Educating for the Digital Transformation: Four Common Mistakes

Digital is everywhere. As Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, a Web pioneer and now star investor in the Silicon Valley, wrote: “Software is eating the world.” There is no industry today that is not impacted by the digital revolution. How to prepare our executives, current and future, for this revolution? The question is not new but it seems that many mistakes are made in the approaches, including by those who design training programs on the issue. Let’s review four of these mistakes.
First mistake: because the revolution is digital, executives must be trained with digital tools. The mistake is to confuse the media and the content. It is imperative to distinguish the digital revolution and its impact on the classroom. Regarding the latter, our thinking is still in its infancy. We still know very little how to digitize a pedagogy but one thing is certain, it is unlikely that education will be completely digital because it is absolutely necessary to keep in touch with the physical world.
Thus, the first course of the IDEA program, which educates innovators by Design Thinking, of which I was responsible until last January, was a course of drawing by hand, with pencil, eraser, and paper. It generated a lot of sarcasm. “How come you are not digital?” were we asked. In fact, it was a pedagogical choice. Why draw by hand? Because in an increasingly digital world, contact with physical reality is lost, the notions of distance, size and relation to reality become more difficult. Those whom we call the “iPad generation” think that if something is too small, they can just zoom in, but life is different of course! So be it for the sarcasm and we kept the drawing course, thus enabling students to properly assimilate the notion of form and acquire a sensitivity to the physical reality that will serve them throughout their lives. Note that in the same vein, the U.S. Navy recently began to train its officers with maps and a compass again.

Second mistake: because the revolution is digital, it is necessary to teach about digital. But new generations are digital native. They master perfectly all platforms imaginable and thanks to them, I regularly discover a new site or a new amazing app. How can anyone think that a 45 year old academic struggling with Word is going to teach anything about digital to 22 year old kids who are immersed in it all day? Furthermore, things are going so fast that no teaching can be solidly built.
This comfort with digital is of course not as good among older executives, let alone business leaders. That is why it is on the contrary absolutely necessary to begin a training on digital transformation with a discovery of digital tools, and this discovery can only be done through practice. And yet it is often the opposite that I hear! Very often, I am told by program designers that as the “Digital” program is for managers, so “we will not bother them with the technology,” or “it’s not a matter of technology” but strategy. And presto, we take a good dose of abstract and disembodied strategy, where technology is lacking. Yet, without a basic culture on the tools of digital, we cannot build strong strategic reasoning. So as we see, the approach must be very different for different target audiences.

Third mistake: The whole world is going digital. This is the usual drift of scientism applied to the digital or the “NSA syndrome,” named after the American intelligence agency that spies on all communications hoping to anticipate terrorist attacks. This scientism does not spare management. Thus, a recent Financial Times article explained, very stupidly, that future managers will primarily be data scientists. But many of the most important economic and social phenomena are not reducible to a set of numbers or a sequence of bytes on a hard drive and a Twitter feed. Some things become very visible over the Internet, but this high visibility distorts one’s perception of reality, and it’s not because something is not visible it does not exist. All information of the world is not quantified and digitized, far from it, and we can not understand the world by remaining fixed on a screen and searching with Google. In other words, not all that is quantifiable and digitized is relevant, and all that is relevant is not quantifiable or digitized, and we cannot understand the world with a remote control. It is therefore necessary to be able to distinguish what is digitized and what is not, and to appreciate the limits of a quantified and digital vision of the world. And more generally, nothing can replace a site visit and physical contact to understand a country, a culture, or a business market.

Fourth mistake: Believing digital invented everything. The apparent novelty of digital often hides ancient practices. Welcoming a visitor in his house by renting him a room or a bed was common practice in the Middle Ages, especially during fairs that draw so many visitors that the intake capacity of inns were soon exceeded. AirBnB therefore did not invent anything, but simply made this activity possible and easy all over the world, which is not nothing of course. Digital, here, is not inventing anything, but it makes an existing practice possible on a scale never seen. It is the same for all services in the so-called “collaborative economy” which are often only a rehash of ancient practices (car sharing used to be called hitchhiking). Does it matter to know that? What interest to know this? Well the interest is immense. First, a historical vision will revisit past practices and suggest a way to modernize them. It is a source of innovation. Instead of denying the past, one can take advantage of it. Second, without a historic background, we cannot properly analyze the nature of a problem without running the risk of disasters.

How to Educate for a Digital World?
So how to educate our executives for a world that is disrupted by digital?

Most importantly we should make them understand that technology is never developed in a societal vacuum. We can not think of a technological change Aboveground; technology is always the product of a society, which it changes back in return. Witness the current major debates on privacy resulting from new situations created by digital. It should be remembered, to put things in perspective, that the concept of respect for private life is very recent; it was born with the invention of photography in the early twentieth century.

Hence in a disruptive world out, it is the humanities that count. Many organizations are facing the digital disruption as the Romans who were under attack of the barbarians: they are surprised, they do not understand, and they are confused. Understanding the world around us, as well as how its organizations are disrupted, is a prerequisite for an adequate response; this is true in general but it is even more so with digital because digital gives the illusion of being able to overcome a reality that is not reducible to bytes and numbers.

On the illusion of understanding a world only with numbers, see my article in Forbes: Three Reasons Why Big Data Doesn’t Make You Smarter. The article on the formation of the US Navy again making use map and compass: US Navy renews training in celestial navigation GPS hack over fears. The article in the FT: Remodelling MBAs for the digital era.

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