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Dave Wegge (left), interim dean of the Schneider School.

Futuring: One Secret to Success

Why do some companies succeed and others fail? Why do some communities flourish while others stagnate and die? One secret to success is engaging in futuring, or foresight analysis. We’re not talking about gazing into a crystal ball or getting out the tarot cards. Rather, futuring uses a systematic process to assess and make sense out of the future of a product, service, your organization or your community. 

What is Futuring?
It is part of human nature to think about and plan for the future. When we were younger, we all probably thought about some aspects of our future. What will my life be like when I am 18? Will I get married? Have a family? What will my career be like? How can I plan for these futures?

When it comes to futuring for businesses, the focus is the life of a product, service, organization or community. We want to examine the future in order to impact the present.

There is a systematic process and various analytical tools businesses can use to help understand and predict what might happen in the future. This is not a pure science, however, as there are a multitude of factors that may influence the future. However, using the analytical tools of futuring can assist in assessing what the future may hold.

Think of futuring as a systematic process of collecting information, identifying and analyzing trends, and crafting scenarios that enlighten and move people to action. 

Why study the future? 
We are in a period of rapid change in society. The renowned futurist, Alvin Toffler, says we have gone through three primary eras – the agricultural era, which lasted hundreds of years up into the middle of the 19th century; the industrial era, which lasted a little more than 100 years from the middle of the 19th century to the 1970s; and the information-technology era, which is the current one. We are perhaps about to enter a fourth era; experts are debating whether that will be one of artificial intelligence or bio-engineering. 

With all of this change, can we really control what will happen in the future? Why use scarce resources to study something that we can’t control? Those are valid questions, but we do need to study the future for two reasons: to identify threats and to find opportunities. 

How do we engage in futuring to ensure success?
The future of anything is like a complex ecosystem. So you must begin by creating a systematic analysis of your business’ ecosystem. In order for a company to produce a product, it has to have the raw materials, a process for building the product, a distribution channel, sales outlets and customers. Each of these aspects must be identified and closely examined using a trend-analysis tool, such as the STEEP tool. 

STEEP is an acronym for society, technology, economics, ecology and politics. Under STEEP, you examine how trends in each category may impact your business’ ecosystem:

Society: attitudes, values, demographics
Technology: information technology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics
Economics: inflation, income inequality, globalization
Ecology: climate change, water supply, air quality
Politics: polarization, legislative action, election outcomes

Once you have examined any trends, you need to create a scenario matrix based on two dimensions: level of impact and probability an event can occur. This produces a four-celled table: High Impact-Low Probability, Low Impact-Low Probability, Low Impact-High Probability and High Impact-High Probability. The matrix cell you must pay close attention to is High Impact-High Probability, as that represents what one might call a “brewing storm.” 

An example: The development of self-driving vehicles represents a brewing storm for many industries. What will this technological advancement mean for car insurance companies, body repair shops and the interior design units of automobile production companies? Autonomous vehicles will create substantial threats for some organizations, but also significant opportunities for others.

How prepared is your company?
How prepared is your organization for the rapid changes coming in the future? Are you ready for the new opportunities that will be created? Will the changes in the future threaten the existence of your organization? Are you preparing for things like additive manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, drones or autonomous vehicles? You can be sure that companies like Geico, Progressive, State Farm and American Family Insurance are all deeply involved in assessing the impact of autonomous vehicles. 

Companies that engage in futuring will be far ahead of those that do not. We hope your company is prepared and positioned properly for the future.

Sept. 28, 2017