Kuala Lumpur 2010 CLOUDS AND SUN

Using the impact network

In this exercise, we will be developing an an elementary scenario using a technique known as the impact network as described in Morrison, Renfro, and Boucher (1984). An impact network (a technique designed to identify potential impacts of key events on future developments) is generated by identifying the possible effects of a given specific event. The procedure is quite simple. Any impact that is likely to result from the event, whether negative or positive, is an "acceptable impact." The question is one of possibility, not probability. In an impact network, the initial event is written in a circle in the middle of the page; each first-order impact is written in a circle that is linked to the initial event by a single line; each second-order impact is written in a circle that is linked to the first-impact by a double line; each third-order impact event is written in a circle that is linked to the second-order impact event by a triple line; and so on (see Figure 1). Typically, third- and fourth-order impacts are sufficient to explore all of the significant impacts of the initial event. Also, after identifying third- and forth-order impact, feedback loops may become apparent. For instance, a fourth-order impact might increase or decrease a third- or a second-order impact. If more impacts or higher-order impacts need to be considered, a new network diagram is created. The value of impact networks lies in their simplicity and in their potential to identify a wide range of impacts very quickly.

Figure 1. Impact Network


A completed impact network is often very revealing. In one sense, it serves as a Rorschach test of the scenario team because the members of the team are most likely to identify impacts highlighting areas of their concern. In another sense, by trying to specify the range of second-order impacts, new insights into the total impact of a potential development can be identified. Though an event may stimulate a majority of small, positive, first-order impacts, these first-order impacts may stimulate a wide range of predominantly negative second-order impacts that in total would substantially reduce, if not eliminate, the positive value of the first-order impacts. Feedback loops may promote the growth of an impact that would far outweigh the original estimate of its importance.


A simple example of the use of an impact network illustrates the impact of the elimination of tenure in higher education. As shown in Figure 2, the immediate or first-order consequences of the event were perceived to be (1) reduced personnel costs, (2) more frequent turn-over of faculty, and (3) an improvement in the academic quality of the faculty. Each consequence then becomes the center of an impact network, and the search for impacts continues. For example, the improvement of the faculty's academic quality causes improved learning experiences, students' increased satisfaction with their education, and the accomplishment of more research. The reduction in personnel costs produces stronger faculty unions, more funds for non-personnel items, and decreased costs per student. Increased faculty turnover produces a decrease in average faculty salary, an increase in overall quality of the faculty, and a decrease in the average age of the faculty. Each consequence in turn becomes the center of the third-order impact network, and so on. 

Figure 2. An Impact Network:
The Consequences of Eliminating Tenure

Task: Develop an impact network for the most critical event that may affect the future of higher education in Southeastern Asia

Write the initial issue in a circle in the center of a blank flip-chart page.  Then, identify five or six first-order impacts until the space around the initial event is occupied. Next, identify the second order impacts by repeating the process for each first-order impact identified by the team. Again, the task is to determine the possible impacts if this event were to occur. Repeat these steps for third- and fourth-order impacts, or as far as the team would like to go. Also, be aware of any feedback loops between levels of impact. Be prepared to discuss the impact network with the entire conference.


Morrison, J. L., Renfro, W. L., and Boucher, W. I. (1984). Futures Research and the Strategic Planning Process. ASHE/ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Research Report Series Number 9.

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