A mindset for lifelong learning

Within the global industry of business schools, mid-October means leading schools from all continents gather for the annual Executive MBA Council global conference. This year, I took part in the Madrid event October 14-17, together with another 357 participants from 140 business schools in 31 countries.

Living what we preach, the conference offers business schools a plethora of learning and benchmarking experiences through its series of keynotes and break-out presentation sessions over four days.

Nick van Dam, full professor Corporate Learning & Development at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, and Global Chief Learning Officer at McKinsey & Company, closed the conference with his 90-minute keynote, themed “Lifelong learning in the digital age”. It turned out to be a string of pearls of insight and caution.

In his research-based way, van Dam developed on how we as individuals had better develop mindsets to embrace life-long learning. He stated conditions for, and advice on, long-term business survival for corporations in general and for business schools in particular. Representing research and practice from both academia and McKinsey’s consulting, his conclusions are undeniably valid.

Please let me share with you my personal take-aways from this engaging keynote.


Looking back, looking forward

Considered to have started in 2012, we are today at the very beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, the one of “Cyber Physical Systems”. Although brand new generations of disruptive technologies keep arriving (like drones, AI, robotics and autonomous cars), much can be learnt from history in projecting the future. The well-known scheme of historical adoption times, expressed as the time needed for any given technology to reach its first 50 million users, ranges from broadcast radio (which took 38 years) through Facebook (1 year) to Pokémon (14 days). User adoption times of new disruptive technologies are likely to be very short indeed, meaning the effects on society and businesses will be quickly tangible:


Exhibit 1: Historical adoption times of new technology

Exhibit 1: Historical adoption times of new technology

If technology adoption times are shrinking fast, so is the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies. Be it through mergers, acquisitions our outright bankruptcy, the lifetime of large listed corporations comes to an end at an increasingly faster pace:

▶︎ 90 years in 1935

▶︎ 20 years in 2015

▶︎ 13 years in 2027 (estimate)

Exhibit 2: Lifespan of S&P 500 companies

Exhibit 2: Lifespan of S&P 500 companies


The changing role of human resources

In the Harvard Business Review article “People Before Strategy” (Charan, Barton and Carey, July-August issue 2015), the researchers estimated that 85% of the market value of S&P 500 companies is in fact based on intangible assets – i.e. skilled human resources. As a consequence, the authors argue that the role of the Chief HR Officer now needs to be seen as a business critical one. True, indeed.

An Oxford University study “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization?” (Frey and Osborn, 2013) estimates the probability of disruption by computerisation for no less than 702 detailed occupations. Looking at only a few of them, the spread is almost a full 100%:

▶︎ Telemarketer (99% probability of work disruption by computerisation)

▶︎ Accountants and auditors (94% probability)

▶︎ Machinists (65% probability)

▶︎ Dentists (0,4% probability)


A mindset open to life-long learning

In this era of accelerating change and technology disruption, in order for individuals to stay relevant and undisrupted (by computerization) at work, what do we as professionals need to do? According to van Dam, assessing and cultivating your own mindset for life-long learning is absolutely crucial. Current research has displaced past academic beliefs, that the learning capability of the mind would see continuous degradation with age. Instead, so van Dam argued, provided you stay healthy, you can learn and develop new skills throughout your entire life.

As opposed to earlier generations (and frankly, a good deal of today’s working ones) individuals, businesses and societies now need to plan for recurring up-skilling and new learning over the increasingly extended working life of any individual (please note that in Exhibit 3 below, working age plotted on the x-axis extends until 75 years). Each such up-skilling step might well entail changing employer or radical changes of role and responsibilities with the existing one.

Please note: Van Dam underlined that we are not talking about refresher courses of 1-3 days. We are talking major up-skilling efforts with durations in the order of 3-6 months.

Nick van Dam focuses a great deal of his own research in the field of mindsets of individuals and offers diagnostic instruments and tools to help you grow and develop your mindset. Please have a look at his dedicated website found at www.reachingyourpotential.org

He argues that going forward, deep expertise will outperform generalist knowledge. Therefore, over a person’s professional lifetime, new fields of deep expertise need to be developed, possibly related to previously acquired ones. As this process might repeat three, four, five or ten(!) times over a person’s lifetime, to succeed, the individual’s mindset will be decisive. So will the funding and planning capabilities of individuals and of their employers:


Photo 2: Recurring development of new deep expertise over the working life

Exhibit 3: Recurring development of new deep expertise over the working life

On the health and survival of businesses

Extending his technology disruption analysis to businesses, Van Dam argued that business survival is all about creativity and innovation. 

Case in point: this year, McKinsey acquired Veryday, a Swedish design company and supplier to IKEA. Why would the world’s most prestigious management consultancy do that? McKinsey invested in order to let creative staff from Veryday team up with McKinsey business consultants, to augment the manner in which such composed teams can help McKinsey’s customers drive innovation of products, services and business models.


On the health and survival of business schools

In concluding, van Dam narrowed down his survival projections for business schools and executive education programmes, be it Executive MBA or shorter non-degree programmes: in what ways need creativity and innovation take a more important role in programme design – and what will happen if schools fail to do so?

Again, van Dam bases his advice on insights acquired in his academic role, in which he designs leadership development programmes, as well as through the massive investments he oversees for Leadership Development & Learning for consultants and senior leaders at McKinsey and Company:

  1. Pay attention to develop responsible and inclusive leaders. The world is facing too important challenges for leaders not to be up to the challenge,
  2. Refresh programme content at the speed of business: Big Data, Digitalization and Analytics need to be at the core of any high-caliber programme, well-integrated into modules like Finance, Marketing and HR,
  3. Maintain physical university facilities and F2F learning – but complement immersive classroom learning with virtual and on-line learning elements, as well as with on-the-job assignments, personal projects and coaching,
  4. Van Dam recommends minimizing the use of PowerPoint slides during lectures, as doing so (or banning slides altogether) provides a very different and superior learning experience,
  5. In these ways, make the learning experience immersive and mindset-changing – or run the risk of your corporate customers turning to more progressive business schools, to consultancies like McKinsey, or to pure on-line leadership development providers,
  6. Make sure to groom, reward and promote excellent faculty for their contribution to executive education.
Exhibit 4: Nick van Dam's advice for (E)MBA in the 21st century

Exhibit 4: Nick van Dam’s advice for (E)MBA in the 21st century


Leaving the Madrid conference, my conviction is that few business schools could afford complacency in designing and delivering their future leadership development programmes.

I honestly feel our School is well positioned through the ways in which we currently deliver Executive MBA and executive education programmes, obviously with important room for further improvement. As we continue to further grow our programme portfolio, we will find ways to be increasingly creative and innovative.

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