Peter Zemsky, Deputy Dean at INSEAD, Paris, France

Peter, you’re a professor, but also you are a deputy dean, for INSEAD. Could you tell us a bit more about your role?

Yes. So on the one hand, I still am a strategy professor. So I think ever since getting my PhD at Stanford in the early 90s, I’ve been very interested in how technology change impacts in industry and the companies and their strategy and their organizations within it. And then, I’ve been part of the leadership team of INSEAD for 10 years, and for the last several years, deputy dean with a particular responsibility for doing what I teach. So how is it that INSEAD needs to adapt to all the changes especially to technology to remain relevant and leading in management education.

The topic of our next issue is vision. What is the vision of INSEAD?

Obviously, even as the strategy becomes more agile, and long term planning becomes less and less important, vision remains. See, people still want a broad sense of where they’re going. But again, the mission of INSEAD remains the same, which is bringing together all of these diverse people to help develop people and contribute to business and society. Our vision for the school remains to be just a super high quality platform for business management. So fundamentally, talk to your management education continues to be about top students, top faculty, top recruiters. And so I think to sustain that, what we need to do is understand what the key issues are. One is clearly tech innovation entrepreneurship. Another big one, though, is the changing relationship between business and society. Certainly, if I think about our vision and strategy, we’re really looking to deepen our capabilities in both of those two key areas, technology innovation, but also the nature of this whole shift array from pure shareholder value maximization.

Today, everything is digital. You’ve said something about this, but how does digitalization influence the INSEAD way of work?

What does digital mean for INSEAD?  Two things: First, we have to shift what we teach and how we teach. How we teach would mean more digital pedagogy, more online education. And then the second thing is what we teach. So the basic principles of business, creating and capturing value, leading change, have not fundamentally shifted. However, the way they are deployed, the phenomenon, the cases you teach are completely different today than 10 years ago. So we have to make those shifts.

But people still prefer human interaction. Why is that?

Absolutely, one of the challenges of being a top three management education is a lot of the disruption happens at a lower end. And so we have to be careful. So still today, if you’re really top talent, if you have the budgets, you still prefer to do in person. And yet what we know the phenomenon is that bit by bit, the digital stuff will get better and maybe ultimately disrupt. But clearly, I think there are two things. First, online has gotten quite good at disseminating knowledge. But interactivity is still not there. It’s just not the same having five people who maybe don’t know each other chatting online, compared to putting five people in a room and having them interact. That interactivity is not there and again, for high level skills, that kind of interactivity is critical for learning, number one. Number two, it turns out that learning together is a great way to build relationships. And relationships are still best built in person. Maybe you can extend them online. And again, the role of a Top Three Business School is to connect some of the top talents with a network they can leverage throughout their career. And that’s still best done in person. Isn’t it?

I definitely agree. What would be your key message to people eager to learn?

My key message would be: This is your age. Learning has always been important. But the faster the rate of change, the more new practice comes into play, the more being a learner will drive advantage for you as an individual, for you and the teams that you lead, and for organizations. This is an age of learning and you should absolutely just be nurturing that skill. It means not being afraid. I think sometimes some people think „Oh, things like technology… that’s too technical.“ It’s still just business. So, you just want that thirst for knowledge,  not to put up barriers about what you think you can learn, what you think you’re good at. And if you can do that this is just a fabulous time to be a learner.

Again, in terms of more about what to learn, I think a lot of the value that’s created today is being able to combine understanding of technology, not the deep technology but the new technical capabilities. What can we do when we talk about winning? Whatever it is AI or blockchain? What can it do with knowledge of the business context? We still need individuals who can bridge the two. So even if you’re super strong in tech, you want to get some business knowledge. You’re super strong in business. You want to get some tech knowledge so that you can really partner well across that because that’s where a lot of the value is. There’s a lot of get contribution and reward for playing there. In terms of building yourself as a leader today, I do think collaboration skills are clearly a huge growth. I mean, in general, soft skills have been important. Everything I see with all the development of tech actually is only accelerating and reinforcing the value of soft skills. Let me give an example. Humans tend to be very tribal, and getting collaboration is hard. And one of the things that leaders and managers do is they ensure collaboration across these sorts of tribal units. Tech has made both internal collaboration and external collaboration more important. Why? Because when you fundamentally innovate your product, the interfaces between different groups change, you need groups to work together internally. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, with the rate of change, you can’t build all the capabilities yourself. You’re forced to increasingly partner with other men, very different players, startups, big tech, former competitors. So those skills about how do you foster collaboration in a much more flatter world with less commanding control is just clearly a skill set that has been valuable and only gets more so.

For the end of this interview, what would be your key message?

One of the key trends across sectors, whether it’s retail or education, is hybrid. So at the end of the day digital is super powerful. And yet humans evolved in a physical world. We’re still made sick by VR, if you do it long enough. I sound even looking at younger kids, my kids there, they end up living with one foot in the digital world for sure, very happy digital foot, but they still cultivate and develop a foot in the physical world. One of the key trends is again, how do you manage that and how do you build value propositions that blend physical and, and digital.

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