This is my first week at the Rapid Innovation Group and I come to the company from an unlikely background. Having studied English, literature, languages, and medieval studies from undergrad through a PhD, I have often been asked in sneering tones, “What are you going to do with that?” Along with everyone else, I would have myself doubted that I would go on to found an online language-training business and start working for a hi-tech consultancy, but such is life.
With no actual training in business, I have been thinking a lot about “transferable skills” in my first few days at RIG. The concept is not as popular in my home country of America as it is here in the UK, and I’ve known many to dismiss the notion of transferable skills as a wishy-washy theory that has no validity in actual practice. But after less than a week at RIG, I find myself performing tasks that I have spent years training to execute swiftly and cleanly. Thank goodness I’m a medievalist.
First and perhaps most obvious is the skill of research. Knowing what questions to ask can be as important as the desired information itself. Being familiar with both the methodologies and tools of research, as well as frameworks for organizing and structuring information, data, and even thought saves time, energy, and therefore also money. Tracing the manuscript origins of a West Saxon copy of an Old English poem with an Anglian original requires a remarkably similar process to determining the potential marketing direction of a burgeoning startup. I’ve heard reported that Joseph Strayer, a prominent medieval historian who worked for the CIA, claimed that medievalists made excellent operatives because they were accustomed to making informed decisions on the basis of limited evidence. I see his point.
Most striking to me, however, is the importance of language. This includes nuanced ability to craft the English language, the ability to analyse someone else’s language, and the ability to speak other languages. When impressions count and arguments need to be made forcefully and quickly, language must be clear, clean, and to the point in order to have the desired effect. Understanding the subtleties of language allows one to perceive metamessages—whether consciously or unconsciously created—in the language of another party; this skill can be critical for assessing the tone, interest, or desires of a client, customer, or partner.
The importance of knowing other languages also cannot be undervalued. On the research front, knowledge of multiple languages allows one to gauge more quickly and accurately cultural values and sentiments held in other countries. Will this product find a market in Germany? What are South American newspapers reporting about this technology and its impact? These are hard questions to answer without knowing languages. Even more important is the ability to cross over into another’s culture via language; by eliminating this barrier, one eliminates many hurdles on the way to successful business. In my own experience, America is such a diverse country that no matter from where someone actually comes, I think of him or her as “American” so long as he or she speaks fluent American English. The fluency of language eliminates disconnects and makes it easy for me to feel “at home.” The same is true in developing relationships in non-English-speaking countries.
I’ve always held the notion of transferable skills in high regard, but I did not expect to be using so much of my academic training right from the start. From my limited perspective, there are few backgrounds I could see as more useful for business than one involving detailed study of language and literature, and I am thankful for my training as a medievalist. “What will you do with medieval studies?” It seems quite logical to respond, “Start a business, then help develop hi-tech startups, of course!”
Also posted on Rapid Innovation Group’s Blog.