I have been pondering a bit around what it means to be a futurist working in an organisation since I attended the AusForesight conference a couple of weeks ago. At the event, which brought together futures folks from around Australia (and, as is always apparently necessary), some international guests, there was a lot of discussion around who are futurists, and why we come to be interested in futures work. But, something kept niggling at the back of my mind, and I think it is that there was a lot of talk about working with organisations, but not much talk about what it meant to be a futurist working in an organisation. Richard Slaughter writes of the need for education and business to develop foresight capacities as part of the development of a social foresight capacity. In his five stage descripton of how social foresight develops, it is only when education and business have embedded futures approaches in their internal processes that a foresight capacity can start to emerge at the social level.
Yet, the concept of an organisational futurist does not seem to have much credibility as a distinct role within the futures community. Most, but not all, of the folks at the AusForesight gathering didn't work in organisations; many were academics and consultants. Many have set up futures networks and companies from which to build their own businesses, but few appear to work in organisations.
So, there is conversation about how to work with organisations, what organisations need to do to improve their strategy processes to make wiser decisions today, how to work with your clients and how to design processes to meet the needs of particular organisations. But, there are very few futurists who seem to be focused on working with organisations with the aim of transferring knowledge to staff in that organisation so that the organisation can build a foresight capacity from within. Marcus Barber, Looking Up, Feeling Good, has this approach - he works with companies to transfer knowledge and skills so that, over time, he bows out and the organisation takes over. This is a very different approach to that of a 'consultant' - come in, run a process (which may indeed take some months), and then leave.
It's perhaps not surprising that folks in organisations say things like "well we tried that, and it was fun, but it's not much use really" when they describe interaction with consultant futurists. And, when I hear futurists say we only work with those people who are on our wavelength, I wonder about how on earth those who aren't on their wavelength are ever mean to begin to develop a foresight capacity. How are those organisations supposed to change and improve their decision making processes, if futurists don't work with them because it's too difficult?
Yes, I know it's all about where to focus limited energy, but it seems to me that it's time to focus a bit of energy on how to build futures approaches in existing organisational processes in ways that will become mainstream and routine - and that means working with people who aren't on the same wavelength, who will need some convincing about the value of futures work, and who will want to see tangible benefits for their day-to-day work. When futures approaches are mainstream in organisations, what I call the moving CEO effect won't have an impact anymore - that's when the CEO who championed futures work leaves the organisation, and futures work follows shortly afterwards.