A Context for Arts-Based Learning for Business

Arts-based learning for business provides the crucible for creativity, innovation and transformation that helps us thrive in a world of change.

Dramatic changes in markets, technology and global competition have created conditions marked by volatility, uncertainty and complexity. Relying solely on logic, analysis and problem-solving skills is insufficient in today’s rapidly changing environment. Leaders need a new set of skills.

According to the IBM 2010 Global CEO Study, the ability to embody creative leadership is among the most important attributes for capitalizing on complexity. Of the 700 CHROs throughout the world interviewed for the 2010 IBM Global Chief Human Resource Officer Study, 69 percent reported they are not effective in developing future leaders. 78 percent of HR executives said they are not effective in fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Businesses are looking for solutions and arts-based learning can help

Artists and business leaders have many parallels. Both involve having a guiding vision, a potent point of view, formulating an ideal, navigating chaos and the unknown, and finally producing a new creation.

An artful leader must know how to lead people creatively. Since all great art pushes boundaries beyond established norms, it can teach us about leadership, empathy, ambiguity, change, courage, and creativity. It makes sense therefore to learn principles and practices from the world of arts and apply them to business.

As noted in a Schumpeter blog post on “The Art of Management,” (The Economist Feb 17, 2011)

“Business has much to learn from the arts… Studying the arts can help business people communicate more eloquently…Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people…Studying the art world might even hold out the biggest prize of all—helping business become more innovative. Companies are scouring the world for new ideas. In their quest for creativity, they surely have something to learn from the creative industries.”

Art as a role model for business

To understand the process of creative genius, it is valid for business people to look at the model of the artist. The business of the artist is to create, navigate opportunity, explore possibility, and master creative breakthrough. We need to restore art, the creation of opportunity, to business. -Brandweek (1998)

As Carol Hymowitz notes in The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19, 2003

“There are similarities between successful artists and executives in their approaches to their work. Both must be self-confident about making a product that can hold the attention of paying customers. They must be astute in assessing and developing talent, as well as making sure that talent works well together. Executives, however, could learn from artists’ ability to dare to break molds, lead changes in taste, raise funds and be productive while being frugal. Artists also can show how to take criticism but not let it thwart their individuality or stop them from developing their work.”

The worlds of the arts and business are formulating a new relationship, distinct from the traditional models of entertainment or sponsorship. As Miha Pogacnik, a concert violinist and cultural ambassador to Slovenia, argues: “The world of arts must be rescued out of the prison of entertainment and the world of business must be led out of the desert of dullness of meaning!”In this new relationship, art is a role model for business, since all great art pushes boundaries beyond the established norms. Thus, it can teach us about aesthetics, ambiguity, diversity, chaos, change, courage, and complexity.1

In The Heart of Change, John Kotter states: “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings…The heart of change, is in the emotions.”

Tom Peters, argues, “Business isn’t some disembodied bloodless enterprise. Profit is fine — a sign that the customer honors the value of what we do. But “enterprise” (a lovely word) is about heart. About beauty. It’s about art. About people throwing themselves on the line. It’s about passion and the selfless pursuit of an ideal.”2

Arts-based dialogue at BP NYC

Arts-based dialogue at BP NYC

Through art we can make it safe ask the deeper questions that lead to the emotional truth about a situation. Art creates a bonding experience that facilitates collaboration and accelerates the ability get to the heart of a problem. Drawing or painting images illustrates how differently we see things, and helps us appreciate that many points of view contribute to the whole. Images externalize the unconscious and make tacit knowledge visible.

Organizations using the arts in training and development

Arts-based learning has emerged as a viable approach to enhance employee skills in areas such as creativity, innovation, leadership, high performance teamwork, change management and intercultural communication. Art-based learning is used in many Fortune 500 companies to foster creative thinking and strengthen innovation. US medical schools and police departments use arts-based learning to improve observational skills.

Arts-based learning is increasingly being integrated into graduate level management education and executive leadership programs, and a growing body of research is being published in academic journals such as the Journal of Business Strategy and Organizational Aesthetics.

Terry McGraw, chairman and CEO of The McGraw Hill Companies, characterizes creativity as a “business imperative,” and puts his companies’ successful experiences with arts-based learning in a broad strategic context of “surfacing creativity” through engagement with the arts.

Creativity is essential because it is at the heart of innovation, and innovation is a growth driver and, therefore, a business imperative. That is why, for several years, The McGraw-Hill companies has been using arts-based learning as a training tool in several key leadership initiatives “The arts have served as a complementary vehicle to more traditional learning approaches. They have helped to change attitudes by letting employees confront their assumptions in a nontraditional and non-intimidating environment.” The results of using arts-based learning and training have been very positive for The McGraw-Hill Companies. Arts-based training is part of an overall strategy and commitment of the corporation to help ‘surface’ creativity.
– Journal of Business Strategy (Seifter, Buswick, 2005)

Other companies who have used the arts for training purposes such as visioning, communication, customer service, and team development, include: American Express, AT&T, BBC, British Airways, Coca-Cola, Daimler-Chrysler, Dell Computers, Ericsson, Halifax, Hewlett Packard, Honeywell, IBM, Kodak, Lever Faberge, Lockheed Martin, Marks & Spenser, Mattel, Nike, Pfizer, Saatchi & Saatchi, Sears, Shell, Skandia, and the World Bank.

Learning how to think like an artist means learning how to: 

  • Reframe problems in order to generate new perspectives.
  • Observe information to decipher complexity, make meaning and discern emerging futures.
  • Find relationships between unrelated ideas and events.
  • Juxtapose: arrange things in different and interesting ways.
  • Look for ideas from the depths of the unconscious
  • Work at the edge of your potential.
  • Take conceptual risks
  • Work within constraints
  • Use all the senses to surface insights

Art-based learning processes can be used to enhance training, coaching, meeting facilitation and mediation. Arts-based processes are particularly effective in complimenting:

  • Artful Leadership
  • Team development
  • Strategic planning
  • Values creation and meaningful work
  • Appreciative Inquiry and leading change
  • Creativity and innovation skills development
  • Leading Change
  • Inspiring, engaging and motivating employees

Learn more:

Training and Development: Artful Leadership Skills Development for Creativity and Innovation

Orchestrating Collaboration at Work

Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: Using music, improv, storytelling and other arts to improve teamwork,
by Arthur B. VanGundy and Linda Naiman. 

An activity book for trainers, coaches, mediators and facilitators, who want to use the arts to create transformative learning experiences in organizations.


1 Naiman, Linda.  Orchestrating Collaboration at Work (Wiley 2003)

2 Peters, Tom. www.fastcompany.com/44077/tom-peterss-true-confessions

Journal of Business Strategy. Special edition on arts-based learning for business. Oct 2005 Volume: 26 Issue: 5. Republished as Arts-based Learning for Business by Harvey Seifter and Ted Buswick (editors).

Austin, Rob and Lee Devin:.”Why Managing Innovation is Like Theater” HBS Working Knowledge, Sept. 29, 2003

Austin, Rob and Lee Devin. “The Four Qualities of Artful Making” HBS Working Knowledge, Sept. 29, 2003

Darso, Lotte. Artful Creation: Learning-Tales of Arts-in-Business. Samfundslitteratur, Denmark, 2004

Naiman, Linda. “Xerox PARC: Collaboration at the Intersection of Art and Science

VanGundy, Arthur B, and Naiman, Linda Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: Wiley, 2003

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