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Futurism: A Growing Business Strategy

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra once said. Though tongue-in-cheek, this quote seems truer than ever. Many of us feel the future just gets here faster than it once did. These days, markets can be transformed almost overnight due to new technologies, innovative business plans, mergers, etc.

It’s no wonder that companies are working hard to foresee what may be just around the corner. As Management Review recently reported, “No company can inoculate itself from the need to confront the most fundamental of today’s strategy challenges: how to anticipate and interpret change in and around your marketplace, and how to leverage that change into winning strategies.”  It appears that a growing number of companies are turning to futurists to help them.

Of course, trying to anticipate events in today’s turbulent world is fraught with difficulty and, if business bets are placed too heavily on one prediction, peril. There are plenty of examples of predictions that, in retrospect, look downright silly. Nonetheless, some futurists have proven their forecasting skills, according to Forbes magazine. It reports that in 1980, Edward Cornish, the president of the World Future Society, published 29 predictions for the coming 20 years. Eleven of his predictions came true and another eight came debatably close.

Some business strategists, including HR professionals, have recently begun enlisting futurists’ help. As Human Resource Executive magazine reports, “Futurists clarify the diversity manager’s goals, assess the future availability of needed skills, align business leaders behind a shared vision and set a new direction for the human resource department—all the while leaving HR execs on the cutting-edge of what the future holds.”

In fairness, we must mention that HRI can’t be completely objective about futurism. After all, for decades we’ve been scanning for trends that affect the future of people management. We’ve also incorporated scenarios into many of our white papers and have held seminars—facilitated by futurist Jay Jamrog—geared toward helping sponsors anticipate changes in the business environment.

Other HR groups focus on the future as well. One is The HR Futures Association, which has the stated objective of studying trends and issues that could have an HR impact on 20 member companies. The association contracts with selected experts and has a membership that is by invitation only.

Rockwell International Corporation has established its own committee to scan the environment for trends that could affect its business. The committee works with professional futurists, who share periodical abstracts and other materials with committee members. The group then engages in a dialogue about the importance of certain trends, how they are likely to develop, how the firm could be affected and how it should prepare itself. The point is to get a handle on various alternative futures.

Probably the best-known and fastest-rising technique of futurists is scenario planning. Management Review reports, “Judging by the number and variety of companies willing to present their scenario work at public conferences—including the likes of Dow Corning, Shell Oil, Xerox, AT&T, Baxter Healthcare, Sprint, Motorola and more—it seems safe to suggest that scenarios are rapidly becoming part of the standard strategy toolkit in many leading firms.”

Pierre Wack, a pioneer in the field who died in 1997, defined scenario planning as “a discipline for rediscovering the original entrepreneurial power of creative foresight in contexts of accelerated change, greater complexity, and genuine uncertainty.” In essence, scenarios are stories about possible futures. Unlike traditional forecasting, scenario planning doesn’t rely on a linear projection of the present to forecast a single future. It takes into consideration the possibility of sharp discontinuities, such as the breakup of the Soviet Union, and creates a set of alternative stories about what the future could look like. The goal isn’t to predict the future but to get managers to challenge their own assumptions about corporate strategy. When done well, it helps them anticipate possibilities that they might otherwise ignore. This enables organizations to better prepare for a variety of contingencies.

Scenarios can also be tools for helping HR professionals anticipate changes in their own field. Training & Development magazine, for example, published an article last December detailing four scenarios of how the human resource development (HRD) profession might evolve during the next five to seven years. In one scenario, most organizations adapt Charles Handy's shamrock organizational model, wherein a small core of indispensable employees is surrounded by temporary and contract workers. Another scenario imagines the state of HRD if more work is performed over a distance, with employees using new technologies to interact in virtual environments.

It’s possible that scenario planning will one day be superseded or at least effectively supplemented by other strategies for envisioning the future, such as computer simulations. However, the underlying desire to anticipate future events is unlikely to wane as long as business people are forced to compete against one another in a dynamic marketplace.