Developing Foresight Capability on Your Campus
James L. Morrison
Professor of Educational Leadership
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
We are being bombarded by tumultuous forces for change as we go into the 21st Century: virtual classrooms, telecourses, distance learning, corporate classrooms, state-wide program review, and so on. In order to plan effectively in this environment, college and university leaders must be able to anticipate new developments in their institutions' and curricular programs. This entails acquiring "developing" a foresight capability on campus.
The workshop followed the Reinventing Higher Education Conference, June 23-24, 1997. It was structured to model how the participants could establish a foresight capability on their campuses. Assuming the role of facilitator, I directed participants to visualize the activities we engaged in as taking place on their own home bases. Specifically, we focused on (1) identifying events that would shape the future of higher education, (2) selecting the most significant event, and drawing out its implications if it were to occur, and (3) concluding with a set of recommendations for college and university leaders to consider. We paid particular attention to establishing and maintaining an environmental scanning system for the collection and analysis of data from the external environment. Our intent was to create a model of how to initiate a foresight system on a campus. I presented each participant with a handbook, which was designed to assist them in developing and maintaining their foresight system.
We began the workshop with observations on how to anticipate the future. This step served as an introduction to linking potential external developments to internal decision-making. Anticipating the future requires identifying potential events that could change the future, identifying emerging trends that define the context within which institutions function, forecasting the probabilities of events and the direction of trends, and forecasting their impacts on our institutions. Given that we were limited to four hours, we confined the post-conference workshop to an event exercise. In addition, because participants came from different campuses, we simulated being a task force, appointed by President Clinton, charged with producing a report to the US Department of Education.
Identifying Potential Events That Can Change the Future of Higher Education
Events are happenings--unambiguous and confirmable. Once they occur, the future has become the present, albeit often a different one than the one we had prepared for. External identification and analysis of potential events are therefore critical in planning.
The Nominal Group Process
To conduct the event exercise, I introduced the nominal group process (NGP), an efficient tool that ensures balanced participation. NGP requires participants to first think about the question (in this case, "What potential events can affect the future?") and then to write their thoughts on a sheet of paper. After three or four minutes, the chair uses a round robin approach during which each participant in turn nominates one event that could be most critical to American higher education. The scribe writes each event statement for all to see. During this time the only one talking is the person nominating an event statement; all others are requested to think about the statement to see if it stimulates an idea that they had not had before.
Under normal circumstances this process goes on until there are no more nominations, at which time the chair guides the group in a discussion of each nomination to clarify, discuss, edit, and remove redundancies. Of course the discussion may uncover more events, which will then be posted on the flip chart. (Given time limitations, we had to curtail the nominations to four rounds.)
The Event Exercise
After explaining the procedures for the NGP and the rationale for the process (everyone participates and contributes), I assumed the role of chairman, and posed the question: What are the potential events that would change the future of higher education? I allowed 5 minutes for the participants to think about the question, reminding them to think broadly through the Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political (STEEP) sectors, locally through globally. I then began a round robin process to post nominations from individual group members to the flip chart. When we had posted close to 30 events, I called time, not because that was all we could think of, but because we were under a severe time limitation. (Had this been a campus situation, I would have recommended that this process go on until all nominations were exhausted.) We then proceeded to the discussion/clarification phase. The purpose of this phase is to ensure that group members understand and agree with the event statements. Again, I had to call time before we had finished discussing each event, due to the press of time; I pointed out that on a campus, this exercise should continue until everyone understood each statement and agreed that (1) the event had at least a 1% probability of occurrence within the planning timeframe and (2) that if it occurred, the future of the institution would be affected. I also said that I would not expect the statements to be in proper event statement form, as long as they were clear and succinct.
The events identified by participants were as follows:
Most significant event. In an event exercise on a campus, participants would have identified 100 or more potential events. Because it is difficult to work with this number of potential events, it is important to identify those that are most significant. A simple approach to this task is to have participants vote. I gave each participant five paste-on dots, and asked them to vote for the five most critical events that could affect higher education and that would have some probability of occurrence within the next decade. I issued the following instructions:
The event voted most significant was:
Implication of the most significant event. Our next task was to derive the implications of this potential event for American higher education. To do this, participants were to assume that this event occurs. The question to answer would then be: "What would happen to American colleges and universities as a result of its occurrence?"
We again used the NGP process. For this task, participants identified the following implications:
There was time only to list these implications in round-robin order; there was no time for discussion. Normally, we would have spent a good deal of time combining and fleshing out the implications identified above.
Actions and Recommendations. I explained that each implication may be used to focus on the bottom line exercise: what actions do we recommend? That is, as a task force, what are our recommendations as to what colleges and universities should do now in anticipation of this event's occurrence. I asked participants not to be concerned about the probability of occurrence of the event, but rather to look at the recommendations and examine them to see if they made sense to implement regardless of whether or not the event occurred. One outcome of this kind of action is the creation of plans that could not have been conceived without going through the process, but that now make sense to begin implementing.
Although we were almost out of time for this exercise, by using the initial part of the NGP (individual nominations), participants were able to come up with the following recommendations:
Although we had only four hours for this workshop session, participants were able to become familiar with and experience the use of the NGP in event identification and analysis. For a deeper understanding of the NGP, participants will be able to consult the handbook, which also goes into some detail about the organization, structure, and functioning of a foresight system, including how to identify information resources, maintaining scanning files, training scanners and abstracters, and maintaining the system.
Establishing a comprehensive foresight system on a campus to inform planning requires a good deal of time from everyone involved in the process. Fortunately, anyone can take advantage of the information highway and can share resources via Horizon List and Horizon Home Page. Horizon List offers the opportunity to respond to draft articles focusing on emerging trends and potential events. Horizon Home Page has a futures planning database of abstracts describing signals of change in the macroenvironment that can affect education. To subscribe to Horizon List, simply send the following message to firstname.lastname@example.org: subscribe horizon <yourfirstname> <yourlastname>.
In concluding the workshop proceedings, I will reiterate suggestions from the concluding section of the handbook for using Horizon project materials in maintaining a foresight system:
To stimulate and focus discussion of the implications of emerging trends and potential events on your campus, I suggest that you recommend to the chair of your planning committee that she/he order a site license or a bulk subscription to On the Horizon and then use each issue of On the Horizon as a pump-primer to organizational planning. For example, the chair's cover letter to the first issue should urge planning committee members to consider how the content of particular items in the newsletter affect the institution and to write down their thoughts (and/or send them to the group via e-mail); their collective thoughts could then be used to begin discussion at the next committee meeting.
Before the meeting, the chair could compose a questionnaire identifying those articles in On the Horizon that may affect either the organization as a whole or particular curricular programs. He/she should ask committee members to rank-order the most important ones, and follow this rank order for the discussion agenda.
As the committee becomes accustomed to this process, the chair should request members to send articles, notes, or commentary that they encounter in their reading and at conferences about potential developments that could affect the organization. Committee members should use the structure of the newsletter: send information about signals of change in the STEEP (i.e., social, technological, economic, environmental, and political) categories, particularly on the local and regional levels (On the Horizon tends to focus on the national and international levels). Using this structure shows how developments in one sector affect developments in other sectors (e.g., a war in the Middle East affects fuel prices everywhere); to anticipate change, you need to look for developments that may have direct or indirect effects on the organization.
Committee members should examine sources for change in relevant variables (e.g., immigration, price of computers, mood of voters). What change is already taking place? Is there a movement upward or downward? What are the projections? What are the emerging trends? What external events, policies, or regulatory actions would affect or be affected by the projections? Committee members should look for forecasts by experts, and append their own implications section to the emerging issues, critical trends, or potential developments when they send their information items.
The chair should summarize the articles and their implications in the cover letter when sending the next issue of On the Horizon, and include a questionnaire asking each committee member to rank the five most important items submitted by the committee or included in the newsletter.
The agenda for the planning meeting should include the top items. At the meeting, focused around these items, committee members should draw out the implications of the potential developments for ongoing organizational and program planning. They may want more information about a particular trend or potential event. In this case, you could enlist the aid of a research staffer or librarian (who should be on the planning committee anyway).
Regularly circulating information about potential developments and asking committee members to think of their implications reinforces a future-oriented posture among your colleagues. They will begin to read, hear, and talk about this information not only as something intellectually interesting but also as information they can use in practical organizational planning. When this occurs, you will know that you have successfully designed and implemented a foresight capability on your campus.