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Organizational Foresight - Strategy and Terms

This page offers some ideas on strategy for those building foresight (also known as strategic foresight, prospective, futures-awareness, etc.) in organizational culture, and terms (the various labels future-oriented folks can use to describe themselves and their processes in the org), and the way that the use of different foresight terms (descriptive labels) will promote different connotations and outcomes in the organization. See our page on University Foresight for ideas on bringing foresight education to the modern University.


Organizational Foresight - Strategy

Organizational Foresight - Terms


Organizational Foresight - Strategy

Peter Bishop, director of the U. Houston M.S. program in Futures Studies in Commerce, divides Organizational Foresight into the first three fundamental categories below. We agree yet also add a fourth, below:

1. (Strategic, Long-Range) Planning. This is the traditional and most common role for foresight in the organization. It is well known that plans are rarely executed as made, and often sit largely unread in between planning events, but that certainly doesn't mean they aren't worth making. There's good evidence that organizations that make regular plans, and get broad stakeholder input, have significantly better long term survival rates in a competitive market, as long as the planning process isn't too costly or the plans too rigidly followed. See The Strategy Process, Henry Mintzberg et. al. (Eds.), 2002 for more.

2. Forecasting and Technical Analysis (Operations Research, Decision Analysis/Support, Risk Management, Market Research, etc.). This is the next-most-frequently seen form of organizational foresight. The better planning departments in organizations will generate some in-house forecasts, generally of variable quality, and another subset will find or pay for a set of forecasts and research from outside. There are also courses and certification programs (Inst. of Business Forecasting & Planning, International Inst. of Forecasters) for forecasting and closely related technical analysis fields (operations research, decision analysis, risk management/actuary work, marketing/survey research, etc.), which are helpful in many contexts. Industry and technology forecasting and roadmaps (particularly learning curves for manufacturing, service delivery, etc.) can be surprisingly accurate. Market forecasting is sometimes so (generally for shorter periods), and social forecasting is the least reliable (but still useful). See Principles of Forecasting, Scott Armstrong, 2001 for more. Many (but not enough) CEOs recognize you need good, inexpensive forecasting and technical analysis on a range of relevant trends and issues, in order to make good plans, so making the case for forecasting competency is quite plausible in any organization that cares about plans. Good planning and forecasting/technical analysis are necessary but not sufficient for foresight. Forecasters bring a solid technical, engineering, accounting, or risk management mindset to the table, but need to be complemented by future-oriented thinkers and methods to deliver superior strategy, as we describe next.

3. Strategic Foresight. This is the work of the "foresight professional," ideally the leading member of an organizational foresight community. Strategic foresight uses many secondary foresight specialties (see below) and complements them with a range of primary foresight specialties (also see below). These strategic foresight skills can be further subdivided into three fundamental foresight perspectives (possible, probable, and preferable futures), and four fundamental foresight skills (creating, discovering/predicting, planning/negotiating, or benefiting from/measuring progress toward the future). See Foresight Frameworks for more.

Strategic foresight builds on strategic plans, forecasts, and technical analysis in an attempt to "future proof" strategy as much as possible with the resources at hand. Just as only a subset of planners will integrate good forecasting work with their plans, a further subset of organizations will consciously do strategic foresight work in concert with plans and (ideally) good forecasts and quantitative analysis.

In building organizational foresight, it seems the most natural and conservative growth path to move your organizational community first into building a good Planning culture the to building a good Forecasting culture and finally, a to creating a good Strategic Foresight culture. See Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, 2007, for more on strategic foresight.

Below is ASF's list of primary, secondary and other specialties most commonly useful to the foresight professional. Any of these specialties may be employed to bring strategic foresight to the org. Some have a much longer and better developed methodological history than others, and are more widely applicable, and some are helpful only for special classes of problems.

Foresight Specialties - Primary, Secondary, and Other

Primary Foresight Specialties (24) Secondary Foresight Specialties (25)

Alternative Futures
Competitive Intelligence
Critical Futures and CLA
Development (Systemic) and Acceleration Studies
Emerging Issues, Cross Impact and Pattern Analysis
Emerging Technologies Analysis
Ethnographic Futures

Forecasting and Modeling/Simulation (basic)
Foresight Frameworks and Foundations
History and Analysis of Prediction
Horizon Scanning and Weak Signals
Images and Artifacts of the Future

Persoal Futures/ Foresight Development
Prediction Markets
Predictive Surveys/ Delphi
Scenario Development and Backcasting
Strategic Foresight and Scenario Planning
Strategy Games, Serious Games, and Wargames

Systems Thinking
Transhumanist/ Ethics of Emerging Tech Studies
Trend Extrapolation and Learning Curves
Visioning, Intuition, and Creative Thinking

Actuarial Science and Risk Assessment
Anthropology and Culture Studies

Cognitive and Positive Psychology
Collaboration, Facilitation, and Peace/Conflict Studies
Critical and Evidence-Based Thinking
Demographics and Sociology
Ethics and Values Studies
Evolution, Complexity and Systems Studies
Forecasting and Modeling/Simulation (advanced)
Futures, Sci-Fi, Utopian, and Dystopian Lit Studies
Innovation and Entrepreneurship Studies
Integral Studies and Thinking
Investing and Finance (Long-Term)
Leadership Studies and Organizational Development
Library Science and Knowledge Management
Long-Range and Urban Planning
Marketing, Public Relations, and Consumer Behavior
Political Science and Policy Studies
Probabilistic (Statistical) Prediction
Religious Studies (Future Beliefs)
Security/Defense Studies and International Relations

Science and Technology Studies and Technology Analysis
Socially Responsible / Triple Bottom Line Management
Strategic Planning, Decision Analysis and Support
Sustainability and Development (Economic) Studies
Other Foresight-Related Specialties (45, a partial list)
Anthropology | Architecture | Astrobiology | Biological Sciences | Bioethics | Biotechnology | Business Administration | Chemical Sciences | Cliometrics | Computer Modeling and Simulation | Computer Science | Contemporary/Cultural Studies | Cybernetics | Decision Analysis/Decision Theory | Defense/National Security Studies | Development | Disaster/ Catastrophic Risk Management | Economics and Econometrics | Education | Engineering | Evolutionary Biology | Game Theory | Gambling Studies | Generational Studies | Geography | History | History and Philosophy of Science and Technology | Information Science | Investing and Finance (Short-Term) | Knowledge Management | Library Science (general) | Management | Management Science | Media and Communications | Marketing | Mathematics | Operations Research | Philosophy | Physical Sciences | Psychology (general) | Psychographics | Statistics (general) | Technology Policy | Tourism | Urban Studies

See also ASF's list of Primary Foresight/Futures Academic Programs for a list of places where one can get an MS or a PhD in the primary foresight specialties. The primary specialties are the main focus of Strategic Foresight and/or Futures Studies academic programs. Training in the secondary speciaties is available in other academic programs.

4. Futurists. The fourth (and often overlooked) category of organizational foresight is the futurists that are associated with an organization (internally or externally, formally or informally). Usually a distinct minority in any organizational culture, you will nevertheless find (and be able to easily identify) a wide variety of types of future-oriented employees, specialists, and client base for any large organization. Most of these individuals are not foresight professionals, they just like thinking about the future, in a wide variety of levels (personal, organizational, societal, global, or universal), using any of the primary foresight skills, and they comprise a range of different social and methodological types. See ASF's definition of twelve common types of futurist for our list of the most common types of future-oriented thinkers. Each of these types will impact your org in different ways.

This class of foresight has the most variability and the least reliable social benefit. "Futurists" have a bad name, or at least a very mixed record in both social and organizational environments, as so many have been so very wrong in the past, and as many of these passion- or vision-driven individuals can be out of touch with organizational realities. Nevetheless, it can be quite valuable to know who the futurists are in your organization and your stakeholder and client base, and to be able to work with the different types of futurists in different ways. You may even wish to subsidize and grow your futurist culture in certain places (e.g., annual retreats, idea/transformation groups) and in certain functions (e.g., if you are an innovation- or creativity-driven org) but don't expect too much from them. As Paul Saffo reminds us, this fourth group has quite variable quality, and is not necessarily seeking consensus or interested in the organizational agenda. They also have a great variety of individual, conflicting motivations. Only a special subgroup (e.g., those trend followers who would engage in a prediction market or business intelligence system) may be reliably valuable to the organization.

Organizational Foresight - Terms
Given the organizational foresight landscape and development strategy we've described above, the terms we use to describe ourselves and our process clearly matter. Some terms will be much more effective than others for building a foresight culture in corporate, institutional, NGO, and other organizational environments, and for good reason.

Clearly "futurist" is a category that describes a wide and highly variable collection of folks, some of which are wild-eyed dreamers who never bothered to learn (and thus never learned how to conditionally break) the norms and conventions of society (e.g., "preconventional futurists," see definition). The term futurist can be adjectivized for the corporate world (e.g., "professional futurist") but this phrase still suffers from the amateurism and breadth of definition of the noun class. Thus it remains quite weak as a result and should be avoided. The term futurist will always lead to snickers, particularly from the more hard-nosed and evidence-driven folks in any org. As a result, the term "foresight professional" is a far better description for the driver of foresight work in the organization. Not "foresight expert," as this term feels arrogant and incorrect (no one can be an "expert" on the future). But everyone can strive to be a "professional", and fortunately there are now 50 years of foresight and futures knowledge, methods, and theory to analyze and selectively use.

The term "futures" has a long academic history to speak for it (as "futures studies", "alternative futures," "futures research", etc.) but this word and its associated phrases have gained very little traction outside of academia, even though they've been in use for over 40 years. These terms don't work well for the corporate environment, which is usually agenda-driven (e.g., seeking a particular "future"), not consensus- or exploration-driven (e.g., promoting a plurality of "futures."). While the term "future" has had some success within the U.S. military, we find that even in consensus-driven institutional environments (eg., governmental work, community futures work, the U.N., etc.) "futures" has had only a small fraction of the penetration that "foresight" and 'strategic foresight" have. We are again led to conclude that the term "futures" is weak organizationally and institutionally, with the sole historical exception of academic settings. Even in academia, however, the term "foresight" is increasingly taking over. Most new MS and PhD degrees no longer use "futures" but rather "foresight" in their program descriptions (e.g., Technical U. of Lisbon's MS in "Foresight, Strategy, and Innovation")

We have just scratched the surface of terminology issues for our profession, but hopefully this will help you in your work building an organizational culture that respects and acts on foresight as much as it does on hindsight and insight in this complex, accelerating world.

Foresight and Futures-Related People, Orgs, and Resources

See ASF's Global Foresight Directory for a community-edited list of foresight research centers, consultancies, NGOs, associations, and other foresight resources and groups that you might associate with or do an internship at if you are in a foresight/futures academic program.

Edits or corrections to this page? Please let us know.




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