Learning from Davos

The 2011 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos


The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos at the end of January attracted the usual headlines as world leaders laid down their agendas for the coming year and beyond. Helping shape that agenda were representatives from London Business School.

The annual gathering of some of the world’s most powerful individuals at Davos is celebrated and questioned, but what cannot be doubted is the potency of its mix. Davos is a powerful cocktail of ideas, opinions and agendas.

Where else could you hear Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, displaying his up-to-date knowledge of the theories of Michael Porter and challenging the Harvard guru? Where else could you see the Wal-mart CEO trying to find a seat to listen to the British Prime Minister? And where else could you listen to eminent psychologists exposing the flaws in the parenting style of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom of North America?

Behind the cocktails, there is, of course, work to do, deals to be done, positions to be taken. Davos is a serious business. "Business today is about partnerships and, for me and London Business School, that is why Davos is such a fruitful event," says London Business School Dean, Sir Andrew Likierman. "It gives you an unparalleled opportunity to talk to existing and potential customers as well as shaping critical debates about the future shape of business."

The London Business School contingent at Davos included Kamalini Ramdas, Professor of Management Science & Operations; Rajesh Chandy, Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship, Professor of Marketing; Michael Hay, Professor of Management Practice in Entrepreneurship; and Gary Dushnitsky, Associate Professor of Strategic and International Management and Entrepreneurship.

Among the biggest themes of Davos was healthcare, one close to the heart of Kamalini Ramdas. “The key to seeing widespread improvement in the health care world is to get everyone involved – from doctors to those who prepare food in the hospital cafeteria, from nurses to those who work in maintaining the hospital grounds – to become patient-centric,” she says. Of course good nutrition is fundamental to good health. At Davos, she saw Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN’s World Food Program, compare the problem her organisation is trying to solve to opening a bicycle lock with eight tumblers. The problem can only be solved if all eight tumblers line up. If hunger is to be solved, each of us needs to figure out which piece of the lock we can tackle, and work with it, be it infrastructure, technology, or other elements.

In the Ideas Lab

The London Business School group led an Ideas Lab session – the first time the school had led such a session. It looked at breakthroughs in business strategy.

"What was exciting about the Ideas Lab session was that it was in an area where people hadn’t previously made connections," says Sir Andrew Likierman who introduced the session. "It linked different management disciplines together and demonstrated that innovation and entrepreneurship need to be on the business agenda."

The Ideas Lab session looked at interconnectedness in a changing landscape and set out to challenge prevailing theories, unquestioned assumptions and established ways of working. Says Michael Hay: “The world is not a modified version of the reality to which we have become accustomed. The New Reality is profoundly different and it is these differences, together with the challenges that arise, which we want to explore and debate”.

Kamalini Ramdas challenged some common preconceptions about innovation and presented a number of examples of groundbreaking innovations happening in unlikely places and environments. She cited an example of a cardiac preventive care clinic in which the doctor sees a group of 12 patients at once in an 1.5 hour slot, rather than seeing one patient at a time for half an hour. Outcomes are up and costs are down.

She also described the innovative work of Amit Mehra, CEO of Reuters Market Light in India. He is spearheading a service where farmers receive information on the price of specific crops at markets of their choice. It is sent by daily text messages.  Rather than having to travel somewhere to get information, the farmer gets it right where he is.

Closer to home, hospitals in Scotland and France are using Cisco technology to practice remote telemedicine. A doctor in a major hospital can consult with a patient in a small far away clinic or outpost. “Services that have been around forever are being delivered very differently. And often information technology is the bridge that allows this to happen,” said Professor Ramdas. “This is enabling simultaneous improvements in quality and reduction in cost, resulting in better value. New technologies are taking products and services to the location of the customer.”

Among the other issues raised by the session was the emergence of micro-entrepreneurs. “If you walk into any market in the developing world, you are surrounded by capitalism on steroids – dozens, even hundreds of micro-entrepreneurs selling almost identical assortments of products and services, making puny profits,” said Rajesh Chandy. “Adam Smith pointed to the self-interest of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker to explain the workings of capitalism. I argue that it is in our own self-interest to understand micro-entrepreneurs, and help improve their lives. They are our customers, they are our distributors, and they are our potential suppliers and taxpayers. The lives of micro-entrepreneurs have been filled with constraints. They have had little access to information, they have had little access to money, little access to basic business skills, and to formal and informal rules. Imagine what might happen if these constraints are removed.”

Gary Dushnitsky looked at the financing of innovation and charted the emergence of exciting new models in the world of innovation. “In a world faced with new realities, it is incumbent upon us to start from square one, to revisit past assumptions, and to bridge east and west. Gary Dushnitsky was also involved in a stimulating group discussion on financing innovation in the 21st century.

“Inventors and investors come in more than just 'plain vanilla' – they are diverse. By that I mean, some inventors are motivated by money while others seek recognition or the desire to solve a puzzle. For example, pharmaceutical companies can have productive interactions with inventors who are passionate in their desire to cure a certain disease. Similarly, some investors are motivated by financial returns while others pursue additional motives such as supporting an agenda, making an impact, and so on. Most importantly, new platforms have emerged that can now effectively match these diverse parties. They constitute an eBay for ideas and inventions!”

The tone for the year

Of course, one of the roles of Davos is to identify the big themes for the next year and to strike a tone. The doom and gloom of the two previous annual meetings was supplanted in 2011 by a different mood.

“Our session went well and provoked a vigorous debate which was echoed in many other sessions,” says Michael Hay. “What was striking, having attended Davos over the years, was the extent to which much of the new and innovative thinking is coming from the so-called fringe; from the social entrepreneurs and many of the creative artists represented this year. There is an abiding sense that the zeitgeist is changing. Though there was a sense of disconnection, there was also far more discussion of the word empathy than I can remember. There is real interest in how corporations and individuals give back, and how new, hybrid business models are emerging across many fields. It is around these hybrid business models that much of the future debate will focus.”

Attending his first Davos was Jules Goddard, an associate of London Business School’s Management Innovation Lab.  “For me, Davos was welcoming, fast-paced, enthralling and surprisingly eclectic. The best events were those at the margin – the artists, the creators, the heretics and the explorers. I listened in awe to Alison Levine’s story of her conquest of Everest; I heard Niall Ferguson identify the six ‘killer apps’ that, over the last six centuries, explain the extraordinary and incomparable rise of Western European civilisation; I marvelled at the digital art being created by Aaron Koblin who has found ingenious ways of involving hundreds of artists in the creation of collaborative masterpieces; I was inspired by the Pecha Kucha presentations on entrepreneurship in the developing world at the London Business School Ideas Lab; I was moved by the ingenuity and humanity of two young architects, Bjarke Ingels and Cameron Sinclair, who are bringing their skills to disaster zones, such as Haiti, or to those living in favelas and shanty towns; I learnt about the extraordinary revolution in higher education;  I witnessed Michael Porter laying into the CSR movement and advocating the concept of shared value; and I heard Daniel Goleman extolling the virtues of self-awareness.”

From this heady mix of inspirations, what can you take away? Gary Dushnitsky identifies the key issues he encountered as: “Borders are becoming ambiguous -- not unimportant, rather they are becoming multifaceted. The future will see a world that is not borderless, nor does it comprise of solely of national boundaries – rather it is a collective of regions with different boundaries for capital, talent, enterprises, culture, and so on. For example when it comes to ideas, the world we live in seems hyper global, yet when we take a political activism perspective, it is often hyper local in nature.”

Michael Hay offers another perspective: “There was a real focus on Africa and how best to unleash its full economic potential. A major barrier to this is represented by poor and limited infrastructure in all areas. This is exacerbated by the fact that all roads metaphorically and literally lead to the sea at the cost of intra-Africa routes. Beyond this one wonders if it makes sense to talk about Africa as an entity. Is there one or many Africas?”

Davos may be a single short event, but it is one which continues to produce many such questions.

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