Davos finished a couple of days ago, but I’m still banging on about it. After all, there is not much point in going to the World Economic Forum if you cannot boast about it for at least a week afterwards. Or as my colleague Martin Lukes put it: “The crush of business leaders, politicians, scientists and thinkers is so great I can hardly get my head around what I have seen and heard.” So true.
In fact one of the novelties of Davos for me was an introduction to Lukes-style brain-banging at the two “CEO Series” seminars, on globalisation and talent. I realise that in previous postings I have made a number of sniping comments about the CEO Series, so I would just like to put it on record that they were quite interesting. And – for me – one of the most interesting aspects was the strange way these things are conducted.
They both started fairly normally with a group discussion. But then we were split up into smaller “break-out groups” – which sounded more appropriate to Alcatraz than Davos. Each break-out group has somebody assigned to take notes on the discussion and then report back to the larger group.
Unfortunately, this role was assigned to me in the session on globalisation. If all that was involved was note-taking it might have been fine. But, from observing the other break-out groups, I noticed that I also seemed to be expected to play the role of discussion leader and animateur. At various points, you have to leap to your feet and say things like, “Guys, guys, where are we going with this.” Then you grab a felt-tip pin and start scribbling words and diagrams onto an easel.
Under normal circumstances, I could have coped. The trouble was that my break-out group of eight people contained two Nobel Prize winning economists – Joseph Stiglitz and Edmund Phelps, as well John Lipsky, the number two man at the IMF. So I just couldn’t face jumping up and shouting, “That’s all very well guys, but what are the take home points here?”
As a result I sat in mute silence for most of the lunch. But then with about 10 minutes to go, the main session organiser wandered over and pointed out disapprovingly that I still hadn’t written anything on my easel. Reluctantly, I got to my feet and started to scribble. Trying to reduce a 90-minute discussion between a couple of Nobel laureates into three bullet-points – while they sit there, smiling sweetly back at you – ranks as one of the more intimidating moments of my career. But they were very nice about it. At the end of my incredibly brief presentation, Professor Phelps said: “You make it all sound so simple.” I suppose you could interpret that in a number of ways, but I have decided to put a positive spin on it.
In fact my easel work was pretty feeble compared with that produced by the other rapporteurs. I had only used one colour felt-tip pin, whereas three seemed to be more normal. And my presentation was just a series of points, with numbers next to them. The real professionals had lots of words circled, with arrows pointing in all directions.
Two other aspects of the brain-banging came as a surprise to me. First, in the session for the whole group, there was a cartoonist drawing pictures on a whiteboard, to accompany the discussion. So when somebody mentioned the “Dangerous Dogs Act” in Britain, she drew a picture of a dangerous dog. Useful, I suppose, in case Professor Stiglitz was unfamiliar with the concept.
The second novelty was the use of pop music. When we returned to our seats to resume the main discussion, somebody put on Abba’s “Voulez-Vous” at top volume. This was a useful “take-home message” for me. If you want to get the best out of a Nobel laureate, blast him with a bit of Abba. It works wonders.