Tayo Akinyemi

Cornell Global Forum: What Gets Measured Gets Done

I must say, being an MBA has its privileges. It’s difficult to imagine how I would have attended the Cornell Global Forum (CGF) otherwise. However, as a recent graduate of the Johnson School, I had an “all-access pass” to an invitation-only event in exchange for support services. Even so, I approached the CGF with a healthy bit of skepticism. Although its purpose is explicitly action-oriented-the mission of the Forum is to accelerate the degree to which clean technology firms and BoP-focused companies incubate clean technology at the BoP (also known as convergence)-I couldn’t wrap my head around how another big, centrally-planned talk shop ensconced in a tony New York locale could possibly do anything meaningful.

Let’s look at the variables. You have: a). nearly one hundred delegates with very distinct BoP or cleantech foci divided into eleven task teams; b) three working sessions over the course of two and a half days; and c) eleven facilitators charged with the daunting task of combining a, b and c to yield d) eleven actionable initiatives that facilitate convergence. Just to be clear, I have a vested interest in an action-oriented CGF. First, I had recently worked with another student to develop a methodology to measure the convergence rate. No action, no convergence. Additionally, as an MBA graduate hoping to work in this space, I have to understand what work needs doing. So, was I disappointed? The answer is a resounding, “No!”

First of all, I was surprised by the lack of resistance to the convergence concept. Granted, the Forum delegates comprised a relatively captive audience and my task team participation was limited, leaving me less privy to “hallway murmurings”. (As event staff, I was able to sit in on three of the eleven teams.) It was also quite impressive that every task team produced an initiative; some generated two or three. Given the time constraints and the diversity of perspectives represented, this is a significant accomplishment.

However, lest the buzz of the Cornell kool-aid obscure my critical thinking, let me state that the impact of the Forum remains to be seen. Whether it actually accelerates the rate of convergence will depend on the quality of the initiatives developed, how committed the task teams are to launching them, and how much support the Forum provides to these efforts. Clearly, the challenge is great and the journey strictly uphill.

As I learned through my independent study, social impact measurement is a frustratingly complex phenomenon. It is difficult to define social benefit accurately, particularly when costs, trade-offs and externalities are considered. Even if one succeeds there, the greatest challenge is to translate this (hopefully) well-defined benefit into something measureable.

The Forum’s convergence concept is no exception. At this stage who’s to say what the practical nature of convergence will be? Will consensus form around what constitutes convergence activity or will there be several interpretations? Will momentum grow around the concept? If so, will it be strong enough to bring convergence ’doers’ to life? Finally, will ’converged’ companies succeed in fostering world-wide sustainability? How will we know? Only time will tell.

What I can say is that the Forum organizers have a strong impact orientation and have a monitoring and evaluation system in place. They also, quite strategically, created an enabling environment for action. As Virginia Barreiro described in her recent post, cards were exchanged, names taken, and deals done. Needless to say, the end of the story is just the beginning. Stay tuned for the next episode…