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Educating Executives for Disruption

By Jeremy Jurgens April 28, 2014

Executives have always needed to keep abreast of what’s on the horizon in their industry, a need becoming more acute as technology prompts ever faster change.

Much has been written about how technology is transforming education. Still, more has been written about how technology is driving disruption in business. Less explored is a question posed by the intersection of those ideas: how can technology help business leaders to educate themselves about potentially disruptive opportunities and threats?

Executives have always needed to keep abreast of what’s on the horizon in their industry, a need becoming more acute as technology prompts ever faster change. Traditionally, industry-specific media and corporate training met this need, focusing by their nature on an industry’s core more than on its periphery. Increasingly, though, disruption comes from the periphery. Business leaders need new mechanisms to keep on top of trends that emerge on the edges of their industries, or that cross over from different sectors altogether.

For example, start with the sharing economy. Specifically, take Airbnb, which was founded in 2008 and is now valued at about $10 billion. Airbnb connects people with rentable property, from spare rooms to second homes, and travellers seeking short-term accommodation. While not an exact substitute for staying in hotels, it certainly competes in the hotel industry’s space. So where might a hotel executive have looked, in 2008, to be alerted to such a potential competitor?

Part of the answer: eBay. By then the auction site had popularized the idea of mutual peer-to-peer ratings of individuals’ trustworthiness as buyers and sellers. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the model could also be applied to rate the trustworthiness of individuals as guests and hosts – and that this element of trust could unlock people’s natural reticence about handing over their house keys to a stranger.

Likewise, the implications of Airbnb’s success should by now be clear to executives in, say, the car hire or tool hire industries. But these are straightforward examples of applying a model directly from one sector to another, while the most interesting and unexpectedly disruptive change often comes from combinations of diverse ideas.

So take a totally different example such as Tesla’s rejection of the outsourcing trend in the automotive sector, instead opting to vertically integrate by producing components in-house. In your own industry, what might happen if you combine the idea of the sharing economy with the idea of vertical integration? Possibly nothing. The point is that this is the kind of question executives need to be thinking about.

How can executives most efficiently structure their thinking about possible intersections of ideas? Encouraging discussion about emerging trends in diverse sectors is one aim of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meetings in Davos, but participation there is limited.

And that’s where the ongoing technological revolution in education comes in.

Most discussions of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, focus on their disruption of the higher education sector by offering students from around the world free access to lectures and course materials. Much less attention has been paid to the implications for lifelong learning, including in the corporate sector, though these are just as profound.

It’s not difficult to see why students might prefer to listen virtually to lectures from the best minds in the field, rather than listening in person to lectures at their local institution. The same dynamic is applicable to corporate training.

Online platforms for education have the potential to revolutionize the idea of continuous learning for executives. The MOOC model is ripe for adaptation to deliver structured courses to business leaders, helping them to think about potentially transformational combinations of ideas at the periphery of their industries.

The Forum Academy, launching this month with a course on the “Global Information Technology Outlook”, is a foray into this space. The World Economic Forum is partnering with edX to use its education delivery platform for expanding access to the kind of conversations that happen at Davos.

With time, there is potential for technology to deliver highly personalized continuous education to individual leaders. In a growing range of fields, machine learning is increasingly able to anticipate users’ needs before the users themselves are aware of them. The same principle could be harnessed to profile an executive’s learning needs and tailor an online course accordingly.

Technological change is intensifying the need for lifelong learning among executives. Fortunately, it also promises to help executives to access the learning they need.

Jeremy Jurgens is Managing Director, Chief Information and Interaction Officer, at the World Economic Forum, where this article appeared.