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The Appreciative Inquiry Summit Is Used By the UN Global Compact at a Summit With 500 CEOs, Civil Society Leaders, Labor, and UN Leaders

By David Cooperrider
Case Western Reserve University


To an extent inconceivable even four years ago, the global corporate citizenship movement has become one of the world’s most urgent, collaborative and promising initiatives for the promotion of a more sustainable and inclusive global economy. A decisive moment in its emergence was the speech delivered by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the 1999 gathering of the World Economic Forum. His words spoke straight to heart of the matter. His articulation of the UN’s commitment to development partnerships galvanized leaders and executives from business, labor, and civil society in ways unimagined at the time. “Let us choose…” he said:

“Let us choose to unite the power of markets with the strength of universal ideals. Let us choose to reconcile the creative forces of private entrepreneurship with the needs of the disadvantaged and the requirements of future generations."

According to scholars like John Ruggie from Harvard the UN Global Compact has, from those origins at Davos, become by far the world’s largest and most widely embraced corporate citizenship initiative. Today, just four years since its birth, some 1,400 businesses and several hundred nongovernmental organizations, unions, and other groups have signed on and the Global Compact has emerged with unmatched strengths in the developing world, home to half its participating firms and two-thirds of the 50 country-level networks it has engendered.

With this kind of explosive growth—including all the attendant challenges, responsibilities, and new magnitudes of potential and opportunity— business executives themselves and leaders from all sectors, began to call for the Compact’s first worldwide summit. The idea gained force. It would be a large group, interactive strategic summit – not a session of talking heads. It would be hosted and held at the UN in New York on June 24th 2004.

Response to the invitation was enormous. Sir John Brown, CEO of BP was one of the very first to stand after Kofi Annan called on people for a session where we will “roll up our sleeves” and collectively take up the work of learning from the past, assessing the turbulent global present, and charting the course for the future of the Global Compact. For Lord Brown the invitation for substantive dialogue and joint planning was compelling. “We as the members of the Global Compact are at a stage now”, he said to 100’s of other leaders and CEO peers, where “actions speak louder”: “our task is to unite actions with words and our words with action”.

By anyone’s measure the event was significant, unique, and successful -- “historic” as a special report of the Financial Times called it 1. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his opening remarks, was precise about it when he said:

“This is the largest and highest-level gathering of leaders from business, labor and civil society ever held at the United Nations. Indeed, far more of you were determined to attend than we anticipated in our wildest estimations”.

In fact, 400 participants crowded into the delegates dining room. Another 80 participants were in the adjacent room with a television monitor, and 200 were on a waiting list. From the opening Appreciative Inquiry (AI) interview to the three intensive roundtables and then, finally, to the substantive pledges to action in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations, participants met and worked to address the task charged to them.

For me, personally, the testing and elevation of Appreciative Inquiry in complex situations like this UN Summit was thrilling. I was thrilled when the UN and 500 CEOs from companies like Daimler Chrysler, BP, Novartis, and Pfizer decided to use Appreciative Inquiry. I was thrilled to bring the whole team from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management—students and faculty, and Judy Rodgers, head of the new Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. I was thrilled with the core learning about how to conduct a “rapid design” AI Summit for a packed one day. I was thrilled by the concrete outcomes in the tremendously important arena of global corporate citizenship (please click here and read the full report ).

When you peruse the report I think you will feel, like I do, that what we are capable of as human beings together as a global family is remarkable. All we have to do, literally, is get in the same room with one another. While it is beyond this commentary to go into the details, we continue to learn how powerful it is to break down all the barriers and bring people together to search for the true, the good, the better and the possible. “Yes” It takes courage to do what the UN did with its June summit. But in reality the risk is low. Why? Because somehow the best in human beings comes out when the “whole system” is in the room, when people take the time to hear and see the best in one another, and when the stories of innovation are “mined” at a deeper level of systematic and rigorous inquiry into the good. Inquiry itself is what matters—this is what leads to change—indeed we live in worlds our questions create.

Finally I was thrilled with Kofi Annan’s letter of thanks and I am honored-- on behalf of all the many scholars, practitioners and creative people who have made AI what it is today-- to share it with you.. Here is what he said... (PDF)

Additional Resources:
Watch a Video
Final Report from June 2004 Meeting
Preliminary Report from June 2004 Meeting
New Initiatives and Projects
AI Summit Workbook
Visit the UN Global Compact Website

1 See the Financial Times special report June 24th 2004 on “Business ad Development” pages 1-16.


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- Sponsored by the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University -
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