“Pioneer When Others Retreat”: Why Digital Learning Can Be Powerful (Interview)
“Pioneer When Others Retreat”: Why Digital Learning Can Be Powerful (Interview)

What if digital learning and remote executive education were not a compromise, but a chance for L&D to innovate and achieve as much, if not more?

In an interview with MERIT, Dr Sanjeev Khagram shares a radical vision for transforming corporate learning. Dr Khagram is the Director-General and Dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a unit of the Arizona State University, which has been ranked the “#1 most innovative school in the US” five times in the past five years by U.S. News & World Report.

Dr Khagram is a world-renowned scholar of leadership, strategic management, entrepreneurship, and innovation. He has worked with the World Economic Forum and the UN, as well as numerous other international organisations, start-ups, corporations, and governments worldwide.

Here, Dr Khagram shares why corporate HR and L&D leaders have reason to be excited about digital learning, and what they need to do to make the most of it.


This spring, you led a graduation ceremony in which students “walked” the stage via remotely operated robots. It made the news in over 100 countries around the world. Why did you do it?

There were three principles behind the idea. One, to ensure the safety, health, and wellbeing of everyone. Two, we wanted to really find a way to celebrate students and their families - to show them that we are proud of them. The third is our prime principle at Thunderbird generally – that we want to pioneer innovation when others retreat.

We are committed to global leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need to practise what we preach to our students and to our executives and everyone else around the world. This graduation did all three of those things: celebrated our students, kept them safe and healthy, and did so in a digital way that was pretty cool and fun.

Dr Khagram with a student’s avatar robot.


What lessons from this innovation in action can be applied to corporate learning?

There are three key lessons. First, we have to be much more systematic and creative in utilising the full range of technological tools that are already here. There’s so much available that can enhance learning. You can see what we’ve done at Thunderbird with our new building: AR and VR technology for language learning and executive education, “cobots” in the classroom, digital immersion classrooms, telepresence… All of these things are in or near the market and it really behoves us to adopt them, to adapt them, and to empower our faculty to be exec ed facilitators. Because we’ve changed from the “sage on the stage” to a very different active learning model. And you can do that remarkably well with technology – often even better. There’s just so much out there. We have to invest and we have to utilise it to enhance and expand advanced learning across sectors and disciplines.

We’ve changed from the “sage on the stage” to a very different active learning model. And you can do that remarkably well with technology.

Second, it’s great to have partners who are willing to really experiment and learn with us. I’ll give you an example. We have a wonderful partner with Merck in Europe. We’ve been doing executive education with them for a very long time. The pandemic obviously hit all corporates and they decided to go remote, as they should. Because we have such a long-term partnership, they didn’t want to cancel our executive education programmes. They just paused and said, we’ll resume when we come back in. We started to share with them that we have these great digital offerings: synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid digital. We showed them different ways we could deliver executive education in these modalities, with these different technologies and tools. At first, they were reluctant – they had never done it before. But quickly they realised that their staff were really disconnected. They needed some immediate skills on managing teams and engaging virtually. And so we started with a small set of programmes. They went so well – they were interactive and dynamic, and people were feeling connected and being empowered – that now a major portion of our programme that was supposed to be immersion is digital. So, you have to have a willing partner. And it’s a learning experience for us as well as the partner.

It’s a typical diffusion of innovation, with early adopters. And then corporates see this is something of value – even in the midst of a pandemic – that we can offer our employees. It can improve the performance of a now-virtual or hybrid company.

Third, the digital experience is a totally different one. The more success stories that we can create, like those avatar robots, the more we can show how great this is. Once Merck had done it, they were willing to share their experience with a number of other partners. It’s a typical diffusion of innovation, with early adopters. And then people see – we can do this, this is really cool, and this is something of value we can offer our employees. It can improve the performance of a now-virtual company. It’s a process, to be sure, but those are the three main lessons.


A digital rendering of an augmented classroom at Thunderbird’s new campus, to be completed in 2021.


So online learning can be very active – not passive and isolating, as some people may think?

That’s right. In fact, for a large number of learners, it’s actually better. A lot of times, there are quiet people in a classroom, even if they’re executives, who may just be outside their comfort zone. But they open up by connecting digitally. They can send a chat to a faculty member, you can do polls, breakout rooms, digital white boarding – there are so many ways to practise inclusion and new ways of interacting are emerging all the time.

You can do that in the classroom, too, and I have to say, that’s the exciting thing. The next generation of education technology is actually going to improve our in-classroom, face-to-face experience. Now, our faculty have all these additional tools. So that’s very exciting for a dean like me, because I see that this is the future. The new classrooms that we’ve put into our new building all have digital tables. Students can do data analytics, visualisations, and presentations in real time as a faculty member or a facilitator is moving around the room. Then you add to that Zoom and MIRO and VirBELA… You can, even in the classroom, create a digitally enhanced executive education experience.

Like every other industry, higher education and exec ed is completely being disrupted. At Thunderbird and ASU, our commitment is to be on the vanguard of that change and to pioneer that progress.


Do you think that using this technology in corporate learning can make companies more innovative?

Absolutely. Our students are doing incredibly well on the market because they are being taught in a virtual environment with the latest technologies. And so, when they come into their companies, they are actually vanguards.

When you think about executives, this is incredibly powerful. We can introduce new technologies into these companies, and we’ve introduced different practices – different ways of holding meetings, for example. How do you hold a meeting and make it effective on Zoom? How do you do the conventional forming–storming–norming in a digital environment? For us, it’s incredibly exciting.

It creates anxieties, too of course. For those who are less tech-savvy, or less comfortable, there’s a whole lot more to do on that front. So, it has made an impact on the companies and the organisations we work with and we see that continuing going forward as tech breakthroughs accelerate.


It’s great to hear you say that this is a chance to rethink learning entirely and do it better. But for many senior execs, it’s challenging and a little intimidating. How can they gain a holistic understanding of the possibilities new technologies open up?

It’s really about the functions that we’re trying to achieve as an organisation. In a way, it’s an opportunity to revisit vision, mission, strategy, organisational culture – the fundamentals of the company.

People may say, let’s use Slack, or Salesforce, all these things that many companies are already starting to use. But it’s not appropriate for every single company, if it’s done as an add-on. It could be helpful to do something. But is it going to be transformative? No.

Not everybody is going to be a Python expert, or a deep learning master. You just need a fluency and a grasp of it. Let’s take the C-suite or senior management. Unless they’re in a tech company, this is not their area. We don’t expect them to become digital natives overnight. But there are ways that we can make it much more accessible, much more exciting.

When I said I wanted robots for graduation, nobody said yes. Everybody said no. So it takes leadership, too. Let’s push ourselves out of our comfort zone – let’s be the vanguards.

It’s the early victories that show the benefit of something – like our avatar robot graduation. That success elicits an attitude of, wow, that’s really cool. When I said I wanted robots for graduation, nobody said yes. Everybody said no. Oh, it’s too hard, it’s too expensive… So it takes leadership, too. You have to say, okay, we’re going to do it. And if it doesn’t work, we have a plan B. But let’s experiment. Let’s learn. Let’s push ourselves out of our comfort zone. It’s also about intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial mindsets. A lot of leaders and managers are trying to empower their employees to be entrepreneurs, so this is a way of galvanising that.


What is a good approach for decision-makers trying to figure out how tech relates to their mission and vision?

There are immediate pain points and problems or threats that companies have to solve, particularly with the pandemic and all that’s going on in the world. I want to be very clear – that’s important and that can create the early victories.

But at the same time, doing a broader digital transformation effort involves the full organisational architecture: the mission, the vision, the values and capacities, the organisational culture. There’s a wonderful book on organisational culture by Edgar Schein. It’s like a foundation book, and there’s a part that I always enjoyed called “Change Through Technological Seduction”. CEOs have to be thinking of creating organisational change and success through technological seduction. And it does require not only a commitment, but an excitement to build the support.

We know it’s scary. Major change is. There’s lots of anxiety and the pandemic has only added to it. Pre-pandemic, companies and industries were already being disrupted day in and day out. On the other hand, there’s no choice – we’ve got to make it. We’ve tried to share that with our partner companies and to make it an empowering, exciting opportunity.

And we’ve seen that so many employees get very excited. It’s so interesting because you get all sorts of employees going to the forefront who maybe were not in the forefront. It does change organisational dynamics. It’s a great opportunity set.


Can you tell me a bit more about the opportunities digital learning creates?

Learning can happen more efficiently, more effectively, more inclusively. You know, at Thunderbird, we have had to rethink our business model, because there are no flights, and everything we do around immersive programmes has been disrupted. But that actually means that we can do things faster, on demand. We can focus more on the creation of the course and the content and the delivery. I will say that, right now, because we’re at the early stages, there’s a lot of learning. And faculty are upgrading so they can do this in a powerful, effective, and seamless way.

At Thunderbird, we’ve offered three different modalities of learning for our students. The first is that students can come back physically into the classroom. There are all the safety protocols – masks, testing, tracking, hygiene, and social distancing. But another set of students say, I want do it completely online – digitally enhanced, synchronous learning. And they can do that, so we have students in the classroom and students online who are interacting. In the classrooms, we’ve added loads of cameras and microphones, plus capabilities for the faculty to zoom in and zoom out, to create blended groups. Now you have a completely augmented classroom. We’re creating this amazingly interactive environment.

People keep talking about the new normal. We have multiple new normals. Right now, people are learning to manage this situation, and doing so in different ways in different contexts.

This pandemic is not a one- or two-year thing. It’s forever, actually. It’s like the flu. But our ability to manage it effectively is going to take three to five years, at least. People keep talking about the new normal. We have multiple new normals. Right now, people are learning to manage this situation, and doing so in different ways in different contexts. All companies will be more virtual and remote than ever. But they’re not all going to want to be remote all the time. They’re going to want to get back to face-to-face interaction in different combinations.

Take that classroom experience I’ve just shared, and imagine you now transpose that to a corporate environment. Some people are in the room or in the office, some are remote, others are learning on demand. It can be done. And it can increase effectiveness and efficiency.

Read more: After Covid-19: “Help People to Create the New Normal” (Interview)


What are HR and L&D decision-makers’ key responsibilities at this time?

First, they really have to persuade their senior leadership and a set of early adopters that learning in this way not only gives you the set of skills and content that you want to be learning – it’s also empowering you to be effective in a digital, virtual, blended world that we’re going to have forever. That’s a big communications and advocacy effort that HR directors have to deliver on – upwards to their C-suites and outwards and downwards to the employees in the organisation.

Second, they have to be really out there, looking at all the technologies. They must have the proficiency to realise, for example, the technology platforms we have or even currently use are not going to give us all the functionalities we want. They have to be actually very knowledgeable about the different tech platforms, the different tools; they need to be very sophisticated consumers. Because everybody’s peddling their wares. How does an HR director decide, especially if they have scarce resources? Now they themselves have to upskill.

Third, they should see this as a three- to five-year process of transformation. Learning and HR are part of the broader digital transformation of the company. I think it’s an incredible opportunity. There are a lot of things that HR directors have always wanted to achieve that they couldn’t do. And this moment of disruption gives an opportunity for them to do a set of things with a mindset that can and should be transformative.

Read more: After Covid-19: The Rise of HR Changemakers (Interview)


That’s a great framework – to not think of technology as antagonistic.

Yes. For example, we think of AI not as artificial intelligence, but as augmented intelligence. It’s the same thing for HR directors. Technology provides a set of assets, resources, and capabilities that are just so powerful and can be utilised for really amazing things. However, the reality they face is that there’s no choice. It’s still a competitive marketplace out there. If HR directors and HR professionals want their organisations to be successful, they really have to transform for the digital age. But this frame of excitement and positivity is helpful in moving this transformation from a threat to an opportunity.

Read more: How AI Is Transforming Corporate Learning


How is leadership changing amid all this? What should a leader do in the twenty-first century, when things are changing so fast, there are so many new opportunities, and nobody knows everything? What should executive education teach?

One way to think about this is through the four types of problems. Type 1: we know the problem and the solution. Type 2: we know the problem, but not the solution. Type 3: we know the solution, but not the problem. Type 4: we don’t know the solution or the problem.

Right now, leadership and management are largely around type 3 and type 4. We have a lot of solutions: what can they actually solve or achieve? And then there are unknown unknowns. We don’t fully understand what’s happening, and we don’t know what the appropriate strategy or solution set is. Leadership in that type of environment is incredibly different. If it’s a type 1 problem, you basically need really great management. But with type 3 and 4, you need lots of leadership, and not just the heroic version of individual leadership. We need leadership across the entire organisation.

If you know the problem and the solution, you basically need really great management. But if you don’t know the solution or the problem, you need leadership, and not just the heroic version of individual leadership.


Is this related to the corporate entrepreneurship you were talking about?

Yes, exactly. It’s a radical decentralisation of leadership. I like the term “leaderful”. In leaderful companies, it’s not a single person that has these capabilities. You never know where a problem is going to get figured out. You never know which group is going to find the solution. This then adds to agility, experimentation, learning, MVPs – all of the ideas that we’ve gotten from the entrepreneurship world.

But the other piece is, let’s face it, we are in a world where parochialisms, nationalisms, extremes, and polarisation are on the rise. A global mindset is more important than ever to be successful in today’s leadership landscape, with all of its geopolitical and environmental dynamics.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed a global demand for expertise in managing systemic hazards. With every transnational system and organisation simultaneously in flux, we’re witnessing diminishing resilience in our political, social, economic, and financial orders—all of which are dependent on a natural environment and web of life also under intense pressure. That’s not going to stop or even slow down.

As apparent black swan events and other worldwide disruptions will continue occurring across a hotter, more crowded, and less equitable planet, leaders of global organisations need a knowledge base and skill set that span sectors and disciplines, so they can advance inclusive, sustainable prosperity worldwide. We love this language of “dancing with complexity”. It’s like nature, right? We’re not going to manage nature. We have to be able to steward it and live as part of it – leadership is about that harmony now.


Do you think executive education and corporate learning can make more “leaderful” companies?

We believe it 100%. But I know the onus to show it is ours. That’s where we started the interview, with the robot graduation ceremony. We have to get better. We have to practise what we preach. We are an enterprise too. We certainly teach and train. But we have to be able to not only say “do this”, but – look, we’re doing it too, we’re adopting these technologies. We’re engaging with them in our business practices. This is the world we all live in and we can thrive in.


Explore new frontiers in L&D at the C-level MERIT European Summit in Paris on 18 September: “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. Places are limited – reserve yours now.


Interview by Ani Kodjabasheva