Hundreds attended. News was made. And I left the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul, Korea, last week, with some strong impressions about what the organisational world is searching for today.

First, the backdrop: this was the 15th such forum, and the theme was “Invigorating the Global Economy: The Answer to a New Social Order and Global Solution”. You can review many of the highlights simply by scrolling the @wkforum Twitter feed. That said, the list of speakers was stellar. All are listed on the WKF website [link], but included were presidents of countries, CEOs of companies, chiefs of a number of non-governmental entities, and many forward-thinking academics. I don’t have a firm count, but attendees must have come from at least a dozen or more nationalities. The number of speakers exceeded 100. It was a fantastic mix of backgrounds and perspectives.

In my last post, I summarised my own message to the forum [link]. My talk seemed to generate a great deal of follow-on questions and discussion. I am most grateful to the sponsors for having me on their programme. Now, I would like to share some of my impressions from being part of the forum over several days. Please take these as top-of-mind observations rather than any kind of formal report or digest of the event. I’ll let the sponsors of the forum capture and publish that at a later date. For now, here are my own key observations.

Pistrui at WKF, Seoul 2014

Joseph Pistrui presents at WKF in Seoul (Twitter Photo by Paris del’Etraz ‏@ParisDeletraz)

  • The notion of future competitiveness, at the macroeconomic/country level, at the enterprise level, and at the individual level was omnipresent at the event. Everyone seemed to be asking, “Where is growth going to come from next?” At the same time, there seemed to be a still quiet (yet perhaps growing) sense that asking how to generate “more growth” may be the wrong question to ask today. The ways companies grew in the past were often socially harmful or simply not sustainable. I sensed that many really wanted to address this question: Does capitalism as a destructive engine for growth need to evolve into something different?
  • The technical savvy of the Far East region — especially among the young — is striking. Smartphones and tablets are an integral part of work and life (no surprise, given Asia’s innovativeness in the electronics sector), and the entrepreneurial projects presented at the IE Venture Day portion [link] of the WKF had an explicit techno bias (and not just in terms of the apps used for presentations). This was the case in a region in which electronics and connectivity are relatively expensive (people spend more per month on connectivity than Europeans or Americans, as I understand it).
  • I sensed a widely held perception that Asian cultures are not inclined toward more aggressive growth through current creation and innovation models. Why this might be seemed rooted in the belief that Asians have an orientation to failure that inhibits them from taking the required risks for entrepreneurial breakthroughs. While Asian examples of what the West would recognise as a start-up culture and its supporting ecosystem do exist (and are growing), they seem to be a small part of the larger Asian business landscape. Indeed, in the larger scheme of things, the cultural barriers to experimentation and failure appear formidable.
  • The risk aversion of Asia illuminates the importance of the notion I advocated of “leading from the centre”. By bringing as many people into the process of finding a company’s “next”, two important objectives can be met. First, such a process helps to create an inclusive conversation at the sociocultural level (within organisations and across societies). Second, at the same time, such a process can begin to tap into and unlock the collective human capacities to make sense of changing circumstances and turn that insight into the foresense critical to personal, organisational, and societal evolution.

I left Asia with many new friends — encouraged by their future prospects. But there is (as you probably guessed) an important “if” that needs to be stated. The forum fortified for me the feeling that capitalism has “won” the race to become the best economic model for the world. Then, too, democratic principles are proliferating even in countries long shuttered from such political beliefs.

Yet, so many companies (everywhere) operate with a top-down point of view, with relatively few people deciding the direction, and thus the fate, of companies. So, I remain encouraged if capitalism can begin to embrace a model that is more democratic. If capitalism can develop into a new-and-improved form — one in which its power to use collective insight as a means for finding a “next” that meets the needs of individuals, organizations and society — then all parts of the world can share my encouragement.

Workers in most progressive companies have benefitted by being asked by management to openly discuss, “How can I do job X or task Y better?” Imagine a firm led from the centre, one in which workers are asked to join a conversation that begins with this question: “How can I create a better life for myself, a better future for my organisation, and an even a better world for my children?”