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?”

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