Davos offers a test case on blending disparate groups

Jack Modzelewski, president of client relations at Fleishman-Hillard, offers a view on the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Jack Modzelewski, president of client relations at Fleishman-Hillard, offers a view on the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The small mountain village of Davos, Switzerland, was once again transformed into center stage last week when more than 2,000 of the world's leaders in business, government, labor, religion, social activism, academia, media, and the arts and sciences made their annual pilgrimage to the World Economic Forum. For five days, Davos hosted the WEF, essentially the World Cup of multi-stakeholder dialogue and relations. More than 30 heads of state or government, six dozen cabinet ministers, 28 religious leaders, 50 heads of NGOs, and leading business people with marquee names like Gates, Dell, Fiorina, and Soros opined and interacted.

A Reuters story about this year's WEF called it an "elitist talk shop for the rich." More accurately, it is a cross-section of influential, accomplished, well-educated, and socially directed individuals coming together to achieve some good for the benefit of humanity. Not a bad goal, even if only for a few days. But is all the talk about global issues relevant? What really gets accomplished here? And, what can we, as professional communicators and stakeholder relationship makers, learn from it?

A meeting of the minds

One is struck at Davos by the open atmosphere for cooperative dialogue - where heads of state offer observations alongside NGO leaders, CEOs listen to young social entrepreneurs, and artists exchange views with academics. The playing field is level. Everyone is accessible. You can strike up a conversation with just about anyone who is not a world leader shielded by a security detail.

Diversity is also evident. Not just along gender, ethnic, or religious lines, but also diversity of experiences. Where else can you find Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, seated next to NBA commissioner David Stern on a panel covering reputation risk? It's a meeting of the minds that starts early in the morning and goes late into the night. Imagine five days on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with hundreds of people trading advice, ideas, information, and solutions for the world's economic and social ills, interrupted occasionally by a speech from the leader of Pakistan or Iran or Ireland. That's the scene in Davos - energy, intellect, a m?lange of cultures and personalities. It's a convergence center of new economy communication technology and old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation.

No organization takes on the breadth of A-to-Z global issues - from hunger to happiness, obesity to terrorism - involving so many thinkers at one time. The WEF provides a textbook case for how to organize and conduct a multi-stakeholder conference on such scale. As a multi-stakeholder dialogue forum, "there may not be a better one on the planet," said John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems. "There is no other forum I know of that offers the environment and the dialogue."

As one of the most visible corporate leaders at Davos this year, serving on several panels, Chambers suggested that companies should not try to solve social issues through cash contributions, but by loaning assets - people, trucks and airplanes, logistics or distribution systems - to help fix those problems. Leveraging a company's assets has a lasting affect on a program's success, as well as corporate morale, reputation, and shareholder value. This has proven the case of Dutch company TPG, which last year teamed at the WEF with the World Hunger Organization and now uses its fleet of planes to deliver food around the globe.

Does this type of spontaneous partnership happen often at Davos? It's hard to say. But the fact that it happens at all is an indication that some of the dialogue does spur action. Davos is also a great place to test out new ideas, good or bad, as trial balloons. With media from around the world present, new theories or initiatives often get coverage. If any debate gets too heated and "bipolar," moderators try to find a supportive middle ground. Conclusions from each public discussion get published within 24 hours, as the transparency of a lasting record is key. Ideas for public-private partnerships to solve specific problems also can be discussed discreetly outside of main meeting rooms. The WEF conference center features small meeting places, called "bilateral rooms," where a few people can sit down and hash out an agreement or working model for a program. Dialogue is the precious tool of diplomacy, which makes Davos a laboratory for students of the diplomacy of conceiving public-private partnerships. I'd even argue that Davos reflects one of our prized strategies: changing opinion through town-hall-type discussions.

Turning ideas into action

Nevertheless, measurable outcomes are not always handy at Davos. The goal is "improving the state of the world." The question becomes how to measure it. In my working session, Kevin Steinberg, a senior director at the WEF, suggested we should create metrics and attempt to measure whether the reputations of corporate and government leaders for improving the state of the world increases as a result of their actions. In a separate session on corporate giving, discussion led to a request for an impartial academic assessment of companies' criteria, standards, and successes. Yet other panels, such as corporate risk or cultural heritage, were mostly talk, no action. So in the end, measurable results are largely dependent on the panel leader's desire for action.

Bill Clinton challenged participants on the first day to turn ideas into actions by creating effective systems to deliver results. He used the example that therapies for third-world HIV patients were available but hampered because distribution systems were not in place. The world won't be a vastly improved place, he said, until countries and regions turn from isolation to interdependence and finally to integration and confront global problems with integrated solutions.

There is also the argument of whether business leaders should even be in attendance at Davos. We may now be at a point when Fortune 500 CEOs are considered world leaders. The world has become more capitalist-focused in the past decade, and the role of the CEO has expanded beyond the immediate workplace. Even Chinese CEOs at Davos acknowledged that they face strong expectations to be socially responsible.

Globalization has also thrust business leaders into the international arena. Often, they are the engine feeding GDP. Growth and survival require a larger international perspective and multi-stakeholder feedback. At Davos, a CEO standing at a coffee bar may suddenly find himself in a conversation with the director of an NGO or a leader from a third-world nation. Small talk can lead to a more focused discussion on mutual interest. Before long, business cards are exchanged. Some of these conversations evolve into relationships or partnerships.

Nevertheless, gathering all of these potentates in one place and asking them to discuss the world's problem seems like a fascinating exercise. But still one must ask if Davos is more than that, and whether it has lasting relevance? Leaders evidently think so, because they come every year to make speeches. Sometimes they use it as a platform for changing perceptions about themselves and their countries. At this year's conference, people agreed that Vice President Dick Cheney and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf did a good job of communicating their governments' world-improving missions, while the heads of Iran and Turkey may have failed in that regard.

But Davos is also relevant on an organizational and personal level. According to Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), "It clarified a lot of issues, especially about international economic developments." Lord David Putnam, famed film producer and now president of UNICEF, says he found that all discussions revealed stakeholders need to "foster trust and find an authentic voice." Yet during a vibrant discussion of the stock market, Linda Fuller, cofounder of Habitat for Humanity, asked, "How many people in the world care about the stock markets when they are earning $1 a day?" Clearly, the breadth of WEF topics produces a breadth of responses. Paul Sagan, president of Akamai Technology, summed it best when he said, "Everyone has their own Davos."

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