Lead by Learning in a Digital World

In a future shaped by transformative digital advances, leadership calls for curiosity and the discipline to learn about and through rapid change.

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Date Posted

4 Nov 2021


Issue 23, 29 Oct 2021

It’s a truism that the pandemic has upended many facets of how we live, work, play, interact, learn, innovate, transact, and govern. As we define the new rules of engagement for the post pandemic world, one thing is clear: digital technologies will play a significant part in defining the ‘next normal’. In this article, I focus on how digital is likely to impact learning and leadership, thereby highlighting a new view of 'leading by learning'.

Let me pose three interconnected questions: (1) How can digital influence the future of learning?; (2) How can digital change leadership and what leaders do?; and (3) How will learning change leadership?


Learning—characterised by high-touch, in-person, face-to-face synchronous engagement—has gone mostly untouched by digital technologies for several centuries. The availability of computers and the global deployment of the Internet have since provided some useful tools. But over the last 18 months, in particular, we have witnessed massive, large-scale experiments of different kinds that have tested the role and efficacy of virtual instruction and remote learning with synchronous video meetings and asynchronous study materials.

While the jury is still out on the efficacy of remote learning for kindergarten to high school education—which still rely on personalised coaching—there are encouraging signs that the collegiate and higher levels of education could pivot to a hybrid model of learning that can take advantage of digital technologies. When we finally capture the lessons and experiences from the many different hybrid modes, we will start to develop new principles of learning enabled by digital functionality.

There will be no one universal model of digital learning that suits all settings, but new tools and platforms will allow for richer multimedia engagement that can overcome the Zoom fatigue and sensory stress that plague today’s technologies. Just imagine how we could have managed learning if this pandemic occurred in 2001 or 2011— the state of digital technologies back then could not have allowed us to do a fraction of what we have done so far. Looking ahead to 2030, we can start to see how new technologies—such as augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning combined with powerful computers and personal devices, fast broadband and 5G/6G cellular connectivity, and cloud functionality—could create new modes of learning.

Digital learning innovations are becoming mainstream, with enterprises such as Coursera, Udacity and 2U (with edX) in the US, Yuanfudao in China, Byju's in India, and others introducing compelling value propositions that compete with and complement traditional academic models and institutions. What’s clear is that learning will no longer be confined to the hallowed halls of university campuses with instructions delivered by ‘sages on stages’. Learning will be unbundled, with more options for personalisation than ever before. It will be defined by not only degree certificates from accredited global universities, but also certificates and badges from a broad range of entities such as Amazon, Microsoft, McKinsey, and LinkedIn. Building on Google’s mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, new companies such as Coursera have sprung up with a mission to “provide universal access to world-class learning so that anyone, anywhere has the power to transform their life through learning”.1

The future of learning will be paved by digital foundations enabling personalised options for exploring a multitude of ways to acquire skills and knowledge.

There will be no one universal model of digital learning that suits all settings, but new tools and platforms will allow for richer multimedia engagement that can overcome the sensory stress that plagues today’s technologies.


Even before the current pandemic, digital technologies had started to influence how leaders lead. In my research, I have found that the single biggest challenge faced by companies and institutions is how to transform their organisations to survive and thrive in a post-industrial world. This calls for leaders to recognise the limitations of the processes and practices perfected in the industrial world, and to develop new rules and routines with digital at the core. Digital transformation is not incremental changes to using technology to improve products, processes, and services: it calls for leadership to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty on an unprecedented scale; it calls for leaders to shift resources away from what made them successful in the past and reallocate towards what’s likely to make them successful in the future. Leaders that succeeded during an era of relatively predictable shifts find themselves at a loss dealing with situations where the future is clearly not to be extrapolated from past patterns.

Astute leaders recognise that digital is not just about technical skills such as data sciences or software applications or artificial intelligence and machine learning. They understand that digital transformation is about applying such technologies to redefine their companies and institutions—private and public, profit and non-profit.

I have observed many leaders that have preferred to delegate responsibilities for digitalisation to the different functions—marketing for customer engagement, operations for product design and supply chain, information technology function for designing the end-to-end processes and so on. In nearly all cases, such companies then found themselves at a disadvantage because their deployment of digital technologies became fragmented and uncoordinated.

In this decade, leaders must first and foremost recognise that digital is the lingua franca of business and society. We cannot lead without understanding how digital impacts and influences how individuals behave (as employees, customers, and citizens), how individuals interact, collaborate, and co-create with others (in teams and in society) and how organisations and institutions function to deliver distinct value with utmost efficiency to individuals and society. Digital is pervasive today and will be more so in the future.

Leaders at all levels should develop digital acumen—appreciating how technology is likely to disrupt and create new ways to deliver value that would have been unthinkable and unimaginable one or two decades ago. This also demands that leaders develop a more holistic understanding of the risks and rewards that digital poses—including privacy, security, job displacement through automation and AI, and others—and identify ways to minimise and mitigate potential risks. Embracing digital as tailwind to create and capture opportunities in the future is much better than treating it as headwind and suboptimising to maintain status quo.

Digital transformation is not incremental changes to using technology to improve products, processes, and services: it calls for leaders to shift resources away from what made them successful in the past towards what’s likely to make them successful in the future.


US President John F. Kennedy, in his prepared remarks for the undelivered speech on the day he died, noted that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”.2 Today, digital is the catalyst that drives both learning and leadership. In my interactions with students and executives over the last decade, I have found that young aspiring executives are drawn to be led by those with a passion to learn; to work for those with a profound curiosity to know why (not just facts but the underlying rationale); to be guided by those that are prepared to pose profound questions rather than half-truths and myths that are more readily discredited by data and analytics.

Digital now allows leaders to know deeper than just the facts; it offers opportunities for leaders to run disciplined, data-based experiments rather than rely on pat answers or rules derived by benchmarking imperfect comparisons. Professor Richard Feynman is widely attributed to have said: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned”.3 Adapting his thinking, I have often highlighted and emphasised to the managers that I work with to “judge a leader by the questions that drive them rather than the answers they preach”. The reason is simple—under fast-changing conditions, yesterday’s successful answers may not be the right ones for tomorrow. But more important is that, in not taking the time to frame the right question under transformative conditions (fuelled by digital technologies), leaders are more apt to be following the wrong answers to the wrong questions.

Leaders that are disciplined by learning are not limited by their current knowledge but are drawn to know more—they are profoundly curious and are dissatisfied with the status quo. They become adept at connecting the dots—often across different disciplinary boundaries. They constantly ask—for example: how could XYZ be enhanced by digital technologies? What further developments in digital technologies could make ABC economically viable? What are the second-order consequences of latest developments in artificial intelligence and robotics? Since answers to such questions are typically unknown (but not unknowable), they are prepared to run disciplined experiments to learn deeper and faster than their competitors. Such leaders are more likely to be persuaded by data and analytics than by data-free assertions of charismatic colleagues. Such leaders embrace learning as a routine and are not content to just work with the ‘known knowns’—things we are aware of and understand, but are excited to explore the frontiers of ‘known unknowns’—things we are aware of but don’t understand, and ‘unknown knowns’—things we aren’t aware of, but understand.4 Leaders with a learning mindset continuously seek knowledge about occurrences and impacts of key events so that they can be better prepared.

We are at an interesting inflection point: old models of management and organisations are showing their age, yet new models haven’t been well defined and articulated. Leaders recognise the limitations of relying on an old playbook perfected during the apex of the industrial age, yet the new playbook for the digital age hasn’t yet been written. The only way to lead during this transition phase is through learning. The good news is that learning is not restricted to certain years of one’s life but is now lifelong, provided there is appetite and curiosity. The good news is also that the pandemic has shown the importance of digital tools and platforms to make learning personalised and contextual. The real challenge is to create the right conditions where every human develops the discipline and routines to constantly learn new skills and knowledge to solve the many profound challenges in the world. In this environment, leaders are not defined by status or stature, but by how they inspire others to learn and better themselves.

In not taking the time to frame the right question under transformative conditions (fuelled by digital technologies), leaders are more apt to be following the wrong answers to the wrong questions.


N. Venkat Venkatraman is the David J. McGrath Jr. Professor of Management at Boston University Questrom School of Business and the author of The Digital Matrix: New Rules for Business Transformation through Technology. He is a widely cited author for his research at the intersection of strategy and digital technologies. He has previously taught at MIT Sloan School of Management and London Business School


  1. See https://www.google.com/search/howsearchworks/mission/.
  2. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, “Remarks Prepared for Delivery at the Trade Mart in Dallas, TX, November 22, 1963 [undelivered]”, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/dallas-tx-trade-mart-undelivered-19631122.
  3. Wikiquote, “Talk: Richard Feynman”, accessed September 26, 2021, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Feynman.
  4. For those interested in knowing more about this idea that Donald Rumsfeld popularised during the Gulf War, please refer to https://medium.com/@andreamantovani/known-knowns-known-unknowns-unknown-unknowns-leadership-367f346b0953.

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