Design Trends

BCG A CEO’s guide to leading and #learning in the #digital age

Change is real, enormous, and game changing

The world is poised for what is likely to be the most disruptive change since the Industrial Revolution. On the one hand, digital is creating a need for employees with a fresh set of skills, and employers are struggling to find and retain that talent. And on the other, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and machine learning will continue to produce machines capable not only of completing simple tasks but of commandeering the creative and intellectual work that humans have long considered theirs alone. There are many predictions about the number of jobs automated or unfilled and the percentage of employees whose jobs are threatened. One such prediction foresees a potential impact of $10 trillion in lost GDP over 20 years from skill imbalances. Regardless of the exact numbers, CEOs need to recognize that the coming change is real, enormous, and game changing.

Knowledge, skills and mindsets

Projections about job losses can make for a gloomy employment outlook. One view is that the rise of digital is inexorably reducing the need for some employees and the roles of others. Another view: the rise of digital won’t necessarily lead to the elimination of employees; rather, it will force a reexamination and reimagining of the best ways for humans to deliver value to organizations. They will still be employees, but they’ll be doing different jobs—like scrum master or digital venture strategist—in different ways. This will mean identifying particular knowledge, skills, and mindsets that require the “human touch.”
It’s critical that CEOs get ahead of the change and shape it, rather than let their organizations be shaped by it.
We subscribe to that second, more optimistic view: it’s appropriate—and crucial—to redefine employee roles amid, throughout, and beyond the impending digital change. It will probably be messy, like all change. But as with all good change efforts, it’s critical that CEOs get ahead of the change and shape it, rather than let their organizations be shaped by it.
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Technology is not just transforming and overtaking work tasks. It is also part of a confluence of forces, including socioeconomic trends and the adoption of agile, that are changing ways of working. Freelance employment and the gig economy are on the rise. Employees are increasingly pushed toward self-directed models that emphasize autonomy, and mobile work is becoming more common. In many cases, employees can do their jobs anytime, anywhere. A redefinition of work, and learning at work, must be considered against this backdrop.


Alongside the changes in ways of working, the world is experiencing shifts in ways of learning. Learning and education once consisted of classroom instruction, rote memorization, and capstones such as high school graduation. But in a world of dynamic change, learning must become more dynamic too. Current education systems and training models cannot provide employees with reliable, lasting skills. By the time students graduate from college and join the workforce, many of the skills they have learned are already out of date, given the blistering pace of change. This means that learning can no longer happen in the first decades of life in preparation for the rest of life; rather, the best employees will be learning throughout their lives, and this learning will take place at work.
CEO’s should initiate
To meet these evolving educational needs, CEOs should initiate what we call “learning in the workflow,” and these efforts must be:
  • Adaptive and personalized to individual users and their specific needs
  • Always-on, with real-time support and feedback
  • “Gamified,” with social elements that create “learner pull” to encourage learners to participate
  • Measurable, translating to outcomes both for the learners and for the enterprise
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The fact that ways of working are changing provides a prime opening to introduce innovative ways of learning as well. Employees are becoming accustomed to change, to self-direction, and to a different relationship with employers and managers (who will each serve new roles in advancing learning). It’s now more possible than ever to create learning-on-the-job paradigms that mesh education and employment and emphasize lifelong learning, preparing individuals for the ongoing changes.


Enterprises that are in need of a digital-age skill set can access it in four main ways. They can buy it (by hiring employees with the needed skills), borrow it (by engaging temporary or contract employees), open-source it (by tapping the gig economy), or build it (by developing the skills in-house).

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