The World Economic Forum: Is it worth it?

In the past two weeks, I've attended regional World Economic Forums in South Africa and East Asia.

In the past two weeks, I've attended regional World Economic Forums in South Africa and East Asia.

When you commit that kind of time to such events, a few questions come to mind: is it worth it? For that matter, are WEF's worth it at all?

I don't mind saying that I've heard opinions on both ends of the spectrum and in between. My opinion: not only are the WEF's worth it, they are irreplaceable.

The make-up of the WEF is highly diverse—CEOs, heads of state, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, elected and appointed officials. All of these people gather without layers of “handlers” and security. The mass accessibility guarantees that opinions are shared in a great “mash up” of ideas. As one humorist said, we're all involved in verbal Twittering, something called “conversation.” That's a change.

Second, the mix of participants guarantees that a wide variety of economic, social, environmental, and political issues are put out for discussion. In fact, it could be said that there is no other forum in the world where a multidenominational group can set a broad agenda for a global or regional discussion. Not the United Nations. Not the G-20. Not the WTO or IMF.

Third, it's rare that so many leaders of all stripes share in the same experience. That's important. In this digital world, we all are receiving bits and bytes in our own random order and somehow we are expected to find common understanding, common ground. At the WEF, everyone is exposed to the same conversation, and then they break off and exchange interpretations. In parallel sessions, solutions are debated, presented by people with real world experience. Not everyone agrees. In fact, agreement is sometimes hard to find. Yet people get to test their beliefs and their ideas, and, inevitably, they leave with a new perspective. After the WEF, everyone has an understanding of what's on the world agenda, and they have new energy and concepts to apply in their respective regions.

Are there any instant solutions? No. Not really. But if you think of each WEF as a smaller part of a larger conversation, and if you stand back with the perspective of time, it's easy to see how the WEF is, truly, the world in debate with itself.

If you are driven by the “short-termism” that is rampant today, you will be disappointed in the WEF. It's not about winning the next account or making the next quarter. If you listen carefully, however, you'll understand better where the world is headed, and you can lead your organization to intersect with its future.

Dave Senay is president and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard.

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