At "Gabfests" Like Davos, Talk Is Not Cheap

02/01/2012 01:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012
  • Judith Samuelson Executive Director, Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program

As global power brokers jet home from Davos, it's easy to be cynical about the value of such "gabfests," and wonder whether these face-to-face settings, with their massive carbon footprints, are worth continuing in an age of Skype and email.

The expanse of topics covered, from the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, to the future of social networks, could make one dizzy, even without the altitude and the abundant cocktail parties. There are always plenty of questions for which there are no good answers, like the one at the opening session this year, "Is 21st century capitalism failing 21st century society?"

What difference can it really make for the well-connected and influential to spend a few days among their peers talking? For some, no doubt, it's really a junket, packaged with some bragging rights. I have never been to Davos, but I spend a fair amount of time in another idyllic setting, this one, nestled among the mountains of Colorado. The Aspen Institute's many offerings can look a lot like the Davos schedule this last week -- one can't help but ask: what is the point and what happens after the party is over?

We all love that famous quote from Margaret Mead, about the power of the individual to effect change. Maybe a chance encounter between the right power brokers at one of these talk fests could offer up some new ideas to address one of the Grand Challenges that bedevil us? But we also know that ideas must ultimately be connected to the vital systems -- the incentives, protocols and decision rules -- to take root, gain traction, reach "scale" and change behavior of individuals and organizations. What does that have to do with just "talk?"

When I start to feel like this, it's time to reread Shashi Tharoor's 2002 op-ed piece in the New York Times, "In Defense of Gabfests."

Talk, he wrote then, "is the necessary precursor for action." In that article he was reflecting on a recently concluded U.N. seminar on peace in the Middle East. But his words have resonance: "It is true" he wrote, "that many international meetings are consumed by what T.S. Eliot called 'the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.'" Tharoor looked beyond the verbal tussling to a higher purpose. "Such talk lays down markers, articulates aspirations, identifies common approaches, reveals gaps and helps bridge them. Without talk, there would never be agreement; without agreement, there would be no action."

Effective dialogue is not "just talk." It's challenging to design if it is going to go anywhere useful. One must frame discussions extremely carefully, using the art of "appreciative inquiry" to ask questions that are positive and forward-thinking, yet stimulating enough to provoke creative thinking. It takes considerable political skill and hard work to attract the right people, and be prepared for unexpected twists and turns. Otherwise, the dialogue turns into a debating society and nothing more. At Aspen, we work to balance the desire for diverse perspectives and new voices, with sufficient connective tissue and shared purpose--to make it possible to set a direction and a course and begin to move. Typically, that means the critical meetings happen in private, not the public eye, to keep things fresh and candid and meaningful.

Over the years, dialogue at Aspen and elsewhere has laid the ground work for principles and protocols that help people work together more effectively. Dialogue is used to help rural communities identify the core strengths that enable a regional economy to grow. Business people map out the behaviors and protocols that stem short-term thinking and extend time horizons in capital markets. Educators try to figure out what part of school reform is actually working. Communications specialists work to define and sway policy to keep the web open, and useful.

This week, I will go back to worrying about the connective tissue that makes dialogue useful -- how "just talk" is wired to the vital systems. But this morning -- in the age of social media where asynchronous exchange and virtual connections rule the day -- I'm celebrating the fact that lots of people with lots of influence but short on time, bothered to pile on jets and travel to a distant place to talk (and drink) and wrestle with what they think and what they have to say about it.


Davos 2012