What business leaders do we need for the next digital age? Digital humanists!

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This article is part of the Forum Network series on the Digitalisation and reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019 in Paris. But it doesn't stop there – wherever you are, become a member of the global Forum Network community to comment below and continue the conversation!


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming 

The world is changing quickly. The fourth industrial revolution – that of artificial intelligence allowing humans (and businesses) to exploit massive data collected both in the digital and physical realms – will impact every aspect of our professional and personal lives. 

This fourth industrial revolution is already bringing large-scale disruption across all sectors, just like robotisation did in the industrial sector and digital transformation in the service sector – and this disruption will likely increase in the future. 


We are entering a new digital age, one that could herald a brand new world. The question is: how do you train the next generation of leaders for a world that will be nothing like the world we live in now? How do you train able managers to be bold and responsible leaders, daring and caring innovators as well as entrepreneurs at heart? 

Digital Humanists 

In the 21st century, there is no greater fallacy than the belief that technology is just an instrument. It is not only an instrument: it is a way to organise and regulate the way we work and live together as humans and as societies. It has major implications, both political and ethical. Just think about the significance of a technology like blockchain. Distributed ledger technologies ultimately bypass the need for trusted third parties such as banks, or even central banks, to guarantee the security of exchanges. There is more: blockchain technologies replace these central validators with a decentralised peer-to-peer network that is “trustless” in its essence, relying on technological validation protocols to validate exchanges between people or entities that don’t know one another. The economic, political and philosophical ramifications of such a technology are nothing short of staggering. 

If we are to prepare bold and responsible leaders for the next digital age, we need to educate students who will be both comfortable with emerging technologies and able to put them into broader perspective: we need to train digital humanists. In an ever more complex and rapidly changing world, we need to invent a new hybrid education model. Digital humanists will need to combine creative and critical thinking, reconcile expertise and imagination and be masters of multiple academic fields: engineering and business, philosophy and coding, literature and statistics, humanities and design. Only through the cross-fertilisation of disciplines can we hope to train leaders who will not simply adapt to the next digital age but be at its forefront, steering it to make it more human. 

Photo by Ümit Yıldırım on Unsplash

Lifelong learners 

We are living in times of change; we must first empower our students by preparing them to become lifelong learners. When it comes to business education, one of the first implications of the new VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) is that the distinction between pre-experience and post-experience education will become less and less clear. Again, the sheer acceleration of technological progress will make continuing education and professional training the very foundation upon which economic success and sustained growth will be built for every company. 

Just consider this: in 2017, a report by Crédit Suisse highlighted that the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies went from 60 years in the 1950s to less than 20 years today. The authors of the report identified “technological disruption” as the main cause for this “Benjamin Button” effect, arguing that “disruption is nothing new, but the speed, complexity and global nature of it is”. The notion of business leadership is changing and business education needs to evolve in sync. 

Credit Suisse: Corporate Longevity: Index Turnover and Corporate Performance (2017)
Image: Credit Suisse

This calls for a new approach to education whereby every learning journey becomes a series of educational experiences and training throughout one’s career. Business schools should adopt a new model taking a holistic approach to business education and professional training. 

Purposeful leaders 

We need to train well-rounded individuals who possess knowledge, know-how, and soft and life skills. It’s the alliance of the three that characterises a bold, responsible leader, one who has the skills and drive to bring her or his vision to fruition. Knowledge to see and understand the world as it is, even as it changes around us; know-how and values to make an impact and give strength to our vision; soft and life skills to win hearts and convince the mind and spirit. 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

More importantly, business education needs to help students become fully who they are, not simply what they are expected to be. This calls for an alternative education by experiences model, one that gives an important degree of freedom to each student, one that multiplies learning experiences: academic, professional, international, cultural, social, in a word: human. 


Only through this multiplicity of experiences can we hope to help students become purposeful leaders who can inspire many, experts who know their subjects inside out, entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to take risks. Purposeful leaders who know how to give meaning to their leadership. We need not only train our students to adapt to the world they live in, but help them invent the world they will want to live in tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. There is no true leadership without purpose. A leader is – at his or her core – a visionary.

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Related Topics

Future of Education & SkillsArtificial Intelligence
EntrepreneurshipCEO ActivismOECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

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Vincenzo Esposito Vinzi

Dean & President, ESSEC Business School

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