherent cultural bias, rather than use arts as their inspirational models for creativity, corporate leaders exhort their senior managers to embark instead on a quest to succeed and find "new" heights in performance by learning from the peak-performance examples of our great Australian sporting heroes. For the corporate conservative, a sporting champion and his mindset represent the most popular and least threatening metaphor for commercial innovation and creativity. And indeed, relative to its population, Australia is the leading producer of Olympic-medal winners. (The Atlantic, July/August 04.)

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An edited version of this article was first published in The Australian on September 29, 2004.

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About the Author

Ralph Kerle is CEO/Creative Director of Eventures Australia Pty. Ltd (experience design and production) and in that capacity he has worked for such Fortune 500 companies as Caltex, Fosters, Dairy Farmers, Foxtel, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Rolls Royce, Peugeot, Toyota, Telstra, Walt Disney, and Yellow Pages.

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