Observations from the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos

World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos is over for another year. The fact that many political leaders and representatives were absent – notably Presidents Trump and Macron, and Prime Minister May – meant the conversations this year centered more around business than in previous years. No matter your opinion about the business elite hobnobbing on the ski slopes for three days, 2019’s gathering of 40+ CEOs and execs made for an interesting look at what currently excites, concerns and challenges global business leaders.

In the SHIFT offices we closely followed the news from this year’s forum, focused on “Globalization 4.0” in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), and here are a few key takeaways:

Artificial intelligence (AI): for transformation or for good?

AI, said to be the fastest growing trend in business under the 4IR, was naturally a popular subject of discussion. Given Elon Musk once said AI is the biggest risk we face as a civilization, business leaders appeared careful to emphasize that while the goal should be to use AI to deliver transformation, transformation must be to the benefit of all, and AI shouldn’t remain elitist. For example, Jim Hagemann Snabe, chairman of Siemens, said AI should be used to enhance human capability, not just to replace people.

The private sector seemed hyperaware of the potential burden of AI on jobs and committed to alleviating it. Skepticism for the business leaders’ words remained high, however. Take a look at The New York Times’ piece on The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite to see what I mean.

Meanwhile, other publications reporting on the news felt that the public sector should shoulder commitment, too, and the shortage of political figures was sorely felt given the stakes.

Reskilling for the 4IR

Whether AI will indeed enhance existing jobs, displace them or create new ones, a shared view was that changing job roles and a skills gap are inevitable. To address that, learning today for tomorrow’s jobs is the responsible approach to leadership in the 4IR.

Far from being prepared to wait for a government response to the challenge, KPMG global chairman Bill Thomas said companies need to view investment in internal training programs as a competitive advantage.

“Learnability,” the idea of workers continually learning new skills during the course of their career, was the buzzword du jour. Companies recognized this will represent a change for a certain percentage of a country’s workers, one that will be met with varying levels of interest. This makes engagement, as well as training initiatives, necessary to reskill for the future.

Mental health matters

Inclusivity has long been on the agenda at Davos. Remember the big push for gender equality at 2016’s meeting? With the question of whether tech will displace our jobs and the always-on culture that blurs the line between work and home, it’s not surprising that mental health made it onto a broadening inclusivity agenda.

The objective was two-fold: destigmatize the topic and land on how businesses can do more to take well-being seriously. Several business leaders helped to show the right way to approach mental health in the workplace for an inclusive environment, which includes viewing mental health survivors as assets and making well-being part of an organization’s DNA versus an isolated program. John Flint, CEO of HSBC, discussed his challenge to turn the bank into the “the healthiest human system” that will ensure performance, for example. I also found this WEF article that summarizes how companies can improve workplace well-being in six steps. It makes for a good starter guide.

As always at Davos, it’s impossible to solve pressing business issues in three days. But the topics of responsibility, education and health in the 4IR were encouragingly human-centered, so let’s hope the stage has been set for meaningful progress.

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