I'm not a fan of the word prediction combined with the word future for a whole lot of reasons that I've written about before. And today, I read this article: THIS COMPANY CAN PREDICT THE FUTURE. Of course, this cute headline is misleading and shows just how lax the editor is with his/her choice of terminology - but it does look good.
Read on and you discover it's nothing to do with prediction and crystal balls. This company is really about early warning signals - identifying a pattern of web activity: "a growing analytics startup that hunts for timely topics before they trend on the web...and sniffs out budding conversations across the social media world up to three days before they hit the mainstream."
This tool isn't about the future which is suggested by the headline, it's about forecasting the trajectory of a conversation on a particular topic. It's very clever, but it's not about predicting the future of anything. What is does is provide an early warning signal for companies of something that might happen that they need to pay attention to.
Thinking a little more broadly, what is it about prediction and the need to be certain that keeps editors returning to that term in their headlines? Probably the same reasons some people who call themselves futurists like to 'predict' - they are appealing to this human need for certainty since that is what brings them profile and income in the short term.
But what happens when they are wrong? As an individual, they can do a mea culpa and make all sorts of rational sounding excuses for not getting it right. But for the group of people calling themselves futurists who aren't in the game for the short term gain? Who really care about working with people to shape the future in positive and sustainable ways? The term with which they describe their work is devalued, over and over and over again, to the point where it has no social currency.
Really smart people have been saying really stupid things for centuries. But of course, we only know their statements are stupid in hindsight. They say what they say with such certainty that we want to believe it - and what they say appeals to that need for certainty again. When they are proved wrong as the future arrives, we laugh about it (think about Bill Gates being attributed with saying that 64MB of RAM should be enough for anyone) and move on, wondering how could anyone have said that - well, they said it based on today's knowledge and disregarded early warning signals that would have disproved their statements.
Identifying early warning signals is a very useful activity for people in organisations. It is an activity based on making sense of something that is initially uncertain and a bit fluffy but which either builds or wanes in intensity over time. For the company in the article, that time period is 3 days. For organisations, the timeline is probably a bit longer.
All companies can identify early warning signals if they spend time thinking about the future (AKA strategic thinking) - looking for signs that a change that is being seen on the edges of society, on the edges of an organisation's operations might be disruptive in the future and send them out of business in 10 or 20 years time.
That is, the change might intensify in strength to the extent where it can make today's business models meaningless, or it might decrease in strength indicating that it's probably a fad. Once a strong signal has been identified, go/no go indicators can be developed and used in strategic decision making. This is where the real value is for organisations concerned about their future, not predictions. Maybe that means employing a company like the one described in this article, or maybe it's about building an organisational foresight capacity so that uncertainty is embraced, not predicted away.
As a species, as organisations and as individuals, it's time to move our mindsets from rejecting uncertainty to using it as the driver for our decision making. Spending our time on identifying what is uncertain and how we might respond to it today will produce much more strategic value than looking for certainty in predictions that are, at their core, fun to do but a complete waste of time.