Monthly Archives: January 2001

Davos Newbies Home

There’s a Davos development that I have mixed feelings about. In its origins, the World Economic Forum brought together leaders from business, government and academia. That was a nice, simple concept: business and government need a dialogue, and the academics add true expertise (although some of them felt a bit like dancing bears, available for entertainment).

In the early ’90s, the Forum revised its previously super-restrictive attitude towards the media. In part, this was a reaction to a clamour from the press about admission. But on a constructive level, it was because of a belief that the media would provide transparency and openness to the proceedings. The Forum most definitely is not a cabal, and it certainly did not want to seem such. So now there was a fourth pillar in the media.

In the late ’90s, a new group started to intrude. For brevity, I’ll call it Hollywood. There are two “Hollywood” segments I have no problem with: studio heads and the like (the entertainment business is a fascinating, global industry) and true artists (I’d love to integrate a Coppola into a variety of Davos sessions). But my tolerance stops at stars who, truth to tell, are invited purely because they are stars.

Despite a lot of effort, the Forum has never gotten that far with real stars. They’re busy filming, or just not interested, or they expect a level of star treatment that just isn’t possible (although the Forum is willing to lay on certain star perks that no one else in Davos gets). This year in Davos, there are, however, a number of star-like people where I just don’t understand why they are there.

Bono, who is coming, is great. He has been a major figure in the debt relief movement. But why Martha Stewart? Oprah Winfrey? Am I missing something?

Davos Newbies Home

In a half joking way, Dan Gillmor asked me yesterday to keep him informed about the best parties in Davos. Like any great networking event, much of the best value of Davos does come from the informal occasions. As someone who has graduated out of newbie status (this will be Dan’s second year), I’m confident he’ll find his way to the hot ticket events. True newbies, however, need more guidance.

The easiest path for those seeking the Davos fringe is to find your way to the Steigenberger Belvedere hotel from about six each evening. The Belvedere has been the grand hotel of Davos since the 19th century when Europe’s finest went to the mountains for rest and respiratory cures. During the Davos summit, it’s where a lot of CEOs and prime ministers want to stay (even though it’s not, truth to tell, anywhere as nice a hotel as the Seehof or a couple of others). What is unquestionable is that it is where the receptions and parties are most numerous. On any given evening, there will be at least three cocktail parties. Most evenings, there will be a nightcap as well.

When I first started going to Davos in the early ’90s, there was far less fringe activity. Now, just about every available hour is taken up with something: breakfast seminars (on and off the programme), the official programme from breakfast through dinner, private lunches, cocktail parties, private dinners, and a bunch of nightcaps (again, on and off the programme). One of the nice things about Davos is that if you have a white badge, you’re always welcome at the parties, whether you have an invitation or not.

Davos Newbies Home

Part of the fun (and agony) of the Davos programme is coping with rapid changes. In the microcosm of my agenda, an example has just cropped up. Gary DiCamillo, CEO of Polaroid, was meant to be on my panel on “Putting the customer in your product”. I’ve just had notice that he has cancelled his Davos trip.

So I’m left with Yossi Vardi, Jakob Nielsen and David Kelley, which in itself is a great panel. (Aside: why does Jakob seem to attract controversy out of all proportion to his power/stature/whatever? He’s entangled in a patent wrangle and he was the target of the Wap Forum‘s ire for his sceptical comments on Wap usability. All signs of a good panelist, incidentally.) But now that we’ve lost DiCamillo, should we try for someone else? I think the answer is yes, not least because who knows what might happen in the next two weeks. Yossi, Jakob or David could, for example, get a skiing injury on the Sunday morning sprts day. Then where would we be?

I’ve asked the programme mavens at the Forum to look for alternatives. One name that suggests itself is Dean Kamen, whose enigmatic Ginger project is getting hype on a worldwide scale. That might provide us with the ammunition we need against the Gates plenary pulling power.

Davos Newbies Home

I’m not privy to much inside information about Davos these days, but a little does flow my way. In the preliminary programme that has been sent to participants, there is a “Special Message” from Yoshiro Mori, prime minister of Japan.

Uniquely, this entry has an asterisk: *pending official confirmation. Unlike conference programmes (see yesterday’s posting), Davos maintains the tough discipline of only printing names when they are confirmed — both as coming to the meeting and agreeing to be in a particular session. So what’s the story behind Mori’s asterisk?

It seems that the prime minister in Japan needs approval from the Diet (Japan’s legislature) to leave the country. As far as anyone at the Forum knows, Mori is completely confirmed as coming. But until the Diet votes its approval, he can’t get on the plane (the plan is for him to spend five hours in Switzerland). Without exploring the issue in depth, it’s possible to see how such a regime might have seemed a democratic safeguard in the post-war years. Now it’s just another instance of bureaucracy run wild.

Incidentally, Mori may enjoy his five hours out of the country (as well as the nearly 30 hours of flying). His latest poll ratings are in single figures, a historic low for any Japanese politician.

Davos Newbies Home

I’ve just had an exchange with a friend where I sought advice on whether to go to a particular conference. “I’m a sceptic on conferences,” I wrote. So why, you may ask, was I so deeply involved with Davos?

As I’ve written here before, the World Economic Forum is careful never to use the word “conference” for what it does. Davos is a “meeting” (it is, in fact, the annual meeting of the members of the World Economic Forum). What’s the difference? At one level, it’s purely semantic. But for me, and I’m pretty sure for my former colleagues at the Forum, the difference is substantive. At a conference, speakers get up on a platform and speak to an audience. At a meeting, everyone is a participant. That’s why people in Davos are never attendees or, horror of horrors, delegates (who delegated them?). They are always participants.

***Covering Davos
I had a call yesterday from a television producer who is doing a series on dissent for Britain’s Channel 4. He wants to film in Davos as an example of the movement against globalisation and the sense that so many have that they are disenfranchised from key decisions.

Although there are plenty of powerful people within the Congress Centre in Davos, I don’t think that decisions are really made there. I hope and believe that thinking can be changed in Davos, that CEOs that spend 360-odd days each year being shielded consciously or unconsciously from dissenting views, can have their minds opened to some extent. That’s what happens in the very best of Davos.

I’d like to think the C4 film could show that, but I suspect events will strongly conspire against it. The producer has already had a rejection from the Forum about filming in the Congress Centre. Part of that is an institutional immune reaction to the unknown. But it is also inspired by a good impulse. The Congress Centre is zoo-like during Davos, with too many participants and media shoved into a facility not really designed for the numbers. Film crews, even lithe, nimble ones, are a definite intrusion. So the Forum has a draconian limitation on them. That’s probably right.

Davos Newbies Home

For reasons of history, this weblog remains Davos Newbies. But it is some time since I spoke about Davos, which is now just a few weeks away (the countdown on this page gives the time remaining to the minute). Over the holiday break, I received my personal agenda for Davos 2001, and it poses some interesting questions.

In contrast to last January, where I had to be just about everywhere just about all the time, I have the luxury this Davos of having only a few commitments at this stage. I’m running the moderators’ bootcamp (placidly renamed moderators’ briefing for some reason), moderating two sessions (one on user experience and one on “the museum of the future”) and participating in a dinner discussion on truth and trust in the information age.

I’ll talk some other day about the sessions, but I’d like to concentrate first on the importance of moderating. Year after year, in analysing what works and what doesn’t work in Davos, one conclusion has been reached: nothing is more important to the success of a session than the moderator. You can have a great topic with great panelists and a so-so moderator and, guess what, the result is below expectations. But a great moderator can squeeze blood out of a stone (translate: make a CEO or central banker skilled in muddy platitudes say something interesting).

I’ve already admitted to being a Forum Fellow under slightly false pretences. I can’t claim any of the world-leading, deep expertise in a single area that most other FFs have. I am, however, an expert on Davos itself and I think I know what makes a good moderator (and I think I’m reasonably skilled at the task, as well).

So here are the five keys to great moderation (I’d welcome other points you may wish to suggest).

Prepare. Too many moderators come even to Davos without having thought intelligently through their topic and without having discussed the subject with the other panelists. In Davos, a 15 minute preparatory meeting is programmed just before the actual session, but if that is when you think you can do the preparation, you are too late. It is, however, a delicate balance. It’s wrong to wear out panelists so their ideas sound talked out and stale. But you should have a clear idea of their passions and peeves, so you know when to push the right hot button.

Be tough. In Davos in particular, moderators tend to be too polite. Sometimes this is institutionally forced: a CEO is unlikely to push a fellow CEO too hard on a point, especially when they may be important business partners (consultants and bankers can be the worst in this regard — they have to remain friends with everyone). It’s not my style to be impolite or to embarrass people, but participants in Davos deserve a challenging, bracing discussion. Don’t let panelists get away with unfounded assertions. Be ready with the questions you think panelists may struggle to answer.

Take risks. As much as the World Economic Forum struggles against it, there does tend to be a “Davos consensus” in a lot of sessions. It’s not that everyone agrees precisely, but (particularly in economic and management sessions) the spectrum of opinions is somewhat narrow. As moderator at this stage of events, there is little to no scope to say, “Can we get someone different on this panel?” You have to live with it. So you may find yourself in the role of designated risk taker (unless you can persuade one of your panelists to take this on). Ask the unpopular question. Remember that the participants in the audience need discomfitting as much as the panelists.

Watch the time. Obvious, but essential. Keep an especially beady eye open for panelists who come with a prepared speech. I don’t advocate ripping it up for them, but you do need to move heaven and earth to ensure they don’t read a speech. It’s boring and it will always, always, go on too long. Even for those without speeches, make sure they keep to their allotted time. That’s the only way to preserve time for questions, which should be the best part of the session. Nothing riles an audience more than the curt announcement from the moderator, “Well, that’s been fascinating, but I’m afraid we’re out of time so we can’t have any questions.” There should always be questions.

Enjoy. If you don’t enjoy the session, no one else will. The moderator has to communicate energy and enjoyment to both the panelists and the audience. That spirit, allied with good panelists, will ensure that panelists interact during questions (interaction is everything for a good session) and that the audience wants to participate as well. Remember that in Davos, a participant in the audience stands a good chance to making as valuable (if not more valuable) a contribution as any of your panelists.

Davos Newbies Home

***The new year
This year is dawning for many people with considerably more trepidation than the last. The economic outlook in the US is uncertain, and, as the old saw has it, when the US catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes. Political uncertainty also clouds the American outlook: we may know who the new president is, but there is very little clarity on what his administration is likely to mean. Europe has a more optimistic feel, with the euro beginning to climb back in value against the dollar, and most estimates of growth at a reasonably cheery level. Latin America, with the exception of US-oriented Mexico, seems cautiously confident. The outlook in Asia is generally grim.

These will be the dominant tones in Davos at the end of this month, generally defying the announced theme, Bridging the divides. (Late-breaking note: my former colleagues at the Forum aren’t blind. In finding the URL for that last link, I see they have changed the theme to “Sustaining growth and bridging the divides”. I think that still misses the reigning anxiety.) I liked the Financial Times’s start-of-the-year injunction: “hope for the best; prepare for the worst”.

There are good things about the change in mood. Dave Winer has pointed out “downturns are a perfect time to dig in, listen to users, learn what they want, and create the technology that scratches the itch, and plan on selling it for money”. The perpetually sour Charlotte Raven suggests in The Guardian “the upside of living in a state of permanent flux is that nothing can go on forever… At least boom and bust were honest. They looked like what they were. The thing about sustained stability is that you often can’t see what’s really going on.”

***Everything you know is wrong
I don’t want to encourage further new year depression, but if you can stand more analysis of the Florida count, read Micky Kaus’s Slate column. On this analysis, almost any way you count Florida — if the count had been allowed to continue — would result in a Gore victory. I, too, think talk of supporting a “healing process” is nonsensical, even if I also recognise the (compromised) legitimacy of a Bush presidency.

***What’s in a name?
You may have noticed the ads for Accenture, which is the new name for Andersen Consulting. I am hugely sceptical of the value of naming exercises (although this one was forced on AC after its lengthy legal dispute with Arthur Andersen). Most good names either come naturally, or they are now seen as good because they identify a good company. Would any naming consultant suggest WalMart or Cisco or Google? I realise this process has been complicated by the desire for a memorable URL, but as my friend Dave Winer endlessly points out, all the best names are still out there.

I do think, however, that good design and good writing matter. I have no objection to the Accenture logo, but I have read the following advertisement headline several times without a glimmer of comprehension: “In a bid to seize the future, Andersen Consulting redefines its field as Accenture”. Does it mean that its field of operations is now accenture, a meaningless word? I think it means “Accenture, the former Andersen Consulting, redefines its field”. That is still a fairly meaning-free statement. How many great minds sat in conferences to agree this copy line?