Peter Zemsky of INSEAD on How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level

Kate Mowbray
Authority Magazine
Published in
8 min readApr 27, 2023

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I had the pleasure of interviewing the Deputy Dean and Dean of Innovation at INSEAD, Peter Zemsky. Professor Zemsky is a passionate educator. He teaches about strategy in the face of technology change and industry dynamics. He currently offers the popular online executive education course ‘Strategy in an Age of Digital Disruption’. Likened to Jim Carrey by his students, Zemsky is a positive and dynamic leader with contagious enthusiasm.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?

Of course! My career blends together. There’s academia, economic theory, technology, and a real interest in how to create a bridge between academia and practice.

In the 1970s, my dad brought home an early version of a computer and, age 12, I was learning how to program it. I was always deeply curious about society and the world. There was so much I wanted to learn, I wondered whether to focus on technology, or economic theory. I was interested in what it all really means for society.

I ended up going to Stanford University and really starting to apply mathematical modelling, and similar thinking, to business strategy, and then I came to INSEAD almost 30 years ago. By doing that, I found a place with an amazing environment to bring that all together.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped to get you where you are? Can you share a story?

Yes, my grandmother, an incredibly eclectic woman. We lived on the east coast and she lived in San Francisco, so I’d only see her once or twice a year. Every time she came, she would have something new she was interested in, usually artistic. We would often make pottery together, but she loved museums, so we would go to lots of different museums. Those experiences have made me the type of person to say yes to things, new experiences and different challenges.

Extensive research suggests that purpose driven businesses are more successful in many areas. When INSEAD started, what was its vision & purpose?

Interestingly enough, that’s what INSEAD is. From the beginning, it was a mission driven organisation. We’re one of the leading business schools, and we’re challenging the top American schools. People may wonder; what are we doing in the middle of a forest in Fontainebleau?

Post-war, in Europe, we were created by people who wanted to bring Europe together to learn and pursue growth. This wasn’t just in a business sense, but also for prosperity and peace. So, whilst that was a huge part of the original story, there was a lot of emphasis on innovation. As a European business school, if you want to challenge other institutions, you have to innovate. Part of my role at INSEAD is ensuring that we keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive. 60 years later, we are trying to stick with the strategy and ensure that we keep innovating.

That kind of leads me into my next question! Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Yes, there are a few! We are continuing to look at management education and pedagogy, and how we can be at the leading edge. Myself, I am doing some really interesting things around VR and immersive learning. There is obviously a lot of hype, maybe even too much hype, about the metaverse, AI, blockchain. It’s easy to get caught up in these things. But, as someone who teaches technology, I can say that you need to focus on what your customers want. Look at your industry, what works? What doesn’t?

With VR, we’ve seen a real fit with education. We know that headsets are used with tech training and medical applications, but we are finding that it’s brilliant for teaching parts of management too. It means that people can learn by doing, active learning. It makes learning more accessible, more enjoyable.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in Digital Transformation?

People think, “well, why would I do that when I can just watch a video, or read a case study?” It’s a good question, but it’s more active learning. We’ve learnt a few things…

When someone has a VR headset on, and they’re watching a video, it is very directed. In the headset, you may be seeing a boardroom, and you have a few people in the room. You have to think, who should I be looking at? How are people reacting, how should I react?

It’s much more active, you are open to more scenarios. In the VR simulation, you may play a male or female CEO or staff member, you might notice that whichever one you are is receiving a different amount of attention.

Because it is digital, you start to see more possibilities. A lot of my role is to look for these kinds of innovation, and see if we can carve out a space for them to be explored at INSEAD. That’s one part that’s critical about digital transformation. You need to ensure that you don’t smother innovation with a ‘business as usual’ attitude, but you also can’t successfully compete if you forget everything you have and create something totally new.

With the VR, it’s creating something new but blending it with what we already have and utilising it in the MBA and Executive MBA. It really adds to the growth mindset. We also have a learning hub too. That means that the opportunity for continuous growth is at their fingertips, but it can be balanced with careers and lives.

Okay, wonderful. And which kind of companies do you think will benefit the most from digital transformation?

Firstly, you need a strategy, and you need a scale plan. If you look at tech, it’s a scale game. I think with the bigger, traditional companies, they think “oh, we can just experiment”, but they miss the key point, which is that when experimenting, you have to pump capital into it.

Typically, there will only be a few winners in one space. When you do win, you are guaranteed that the investment will pay off, but the experimentation stage is important. Sometimes, in industry, more classical leaders will have trouble making bets on investing in half-proven technology. That fear holds them back.

We’d love to hear about your experiences of helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and student experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

Of course. So, for our MBA programme, people have often quit their jobs and moved to be closer. They are hoping to learn from each other and make lifelong friendships. That’s very important for us. We don’t want technology to get in the way.

For us, we are more about the “pre” and “post”. We want to keep supporting lifelong learning after they have finished their studying at INSEAD. It used to be all in-person master classes and similar. Now, we host webinars and, as I mentioned earlier, we have an INSEAD Hub that keeps people connected. We want to help foster lifelong learning. It means we can keep one foot in the digital world and one in the real world. It ensures we have a good balance for students. It creates a culture which aims to support them and ease their anxieties when learning too, because I think sometimes technology creates a lot of anxiety.

Okay, thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. In what way can a company can use Digital Technology to take it to the next level? Please share an example or story.

There is one big thing that comes to mind.

Of course, customer focus is important, it is a major point for all businesses, naturally. Although, I think the real key is creating business value from technology, and bridging the gap between people with technical expertise and people who understand the business. You need people to work together to ensure business success.

Nowadays, we regularly see people making mistakes with data protection rights, and companies are learning their lessons about hiring data scientists and engineers. The data scientists will propose lots of ideas, and may struggle to understand the full picture of the business needs. Ideally, we need to bridge the gap between the two. That’s a key area, getting the technical people to understand how to create and maintain value, and vice versa.

We are regularly seeing the media discussing AI and how it will take people’s jobs. Digital revolutions take time, so for now companies should utilise their data scientists and tech experts. Bridging the gap is the key for businesses. By doing this, they will ensure they get the most from digital transformations taking place in their business.

Okay, and then leading on from that, in your opinion, how do you think that companies can create that culture of innovation? In order to create competitive advantages?

That is something that is super important is to ensure your employees feel supported, and encouraged. Without that, then frankly, they will get frustrated and leave. You have to think about what they are bringing; you need people who are driving results. Who are the people who are demonstrating that they can create new and effective value propositions? Make sure they are being rewarded; promotions, leadership roles and bonuses. Move them into an innovation assignment, make sure they understand what it’s about.

Again, balance is key. You need to have a balance of centralization. If you over fixate in an area such as innovation, you are sending a message to employees: saying they don’t have to worry about that. The last thing you want is the organisation becoming stagnant.

Can you please share your favourite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not sure if I have a quote as such, maybe a mantra, but I am blessed with a lot of natural energy and I believe in saying yes to a bunch of things, be it small or random, I always say yes. I feel like it brings me a lot of serendipity, and helps me to keep learning.

Excellent. Finally, how can our readers further follow your work?

Well of course they can add me on LinkedIn, or follow my twitter.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/peter-zemsky-9032059/

@zemskyp

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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