World Economic Forum Trip Report

by Jakob Nielsen on February 1, 2001

Davos, Switzerland, January 25-30, 2001

The World Economic Forum is a conference that takes place every year in Davos, an exclusive ski resort in the Swiss Alps. Stunningly beautiful views: the Japanese Prime Minister started his talk by stating that the sight of the white mountains had invigorated him and made him forget his jet lag. This was the most memorable part of a very boring presentation, and it could even be true. Besides being a poetic setting reminiscent of Hiroshige, the sheer amount of bright light reflected off the slopes does wake you up.

Davos is mainly a networking event for the world's top 1000 CEOs plus assorted government ministers as well as a few scientists and other experts. Compared to most other high-level meetings, Davos is uncommonly international: at a workshop on global branding, my group was composed of people from Kuwait, Brazil, India, two Europeans, and me as the token Silicon Valley guy.

The conference is dominated by old-economy firms (or "classic firms", as one CEO liked to call them). The previous two years, presentations by Internet companies had the old-timers quaking in their boots, so this year many speakers clearly enjoyed the downturn in the new economy. Even so, most executives seemed to have realized the importance of the Internet. For example James Kelly, CEO of UPS, described his company as a technology company that also had some trucks. There was also a good turnout to my lecture on Web usability, so some old-time CEOs are starting to realize the importance of connecting to customers in a two-way medium.

Some clueless moments:

  • Fred Langhammer, CEO of Estee Lauder, having a completely one-way model of the Web with a desire to strictly limit access to his products online, believing that all that matters is having an established brand. Give the man a copy of the Cluetrain Manifesto. In the short term, customers may suffer anything to buy famous products, but the new products and services will use the connectivity of the Internet to build true relationships with their customers and emphasize convenience and service.
  • Tim Koogle, CEO of Yahoo, claiming that it is possible to base Internet business plans on advertising. Actually, I suspect that Koogle was not so much clueless as he was trying to defend his rate sheet, since he clearly knows how the Internet works (Yahoo is the best-designed site on the Web). Most other speakers acknowledged that ads don't work on the Web and that we need other business models.

The best session concerned recruiting and retention. The CEO of Sony, Nobuyuki Idei, put on a dazzling performance as the moderator. After listing the characteristics of knowledge work in the new economy, he contemplated his own career (30 years in the same company) and own work day, and concluded "I can't be a knowledge worker." Laughs from the audience, but an important point worth contemplating. Several sessions discussed the importance of flexible thinking, a balanced lifestyle, and informal, fast-moving projects, and yet that's not how most top people live.

Press coverage of the Davos conference has emphasized the heavy-handed security and the anti-business demonstrations. Sure enough, we had to pass through two perimeters of barbed wire to get into the convention center, and gun-toting Polizei were ubiquitous. I did miss an off-site lunch meeting when several streets were closed while armored cars cleared away protesters, but otherwise things were pretty peaceful despite the State Department travel advisory that has warned Americans against going to Davos that week.


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