I wrote an article* with the same name as this post in 2000, talking about the need to clarify the terms used to describe university managers as opposed to university administrators. This time I’m writing about the terms used to describe people who work in the foresight/futures field and more specifically, the terms I apply to my work.
Way back in 2000 when I was writing that article, I was a novice foresighter with less than 12 months experience. A manager from one of the university faculties appeared in my office once day and excitedly said that they were having a planning day and they wanted me to tell them about the future of (their discipline). I said, well I can’t do that because I know nothing about your discipline, but you do, and I can help you think about its future. Oh, she said, but that’s your job isn’t it? You are a futurist aren’t you?
Mind you, less than a year before that I didn’t know what foresight meant in the strategy context and here I was being called a futurist. That seemed just a little surreal, weird and I didn’t know if I liked it. I have tried since then to not be called a futurist but it’s an easy label to use – it’s mainstream language. A few weeks ago I again said I didn’t use that term and someone said ‘well, what do you call yourself then?’ in a tone that suggested I’d committed some sort of sin. A ‘foresight researcher and practitioner’ I replied.
It occurred to me then that I had never really defined what my preferred label meant, and how it differed from futurist, if at all. ‘Foresight researcher and practitioner’ doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as futurist, and it sounds somehow more esoteric and academic than futurist. Yet for me, the practitioner term was a deliberate choice because I want to help people use foresight in practice.
I have to admit that when that person asked me to tell them about the future of their discipline I was afraid. How on earth could I do that? Yet, I’d say to myself, isn’t that sort of flexibility needed if you are working in the foresight/futures field? Many futurists are asked to talk about the future of x or y or z and they can put together an amazing presentation to do just that. I know now I prefer not to. For a long time though I felt like a bit of a failure as a result – surely this is something I must do if I work in this field? I know I’m not a failure by the way, but this was an interesting dilemma for me.
I kept coming back to the term ‘in practice’. And I kept remembering how I responded to people who ask me to help them write their strategic plan – ‘well, yes I can do that, but you have to do this process first’, meaning work through a foresight process to explore possible futures before deciding what to do today. No one has said no to that disguised demand yet.
I’ve realised that my work can’t be about me walking into an organisation, facilitating a good process with people over time and walking out – although I’ve done that many times. Over and over again, people have said to me, it was great, I learned a lot but I’m so busy with all my other work that I don’t have time to think about it. I could see that while people enjoyed the process, the continuing impact of outcomes depended on two things:
- strong commitment in the organisation to use foresight so it didn’t disappear when a new leader arrived, and
- the degree to which the people in the organisation were able to integrate process and outcomes into their day to day work, and this depends on people have time and space to use foresight.
To try and address the last point, I’m now framing my work around helping people use foresight on a continuing basis so they can integrate it into their work rather than it being one more thing they have to do. This is about building a capacity in individuals and in the organisation to use foresight in practice every day not just in the annual planning workshop or when someone wanted to know about the future of x, y, z.
My work is then less about talking about the future (there are others who do that better than me) and more about helping people use the future on a daily basis by giving them the tools to think in new ways, beyond the status quo, to work out for themselves what the future of x, y, or z might be. I need to be more a guide than a facilitator, more a mentor than a speaker and more a critical friend than an expert with the answers.
As a result, I’ve changed what I do and what I offer. I’ve redesigned the website to focus on research, resources and learning. I’m creating a new service called The Future Of… which isn’t about the future of everything but a guided tour on how to think about the future of whatever matters for your organisation. And I’ve set up a membership option to provide access to high quality foresight resources and support to use them when they are needed. To give people the freedom to design a foresight process that works for them.
We need futurists and we need foresight practitioners. I doubt there is a clear line between the two and perhaps there shouldn’t be. Differentiating has helped me sort out where I can offer most value in ways that suit me and my strengths and that’s good for me.
We need people with many different ways of offering value to people, organisations and society if we are to infuse foresight into everyday life, into the strategic culture of organisations and into the consciousness of individuals. This isn’t about new splits in the division of labour in the field, this is about the strength of diversity in approach and connecting those approaches to ensure foresight and thinking about the future become part of who we are and what we do, both individually and collectively.
So what’s in a name? Not much.
*Conway, M. (2000) What’s in a Name? Issues for ATEM and Administrators. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22 (2): 199-20