CIOs Should Be Asking Questions In The Boardroom, Not Just Answering Them. Here Are 5 To Start With

First published at Leadership. A Gartner initiative that has seen nine UK CIOs appointed as non-executive directors (NEDs) on listed company boards, came earlier this month to New York in the form of a dinner attended by senior tech executives from Facebook, First Data, Disney, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Blackstone, among others.
Information and digital capabilities are changing the conversation about business value-creation, so Gartner Inc. sees widespread need for more CIOs and CTOs on senior company boards. That is, someone competent to thoroughly probe executive management on its technology strategy.

All strategy these days is at least partly technology strategy.

But, even now, after root-and-branch digital shakeups in most industries, technology is still viewed as an “operations issue” on many traditional boards. Something like a matter of good plumbing.

And if the board has any concerns, the plumber can be summoned to address them.

All fine and well it would seem. But the role of a company board is to ask probing questions of executive management to protect and increase shareholder value. Do board members, who are overwhelmingly CEOs, CFOs, bankers and accountants, know what to ask?

And can they tell if and when they have adequate answers?

Last year US Senators made themselves a public laughing stock in their failure to comprehend digital dynamics and social media analytics well enough to ask the right questions of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Framing the CIO’s role as bringing questions to the boardroom, not just answers, Gartner analyst Mark Raskino in a recent research note proposes five that CIO NEDs are best-placed to ask:

1. How will our vision for the digital future of our industry beat that of future competitors?

2. Is management delivering to targets for digital revenue and profit growth?

3. What percentage of customers is using our digitalized products and services?

4. How are we accelerating the development of digital tech capabilities?

5. Are our tech partners and providers the best strategic fit?

Behind these are second-order probes: “How is our industry, its products, services, business models, value chain and power brokers likely to change? Do we know who our future competitors may be? Is our timing right? Do we risk becoming dependent on a provider that may one day choose to disrupt our industry and compete with us?” And so on.

In posing these kinds of questions, the CIO NED can uncover executive management’s technology-related strategy business blind spots, and so enhance a company’s future-readiness and robustness to industry change.

Says Raskino, “Business models, operating models, customer value propositions, industry structures and daily business risk-reward trade-offs are all shifting.

“A company with a clear vision of the future is more likely to win by either setting the rules of the game or being quick to take advantage of an unfolding new industry landscape defined by other players.”

The CIO can catalyze a board to “look for gaps; reframe closed mindsets; provide external perspective; and point to potentially better options or directions.

“Executive teams, no matter how effective at current operations, can often become myopic. A (CIO’s) big, well-aimed, simple question can disrupt such complacency,” he says.

But, before this can even begin to happen, there remains the non-trivial matter of achieving board appointment for a technologist in the first place.

CIO or CTO NED board appointment is a needle that is hard to move in a boardroom culture dominated by finance and general management. To move it, Gartner’s formula is to invite board candidates with technology backgrounds to a series of dinners, also attended by major recruiting firms and board chairmen.

Lorenzo Larini, Senior Vice President Gartner Executive Programs, says, “Many CIOs and CTOs are also experienced business leaders, and some of them are definitely board-ready.

“The NED initiative gives tech executives exposure to the most significant executive search firms, and chairmen of public-company boards, and also develops their capabilities to increase their business impact when joining a senior board.

“We believe this platform will take our industry as a whole to the next level.”

At the New York dinner, Irene Chang Britt, experienced board chairman of major private and public companies such as Dunkin’ Brands, appealed to CIOs to translate their CV experience to present themselves more broadly in terms of business benefit, rather than technology capability.

In interview afterwards, she said, “Real world experience and expertise in technology is now critical at the boardroom table. Directors need to be able to ask insightful questions about digital disruption, seamless omnichannel opportunities, cyber security, etc., and also understand the answers.

“CIOs who think broadly and connect business imperatives with technological insight are a valuable addition to any forward-leaning board,” she said.

CIO board-candidate, Kevin Salvadori, Director Network Investments at Facebook said, “A forward thinking technology executive on the board is best positioned to probe that the business implications of technology are fully considered.

“As well, many CIOs can provide a unique perspective enquiring about technology and security risk management, which is important for board audit and risk committees.”

Coming from a company that has made the board-tech transition, Dirk Marzluf, global head of technology & operations at Banco Santander, who was part of the Gartner Europe NED program, says, “Business models are changing rapidly and new technologies are driving this transition. It makes sense that tech executives are involved in strategic decisions within companies.

“Santander already has these profiles at board level, and an international advisory board which provides strategic advice to the Group, with a strong focus on innovation, digital transformation, cybersecurity and new technologies.”

But most big company boards are not there yet. Robin Roberts, senior advisor to Gartner, formerly senior technology partner of Egon Zehnder, has conducted research that analyzes the background of every board director of every NYSE 100, NASDAQ 100 and FTSE 350 company in 2017 (5,384 directors in total.)

Says Roberts, “Most boards have doubled and tripled-up on NEDs with CEO, CFO, banking, accounting and commercial backgrounds, while they still have nobody with technology experience.

“Given what is already here in terms of technology-driven business change, let alone what is coming, I’m amazed shareholders don’t hold board chairmen to account over this.”

If You Watched Senators Question Zuckerberg You Know Why CIOs Belong On Company Boards

First published at Leadership. At a moment in history when billion-dollar companies are made from a clean sheet of paper and digital is eating everyone’s business model, you’d expect technologists to be in hot demand as non-executive directors on company boards. And you’d be wrong.

According to Gartner research of publicly available information, just nine out of 1,086 (0.8%) board members on FTSE100 boards have a CIO, CTO or technologist background. Across the FTSE250, the research shows only 32 directors out of 2,045 board members (1.6%) have such experience.

In contrast, 50% of the total is CEO experience, while CFO, accounting and banking experience make up the other almost 50%. According to Lorenzo Larini, Gartner’s Group Vice President of North America Consulting, these ratios are indicative of a similar situation at DJIA and S&P 500 boards, and broadly the same among quoted-company boards worldwide.

In other words, board-level decisions about new technology and its strategic and competitive deployment are being made mostly by lifers in finance, banking, and general management.

Which seems bizarre given what is coming over the horizon. For example, says Larini, “we predict, as Gartner, that in the next five years, platform business models will create a new market leader in half of all industries.

“Almost none of the large quoted companies in the UK, Europe, and the US, have the necessary technology expertise on their boards. Without that, boards cannot play their most important role which is intervening with substantive conversations about strategic decisions early enough to make a difference.”

Were you in need of an analogy to understand why those in oversight need to know enough to at least ask the right questions, look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing last week, which had tech onlookers eye-rolling. As CNN Money summed it up: “Most of the senators who asked (Zuckerberg) questions had no clue how Facebook worked, what the solutions to its problems are, or even what they were trying to achieve.”

Similarly for board oversight, where once technology was more ‘stovepipe’ in reach and impact, and could be left to experts, now it touches every decision.

What’s required is both some expertise in core technology—say Web analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, or IoT— as well as experience and vision as to what the technology will do in the user environment, how it will enable future value for customers and change industry landscapes in doing so.

The board research study was led by Robin Roberts, a former senior partner at the executive search firm Egon Zehnder. All told, it analyzed 3,131 biographies of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 company directors, using the companies’ own websites, Bloomberg, Reuters and LinkedIn.

To the findings, Roberts says: “Governance is important, but boards are not just about governance. Their purpose is more than just to referee an internal game.

“Shortly will come a future where many boards are making really stupid decisions.”

“The (boiled frog) water is getting warmer around board chairmen,” he says, “while they mostly still swim along with the notion it’s okay merely to ‘summon’ the CIO or CTO when a technology question comes up. Meanwhile, the banker sits at the table all the time.”

“They should have the technologist at the table all the time, and summon the banker!”

With a background in behavioral science, Roberts sees the problem partly as status-quo bias. The finance-heavy board is the way things have always been done, and it’s worked well enough. “So why change?”

Status-quo bias works fine… in a status-quo world.

With clear company need and benefit, the question becomes how many CIOs and CTOs can “broaden up” to be able to contribute to the wider dimensions of the general strategic conversation that being a non-executive director on a board requires. (How many financial professionals are broad enough to manage the wider strategic conversation is a question somehow never asked nor answered.)

Gartner counts about 5,000 CIOs in its global client base, many of whom it already mentors and advances through its executive education programs, and judges that dozens of these are board-ready. Its aim is to build on relationships forged through these programs and help pry open boardroom doors on behalf of this top tier, and in doing so improve leadership readiness for future challenges among its client companies and beyond.

To this, the company has hosted a series of exclusive dinners in London over the past nine months, bringing together board chairmen, recruiters, and tech-type board candidates. According to Larini, the same initiative will begin in various US locations from mid-year, starting with New York City.

“NYC is intended as a global initiative, and we will select some of the leading edge, board-ready CIOs from the US and the rest of the world, also in partnership with the global executive search firms.”

There’s a demand side and a supply side, says Roberts. The demand side is working with recruiters and board chairmen encouraging them to be open to tech candidates. “On the supply side, people such as Jason Whitfield, head of Gartner Executive Programs UK, and colleagues are finding senior technologists and helping them reach up.

“There are sometimes limited aspirations on the candidates’ side of the table if they are technologists. Many think being a non-executive director on the board of a quoted company is just not on offer for someone of their function. They assume people with their career background don’t do this, so they don’t try,” says Roberts.

One example of a technologist who successfully made the board transition is Paul Coby, Group CIO of Johnson Matthey PLC., who has been a non-executive board director of FTSE250 bank CYBG PLC since June 2016. Until recently, Coby was Group CIO of the retail conglomerate The John Lewis Partnership, and before that CIO of British Airways.

Says Coby, “having someone on the board who understands how IT works is helpful. But even more important is how it impacts customers.

“You need someone with the technology background who also has experience how you deploy technology to change and develop businesses: that’s the core skill—it’s how you apply IT knowledge and experience that matters.”

For example, CYBG PLC is a ‘challenger bank’ and there are key enablers for that strategy, one of which is becoming an omni-channel provider. “In fact John Lewis pioneered this. It was a leader in enabling customers to merge ‘click and collect,’ changing the way we all shop,” says Coby.

“Insights I’ve had from BA, how it moved online, and how John Lewis combined in-store, online, and mobile, all applies to CYBG as its banking strategy develops along similar lines.

“It helps one see around corners, because you’ve seen the transitions in other places, other industries,” he says.

On the demand side, Jouko Karvinen, Chairman of Finnair, is known as a board leader who understands the problem and has enacted a solution.

The context of business has fundamentally changed, says Karvinen. “Even a few years ago, in the time of Moore’s Law, management had a forecasting tool of a kind. You could take history and somewhat project it into the future. Now, with disruption, you can’t look in the rear view mirror and extrapolate.”

So a year ago Karvinen added three new board members, one a senior airline executive with lifelong air industry experience, including as Aer Lingus chairman, the other two in their 30s. One has a lot of experience of social media technology and new consumer thinking. The other has experience building up the online travel company Expedia.

This year the Finnair board will propose two more members, further rebalancing between the need for long experience and the need for new skills.

Barry Gamble, an experienced quoted-company board chairman who also leads events for the Non-executive Directors’ Association, and is past editor of The Boardroom magazine, has first-hand experience of technology unhinging a real estate board he was on.

While the firm and its longtime competitors were generally aware of the need to evolve their digital proposition (which eventually became On The Market) they were overtaken by new entrants Right Move and Zoopla, who jumped ahead and grabbed market cap of hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves.

In Gamble’s view, it is the chairman of a board’s Nominations Committee who has a pivotal role in broadening representation. This person has a strong say over the long- and shortlist when new candidates are considered, as well as relationships with parties who can bring about change in board composition, including chairmen and headhunters.

He or she can play a role in widening the mindset of board chairmen, which companies need more urgently than ever. “Too many business are ‘legacy businesses.’ They have momentum which keeps them going, but they are running yesterday’s company.”

“Boards are still very much fashioned in their own image. There are still far too many of the ‘usual suspects,’ says Gamble.

“I recently had a conversation with someone who is on four quoted boards. He had been partner in one of the big-4 accounting firms. Their experience is pretty jolly narrow.”

“Would he have exposure to understand the implications of the technical stuff coming through? I don’t think he would.”

Education Leaders Could Learn Sideways From Sectors Further Ahead

First published in Forbes Leadership July 24, 2017. Most leaders never learn that predictive modeling is a false prophet in fast-changing industries, the siren that lulls them to sleep even as their companies smash on the rocks of outdated assumptions.

But for the few willing to kick addiction to false certainties and grapple with the many rich qualitative approaches to anticipating change, one of the best is “learning sideways,” that is, absorbing the shape and pace of change from analogous industries which are further down the road.

A great example of this is offered by Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet, co-founder of the annual EdTechXEurope education innovation conference, who was previously Head of Strategy, Business Development and Ventures for Time Warner, EMEA

In an interview with he expanded on how media-entertainment industry evolution is helpful in understanding what’s coming next in the education sector, and how fast.

For example, he says, “five years ago when people were talking about MOOCs, (Massive Open Online Courses) there was a lot of criticism: ‘content is poor, student engagement is low, it’s for developing countries because they can’t access good universities…’”

“I remember at the time, coming from the media industry, that’s exactly what people had been saying when YouTube came out: ‘It’s poor content in the TV industry, it will never rate, it will never work.’”

As with YouTube so with MOOCs, the content quality may be variable, but access is ubiquitous. Therein a groundswell of adoption. And there goes the industry neighborhood.

Says Vedrenne-Cloquet: “In fact, MOOCs were a formidable marketing platform for digital education, because suddenly mass populations were accessing digital education. It was a turning point.”

Coursera and EdX are now surpassing even Oxford and Cambridge in terms of internet search, he says.

Coursera vs Oxford Cambridge
Internet searches, Coursera vs. Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Pic: EdTechXEurope

“Everything media executives didn’t see coming in terms of what was happening and how to react to it, the same is now happening in education, ” says Vedrenne-Cloquet.

“When digization starts, that creates a profusion of new forms of content, which creates confusion because the customer is a bit lost and established providers are losing market share.

“So there is suddenly a need for more curation, personalization, and customization. This is where ‘platforms’ come in, to organize and curate that content.

You suddenly have a shift of power between traditional content providers or publishers, and platforms which are aggregators and distributors.

“These aggregators use ‘programatic curation’ that is adaptive learning software that tailors content to the audiences, and ‘social curation,’ leveraging social communities and social networks, to recommend and distribute content,” he says.

This is what happened in the music industry (Spotify), in the TV industry (YouTube and Netflix), and the publishing business (Amazon). Now in education this is becoming visible with the mainstreaming of the Coursera and EdX platforms.

Overall, the education industry’s digital vortex has been relatively slow in coming compared with other tech-disrupted industries because significant positions held by large institutions, government bodies, and national budgets have protected incumbents from rapid consumer-choice adoption.

The brand protection of long-established universities has also so far been a frictional force in consumer adoption of alternatives.

But, again following the media and publishing industry precedents, Vedrenne-Cloquet suggests established university and executive education providers will likewise fall to winner-take-all platforms, and will be effectively forced to throw in their lot with them.

EdTechXEurope EdTech China
EdTech investment in China already dwarfs rest of world. Pic: EdTechXEurope

Moreover, the brand protection that Western education institutions have enjoyed in Asia and the Middle East is fast dissipating. Homegrown options are gaining legitimacy, not least on the back of massive international investment.

For example, China has 9,500 EdTech companies and is attracting 30-40% of global education investor money. Vedrenne-Cloquet is partner at Ibis Capital, which invests in the region.

Speaking to global opportunity, the annual EdTechXEurope conference and education industry event week in London has in five short years established pre-eminence in the worldwide EdTech calendar, and is itself globalizing. EdTechAsia takes place in Singapore in October, and new conferences are planned in Africa (Cape Town) and South America (Buenos Aires) in 2018.

Planning as Learning in the Transit Sector

Strategic Foresight Methods and Approaches

Remix Lets Planners Learn With Visual Data

“After releasing their first tool, a simple, gamified bus route mapper then called Transitmix in 2014, they began working with planners. In essence, they were designing the data visualization tools the planners wanted, but didn’t have.

“You can think of Remix as a video game for planners, which is leading to better public transit service.

More: The Small Startup That’s Helping Hundreds Of Cities Visualize The Future

How Oxford Helps Leaders Face The Complex And Uncertain Future

First published at Leadership. Turbulent-Uncertain-Novel-Ambiguous (TUNA) is the acronym an Oxford University Executive Education program uses instead of the more familiar VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. But either way we understand the problem: The external environment changes rapidly and unpredictably, making leaders look silly. What worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow.

As TUNA pressures warp previously steady-state industries, executives respond by trying to predict the future, grappling with early-warning signals or trying to identify market or technology trends.

The five-day Oxford Scenarios Programme (OSP) offers a different path.

“At Oxford we try really hard to try to get through the futurology that’s out there, and (instead) power people who have resources and agency to do things better,” says Dr Angela Wilkinson, who teaches the program along with Saïd School Professor Rafael Ramirez.

Scenario Planning is a method of direction-finding and strategy formation that defines itself by non-prediction.  Scenarios are integrated narratives of how the future may unfold, with always two or more in a set. This avoids the brittleness of a singularly predicted future—which the unpredictable world will surely make nonsense of.

The OSP accepts about 40 delegates and—fairly unusually for executive education—also hosts two or three organizations as real-world “proto-clients,” providing live client situations for the delegates to work on .

Dr Angela Wilkinson leads a scenario planning workshop
Dr Angela Wilkinson leads a scenario planning workshop.

In the next program, April 25-29, 2016, the proto-clients are: a University (not Oxford) trying to manage faculty field research in the new era of geo-political risk; an FMCG ice-cream company concerned millennials aren’t buying its products; and a scholarly professional body struggling with how digitalization is eroding its centralized authority and journal-based business model.

“These live cases give the program a ‘clinical-research feel,’” says Wilkinson. “We used to use some form of a generalized case, like Harvard Business School cases. But that doesn’t prepare the delegates for what they are going to encounter in their organizations.

“Live clients reflect the ambiguity of the scenario planning reality they will find themselves in, how messy and difficult it is.”

The clients present their business situation late on Monday, and are then interviewed over dinner by the assigned delegate teams. Midweek there is a check-in teleconference lasting 1-2 hours during which the teams test their evolving framework. A half-day on Friday is given to client presentation and discussion of the implications.

For executives that don’t have a spare week and approaching £6,000 (about $8,400) to spend at Oxford’s Egrove Park executive education facility in England, co-incidentally Ramirez and Wilkinson have just published a book, Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (Oxford University Press, 2016)  written to broaden access to the philosophy and methods of the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (OSPA).

Strategic Reframing, OUP, 2016
Strategic Reframing, The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach. Oxford University Press, 2016

“Reframing” in the title refers to leaders’ mental frames—sometimes called mental models, or paradigms—that scenario planning targets. A key problem, arguably the key problem in successfully managing a TUNA world is “frame rigidity,” when a leader’s mental model is not wide enough or flexible enough to perceive (or to take seriously) all the alternative, plausible outcomes that matter.

Scenario planning invites multiple framings of an uncertain situation, making leaders more aware and conscious of the legacy frame they have unconsciously been using to make sense of the world.

According to Strategic Reframing: “Reframing occurs in the process of scenario planning when alternative scenarios describing future contextual environments are contrasted to reveal, test, and redefine the official future (given frame).

“By rehearsing actions with these alternative frames, new and better options for action can be identified and contribute to a re-perception of the present situation.”

Wilkinson is an alumna of renown planning office at Royal Dutch Shell and currently Head of Strategic Foresight at the OECD in Paris, where she describes her remit as “leading a project to upgrade it (strategic foresight).

“The OECD, like most organizations, is strongly oriented to ‘evidence-based policy.’ If you can’t quantify it, it can’t go in the conversation,” she says.

But if you just stick to the numbers you can end up ‘not learning’ because you just stick with the stuff you can measure as opposed to the stuff that’s important —which requires you to exercise judgment.

“Quantitative, evidence-based policy served us well in he last maybe 10 or 20 years before the financial crisis, when everybody thought everything was very steady state.

“You can manage by numbers but you can’t lead by them. Quality of judgment, of intervention, needs a more systemic understanding of why things happen, and are connected to each other.”

“The numbers matter, but so do the narratives,” says Wilkinson.

CEOs Make Room For Bold And Beautiful In HBS Business Of Entertainment Course

First published Leadership. Harvard Business School Professor Anita Elberse has a decade of research charting the great rise in power top-tier celebrities have in entertainment, both in commanding ever-higher pay and as moguls in their own right able to dictate the terms of engagement and define new business models for themselves.

If stars are becoming power brokers of their industries, it makes sense to get them into the mix of a business school course that looks at strategies for success in the entertainment industry.

Last year when HBS executive education ran its four-day Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports (BEMS) course, basketball star Dwyane Wade was a student delegate, alongside other stars who have sought anonymity. In 2014, linebacker Brandon Marshall and supermodel Karlie Kloss were in the class.

Dwayne Wade, Anita Elberse, and Brandon Marshall at Harvard Business School, 2015. Picture: HBS
Dwyane Wade, Anita Elberse, and Brandon Marshall at Harvard Business School, 2015. Source: HBS

When I interviewed Elberse for last week, she said: “If you compare the world of entertainment now with the world of entertainment 25 years ago, you see that some individual stars can get things done now and can wield an influence now that they couldn’t in the past.”

Superstars are getting smarter about how much new-found power they have, but knowing how to best use it is what brings people like Wade into the HBS classroom.

“They want to know how they can best monetize their brand enterprise and leverage their influence.”

Says Elberse: “If you want to understand the world of entertainment you cannot just have people from the big (conventional entertainment industry) companies, in a room, and have them try to figure out what’s the future.

“You have to also incorporate the perspective of people like Wade or Kloss, and get an understanding of what it is they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Because increasingly they are shaping this space.”

“That’s why we are keen to have these people in the room”.


This is an arrangement that is obviously also valuable to the standard agents, managers, and entertainment executives the course attracts, who get to hear the perspectives of talent from the very source.

Executive Education always justifies its value in part by who else is in the room—the cross fertilization, networking value proposition.  Other than sourcing the perspectives of star talent, BEMS carefully assembles a classroom of executives across the worlds of film, television, music, book publishing, sports, and allied sectors.

Following the famous HBS “case method,” where learning is achieved by close study of past real-world situations (a pedagogic style b-schools learned from law schools), the BEMS program uses cases studies of stars who have flexed their power, for example the HBS Beyoncé Case, which looks at the company Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show star built around her brand, that sits outside the traditional record label structure.

Case Studies in the Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports program, 2015
Case Studies in the Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports program, 2015. Source: Anita Elberse

The BEMS program also pivots on Elberse’s other main research theme: the rise of blockbuster economics in the entertainment industry.

“Increasingly companies, and even individuals, have to make bigger bets in order to stand out in this space. So this is where you get film studios making ‘tentpole films’ or record labels spending an insane amount of money to try to market someone’s album,” says Elberse.

“That creates a new competitive environment in which there is increasingly a difference between companies that have scale and can do those things and companies that cannot—which are increasingly locked out of that space.

“Increasingly these markets are winner-take-all where a few people at the top get all the rewards and are increasingly powerful.”

The winner-take-all distribution pattern, which can manifest in situations where variables are able to scale far beyond what would be expected in a Gaussian “normal distribution” curve, is a topic well known to statisticians, and it was Nassim Taleb who most clearly brought it to a business audience in The Black Swan where he says: “Intellectual, scientific, and artistic activities belong to the province of ‘Extremistan,’ where there is a severe concentration of success  with a very small number of winners claiming a large share of the pot.”


Elberse, in her book Blockbusters, tells the story of how Alan Horn in 1999, new in his role as president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros., singled out four or five event films among his annual output of more than 20, and steered a disproportionately large portion of production and marketing budget to them.

Making big-budget movies and lavishly marketing them was not new; what was novel when Horn did it was building an entire strategy on selective disproportionate budget allocation.

The recent wall-to-wall tsunami of media during the launch week of Star Wars 7 is the poster event for this approach.

Blockbusters contrasts this strategy, which was wildly successful for Warner Bros., with that of Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC’s Television Group and NBC Universal in 2007, who pursued the opposite strategy: placing a larger number of smaller bets and guarding against deep investment on any single project.

“During Zucker’s tenure, NBC fell from its perch as the highest-rated television network to fourth place, behind its three broadcast rivals—ABC, CBS, and FOX—a demise once unthinkable.”


Blockbuster strategies almost always go hand-in-hand with eye-popping investments in top creative talent, which is how these two themes of the BEMS course come together.

According to Blockbusters “The focus on star talent now extends into virtually all sectors of the entertainment industry. A Spanish businessman single-handedly raised the bar for investments in A-list talent in the world of soccer. Bringing a show-business mentality to his renowned soccer club, Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, started pursuing what he called his ‘galácticos’ strategy, a reference to the star power of the players he sought to recruit.”

The celebrity pay scales and tsunami marketing budget required of a ‘galácticos’ strategy puts huge pressure on the business models of studios, record labels, and sports teams, and flies in the face of conventional business logic which says spread rather than concentrate risk, and limit investment to a level that won’t break the bank.

Yet not doing ‘galácticos’ appears an even surer route to failure, not only inside but also outside entertainment. One need only think of the many that have fallen or can’t now get into the industries where Uber, Twitter, AirBnB, and Facebook are winner-take-all. Such is the pressure on studio executives and other leadership decision makers in managing the strategic economics of ‘Extremistan,’ of which the entertainment industry is a core province.

Not one to undersell itself, Harvard’s marketing for the BEMS course tells paying executives they will learn to “assess different strategies, including when to bet on a blockbuster versus a number of smaller ‘plays’”; “discover when it pays to bet on A-list talent”; and “evaluate the effectiveness of strategies that play to the value of star talent.”


Meanwhile, crossing both themes of star empowerment and blockbuster economics is the not-insignificant matter of digital technology evolution.

The entertainment industry is ground zero for digital disruption because so much of the product can move in digital form, and because social media allows stars and fans to disintermediate the corporate broker.

The program has case studies on Facebook and BuzzFeed, among various players that are changing the way either stars or producers can market and distribute content.

The big question currently facing entertainment companies is how digital technology will affect their bets on blockbusters and superstars. Does it increase or decrease the power of talent? Does it make the blockbuster strategy obsolete, or even more necessary?

Elberse in Blockbusters says “Some industry insiders have suggested that digital technology will spell the end of blockbusters—and, with that, the effectiveness of blockbuster strategies. Is the rise of online distribution channels a sign that soon the ‘old’ rules of the entertainment business will no longer apply?

“Looking at the popularity of sites such as YouTube that democratize content production and distribution, one might be tempted to conclude that a ‘yes’ is the only right answer.

“But a closer look reveals that the reality isn’t quite so simple. In fact, in today’s markets where, thanks to the Internet, buyers have easy access to millions and millions of titles, the principles of the blockbuster strategy may be more applicable than ever before.”

Her conclusion: “There are fundamental laws of consumer behavior that explain the strategy’s enduring appeal—the kinds of laws everyone with an interest in the entertainment industry should be aware of, in other words. The blockbuster strategy’s continuing importance to the success of entertainment companies is made abundantly clear in the enormous amounts of data that online channels generate.”


BEMS runs June 1-4, 2016 at Harvard Business School, taught by HBS faculty, Anita Elberse, Kristin Mugford, and Felix Oberholzer-Gee who is also Chair of the Harvard MBA Program.

Cost is $9,000 including residential hospitality which would hardly trouble the likes of Taylor Swift or Peyton Manning, or the Bertelsman board, but may give pause to the average company sponsor particularly as two of the days are half-days.

But tuition spend notwithstanding, HBS anticipates a full class of 75-80 delegates, and turning many hopefuls away. Selective admissions allows HBS to curate the class—selecting for seniority and influence, and for balance across entertainment sectors, including film, television, music, nightlife, fashion, publishing, sports, and the performing arts.

A Harvard Executive Education spokesman would not reveal what percentage of applicants is likely to be rejected, or was rejected last year. (By way of possible comparison, the full-time HBS MBA rejects seven out of every eight applicants.)

So who are the celebrities earmarked to be BEMS students 2016? Elberse knows already, mostly, and she has also signed a celebrity guest speaker—but she won’t give any names.

To a certain extent this is understandable: “In 2014, when word got out that Sir Alex Ferguson was coming to speak, people were lined up outside the Harvard Executive Education building and down the road. We had to call security! This doesn’t normally happen in executive education, not even at Harvard Business School,” she says.

The Future Of Leadership Development With IESE’s Learning Innovation Unit

First published Leadership. For most business school educators and their corporate clients, the moving frontier of executive education is the online classroom or perhaps MOOCs (massively open online courses). But educators at IESE Business School, overlooking and perhaps taking courage from Barcelona F.C.’s Camp Nou, are racing past this toward what they call “omni-learning.”

Omni-learning continuously and digitally integrates all real and virtual learning sites –classroom, workplace, customers’ premises and beyond.

The concept owes much to data-tracking adaptive feedback systems that have emerged in other industries, for example Fitbit wearables that track health and fitness activity and provide ongoing interaction with peers and feedback to doctors. Or, similarly, Waze (a Google company) which aggregates continuous distributed peer imputs about the state of traffic into knowledge that guides driver choices.

IESE Business School, Barcelona. Picture: the author
IESE Business School, Barcelona

In an IESE Insight position paper “The Road to Omni-Learning: How Digitalization is Changing the Way Executives Learn,” the directors of IESE’s Learning Innovation Unit, Drs Guiseppe Auricchio and Evgeny Kaganer, argue that eLearning is already “a relic” in merely adding an online component to traditional education.

So far use of digital technologies has been merely as instruments that tinker with an educational model that remains bound by the idea of instructor-led classroom-based learning.

But Auricchio and Kaganer anticipate that digital technologies will break the classroom paradigm entirely, allowing something altogether new in executive education: learner-led, peer-oriented, real-time adaptive knowledge acquisition that works seamlessly across all relevant sites and contexts.

I tracked down Giuseppe Auricchio for a one-one interview, here are the highlights:

Auricchio: “When I think executive education program, I don’t think Monday morning. I think ‘the learning experience’ , what is best possible way to achieve the learning outcome — accessing the most appropriate tool at each step?”

“We know a learner has to be motivated in order to learn. Yet we have passive, one-way, top-down delivery. We know a learner needs constant feedback, yet we currently have no way to do this other than an exam.

“Lectures are the worst way to learn. But in an analog world they are the only way to scale. Now digital technology is lifting these constraints, so we can start to do the things we know are right, but which practically and economically have not been feasible.


“Digital technologies will finally allow us to create learning that is much more aligned with the way we know real learning occurs—in situations that are social, collaborative, ongoing, and which personalize learning and assessment and giving the learner some control.”

In the IESE paper the authors explain further: “The number of organizations investing time and resources in alternative learning processes is growing fast. But they treat online learning as an optional extra to gain efficiencies–saving the time that executives spend away from work, and reducing travel costs, so the organization saves money. Meanwhile, the true intention–to improve learning effectiveness–gets lost.

“In your organization, don’t start by asking, “How can we do what we currently do better?” Instead ask, “What could be done at each key stage of the learning process to enhance or optimize the experience for learners, which integrates the respective strengths of online and in-person learning?”

Kaganer and Aurrichio isolate three key features of omni-learning:

  • Continuous and Cross-Context. These overlap, and are rooted in the idea that learning must be knitted into an executive’s everyday activities rather than be a standalone event. The range of an executive’s activities and, therefore, physical and virtual learning contexts necessarily spans all the places and situations the executive finds herself in, which all need to be captured and integrated.
  • Learner-Led. In formal learning, pathways and learning experiences are preselected by the lecturer or learning designer. In omni-learning, it is anticipated that participants identify and integrate learning moments themselves, including making the choices that personalize each learner’s journey to his own needs.
  • Data-driven. The learner-led moments embedded in everyday situations generate a rich data footprint, to be captured, stored and analysed to monitor each learner’s performance and personalize tasks. Crucially, data is not just a record of past activity — the learner’s path data is available to guide future choices. As with Waze, collaborative data feedback will guide best choices each learner can and should make next.

Collaborative data also plays a role in learners’ engagement and motivation. Again drawing on the analogy with Fitbit, the authors say there is a “motivational boost stemming from the ability to visualize one’s progress and to compete with others. Ultimately, this transforms the experience of (staying fit) from a fragmented set of difficult-to-sustain personal commitments to a holistic, social journey integrated into one’s everyday life.”


At present, omni-learning is an aspirational idea not an established practice, with the technology still clunky and buried in stand-alone apps. However IESE Executive Education is currently bootstrapping an engagement with one corporate client that embraces aspects of omni-learning logic, connecting in-class learning with external learning moments, including social and workplace platforms chosen by the learning cohort.

It allows executives to integrate what they are reading, talking about, or observing back into the education program, and make their information and usage data more readily available to all. The totality of activities, both physical and online, of all learners in the group is aggregated for general insight and benefit.

At the same time IESE is updating case studies with multimedia, providing links to relevant news and analysis, embedding Q&A to improve retention, and creating adaptive storylines to stimulate engagement.

When the full-blown vision arrives, omni-learning will go beyond the business school and the beyond any one specific executive program, allowing each executive learner to connect with other and even competing contexts, people, places and practices in an expert-guided but learner-led system.


Success depends on technology progress quickly allowing ease of use and quality of user experience, and according to Auricchio the technology is not too far off at this stage: “Google could pull it all together in six months.”

But progress in this direction involves more than just better technology. It involves a fundamental shift in the way learning is perceived, designed, and used.

Says Aurrichio: “What is harder is changing organizational culture and managerial mindsets inside organizations. The guru-led classroom has been the educational frame for at least 100 years. Omni-learning displaces the classroom and centers learning on the individual learner.

“Consider how most executive development is assembled. The starting point is usually a classroom-based core, augmented by some online component. Contrast that with how other digital products and service are offered today, where user-led experiences span channels and contexts, and which are characterized by user empowerment.”

Employees are being exposed to data-driven adaptive learning in their private lives. With this exposure comes new expectations that will drive what learning should look like at work.


Individuals will take control of their personal learning as an everyday activity integrated into other daily workplace activities, and be ready for options that go beyond simple blended online-offline modes into a set of continuous activities.

Client company or learner perceptions aside, the displaced classroom also implies deep challenges for business schools and other providers of executive development. Not least, the entire foundation of the current business model—billing per contact teaching day—will crumble and have to be rethought.

There will also be challenges to current executive education department programme design processes. Auricchio foresees a far less faculty-led model as learning design shifts from predictive-path “instructional design” to adaptive-path “learning experience design.”

Learning experience design will require a broader spectrum of actors, including a learning community experience manager and possibly data specialists.

At the same time, he remains savvy about the pace and extent of digital disruption in the executive education industry. “’Either-or’ framing is incorrect. It won’t be either online or face-to-face. Either omni-learning or a traditional program. Even with Fitbit we still go the gym!”


“Shopping is still shopping, but not what it was five years ago. It is still about buying a dress, but not as was. It is not just going down the high street. Nor is it just going online. It is about seeing the item, tweeting it to your friends, price comparing it, and getting it delivered. It is a continuous, seamless, online-offline digital experience.”

In the same way, in the next era of executive education the basic functions of teaching, coaching, mentoring, reading etc. will be recognizably fulfilled, both online and off-line. But these will be integrated into a continuous data matrix that will greatly expand options and benefits for learners and corporate purchasers of executive education.