Joseph Voros from Swinburne University of Technology writes: "Depending on an organisation's situation at any given time, different foresight capacities will be needed. In an environment with low levels of change and low levels of complexity, a fairly rudimentary foresight capacity is adequate for an organisation's continued survival and development. In more complex environments with a high degree of change, a deeper foresight capacity is needed to ensure that strategic processes are well informed. In the Old World of the mid-twentieth century, low rates of change and complexity meant that a "linear extrapolative" view of the future was adequate. The future, in this view, is an essentially linear projected outgrowth of the past and the present. Such a view is manifestly no longer sufficient. What is confronting us now at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries is a fundamental shift in both the level of complexity and the amount of change taking place in the wider world. The linear extrapolative approach to viewing the future, developed over times of relatively less change and complexity, is now being stretched beyond its breaking point. We need to expand our capacities for foresight - not only as organisations, but also as individuals and as a society - if we want to survive and develop. If we continue to use older capacities without developing newer ones, the range of our strategic options will not be wide enough to ensure our continued development."
And, Ian Wilson writes in Leveraging the Future to Win the Present:
"Most executives, particulary those in the corporate sector, appear to have great difficulty in making a connection between futures studies and their own work in planning and decision-making. They feel that futures studies are academic and abstract, while their responsibilities are practical and specific. They make the mistake of believing that they must focus exclusively on the present, in part because the future is so uncertain, in part because they are paid to achieve immediate results. They look for knowledge, for the "sure thing", but we can never know (literally) the future: however good our futures thinking may be, we shall never to able to escape from the ultimate dilemma that all our knowledge is about the past, and all our decisions are about the future.
Corporations and executives have no alternative but to study and think about the future. In a status quo world, or one in which tomorrow is very much like today, forecasting and thinking about the future is easy - but almost unnecessary. In a highly volatile work of rapid and pervasive change, however, thinking about the future is extraordinarily difficult - but absolutely essential. We simply must have some sense of the future - its possibilities and its uncertainties - in order to be able to chart a course for the business. "Futures thinking" must precede present decision making."
The point of both 'futures thinking' or strategic thinking is to develop an organisational foresight capacity to underpin strategic decision making. But, it is because foresight is a strategic thinking capacity that overt processes to be put in place to allow people the time to think.
As Ian Wilson suggests, executives and managers often comment that they don't have time to think. I was told once by a member of a university council that 'we have so many urgent things to deal with in the short term, that we don't have time to think about the future'. Sound familiar? Dealing only with the short-term is akin to sticking your head in the sand, which runs the real risk of having the future come up and bite you where and when you least expect it.
But Why Foresight?
Every decision we make today, as individuals and as organisations and groups, has an impact on the future. All our micro-decision coalesce to create global futures.
It makes sense to explore the potential impact of such decisions BEFORE they are made, and to make the wisest decisions that we can today. There are, however, no future facts, and in an environment besotted by data driven decision making, the challenge for futurists is to demonstrate how exploring the future today will add tangible value to strategy processes.
The future will be nothing like the past. If you go back only five to ten years and think about whether you could have imagined the details of the future that is now, what would you have thought was possible?
How then, can we design strategy for a future that will be nothing like the past based on information about only the past and the present? While most planning and strategy processes purport to consider the future,unless there are overt futures processes in place, what might happen in the future is not systematically considered. Worse, what often happens is that the views about the future held by one or two people dominate strategy processes and a very narrow range of strategic options is generated.
Futures approaches will expand the range of strategic options available to a university or organisation. To borrow from a well known phrase - if you always think what you've always thought, you will always get what you always got!
And, of course, that might be all you need in your context. But, given the complexity of the external environment now having an impact on universities, the thinking that goes into strategy development needs to be divergent and expansive. Futures approaches encourage and facilitate this sort of thinking, and then to bring it back to the here and now, to the strategy decisions that need to be made today. The aim is to strengthen those strategy decisions - to make them wiser and more robust, and able to withstand the change the future will bring.