Ian Wilson
Wolf Enterprises

All of us are interested in the future, if for no other reason than that (as Charles Kettering observed) we intend to spend the rest of our lives there. But there is more to it than that, of course. Personally and professionally, we are energized by the effort of trying to understand and interpret change; we are stimulated by the debates about what is really happening, and why; and we are challenged to make our own contribution toward a broader and better understanding of where the future may lead us.

This is understandable and praiseworthy. But it is not enough. We must not forget that the fundamental objective is, or should be, not trend analysis per se, nor even a clarification of implications: it is action--action to create the organizational change needed to keep abreast of the future. So, as members of organizations (universities, companies, government, hospitals, whatever) we should each conceive our role to be that of agent of change.

Organizational change has two principal aspects--change in mission and strategy, and change in culture and behavior--and it is the second aspect, or rather a portion of it, that I address here. Mission and strategy are unique to each organization, but there are some broad commonalities in the changes in organizational culture and behavior--witness the current popularity of such concepts as empowerment, boundarylessness, and strategic thinking.

"Changing strategy and improving vision are a lot easier than moving culture."

Strategic thinking can be colloquially defined as "acting in the present with a clear sense of the future"--a sense of what the future environment might be, and a vision of what you want the future organization to be. No aspect of cultural change is more important than focusing organizational values and behavior on the future. This is a task we should not take lightly for, like any cultural change, it deals with deep-seated values and prejudices that will yield only to prolonged and sustained effort. Jack Welch of GE, a change agent par excellence, wrote a note to me in 1984 to say that "From my experience, changing strategy and improving vision are a lot easier than moving culture." Thirteen years later, the effort to change the culture of that organization still goes on.

Learning must be constantly and powerfully reinforced by action.

We may not fully realize the extent to which we are rooted in the present tense, giving little time and short shrift to the future. Certainly, in most organizations, managers and even planners are more comfortable controlling and measuring "what is" than in grappling with "what may be." All too often their views of the future are a projection of the present with modified statistics. It is this misperception or neglect of the future that has caused so many of our leading organizations to stumble over the past two decades.

Achieving this futures focus in our organizations is not a matter of spending more time on planning. Rather it is a matter of changing the way we plan, the way we perceive the future, the way we act on those perceptions. This does not mean that we neglect the present, as we now sometimes neglect the future. Rather, it should infuse our strategic thinking so that the present and the future are linked in our minds and in our actions.

What, then, can we do to change the current organizational mind-set? The most effective actions will be those that change the processes that the organization employs: change the processes, and in time the mind-set and the values will also change. Educational programs about the desired changes are necessary to set the tone and to begin the learning process. But learning must be constantly and powerfully reinforced by action, by new patterns of behavior. In the following paragraphs, I shall attempt to outline some of the changes that I believe we should make in our organizational processes.

Build Your Own "Early Warning System"

Reading, contributing to, and distributing On the Horizon to key decision makers in your organization is only the first step in a very long journey. It (or something like it) is necessary, but far from sufficient, to achieve the organizational change we seek. It is insufficient for at least three reasons.

First, information and ideas about future trends must be tailored to each organization. For instance, information about national demographic trends may stimulate our thinking, but it is the demography of the future student population from which our enrollment will be drawn that we need to know to chart the course for a college, university, or school.

I have found in working with senior management teams that unless they take full ownership of new ideas, little change in action is likely to follow.

Second, and more important, while On the Horizon may offer thought-provoking material, it (or any other such publication) remains an outside source. The ideas that will truly change our actions must be internal to the organization. Futures thinking must be home-grown. I have found in working with senior management teams that unless they take full ownership of new ideas, little change in action is likely to follow. The best way to secure this ownership is to ensure that the ideas are their own. Outside information (or individuals) may provide the stimulus, but it is internal thinking that changes action and behavior.

Finally, while On the Horizon is an admirable scanning mechanism, it is but one leg of a three-legged early warning system: scenarios, scanning, and monitoring. The three legs reinforce one another, and become a firm platform of strategic intelligence for our planning. Scenarios provide comprehensive, internally consistent, long-term perspectives on the future as a framework for strategic thinking, as well as for the scanning and monitoring operations (Wilson, 1995; Morrison and Wilson, 1997). Scanning and monitoring are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they have separate and distinct natures and functions. Scanning focuses mainly on the future (what may happen); monitoring focuses on the past and present (what has happened or is happening). Scanning is largely unfocused, taking a 360-degree view of the whole horizon; monitoring is highly focused. Scanning identifies early warning signals of new trends that might become important; monitoring tracks developments in trends of known importance.

This is not the place to describe such a tripartite system in detail, but there is one organizing principle that is so important that it must be emphasized. If we are to achieve our goal of cultural change, the operation of this system must be widely diffused throughout the organization. An obvious place to begin is the scanning system, developing a network of "radar posts" manned by individuals with diverse backgrounds and in diverse components to serve the organization as the DEW line served the U.S. defense system. But monitoring also falls into a natural pattern of segmentation, with individual specialists being assigned monitoring responsibility for segments of the environment closest to their area of expertise. And scenarios, by their holistic nature, greatly benefit from the ideas and information drawn from multiple perspectives.

In this way, futures thinking starts to pervade the whole organization. A cadre of "true believers" acts like leaven in the loaf, and over time it becomes, if not politically correct, at least acceptable to embrace novel and sometimes controversial views about future change and the actions needed to deal with it.

Develop a True "Strategic Thinking" Process

There is little to be gained from developing a plan per se. There is everything to be gained from the thinking that lies behind the plan--and the action that follows from it. That is why I stress the importance of developing a planning system that truly encourages, indeed forces, strategic thinking.

In an earlier article, I wrote, "The current corporate emphasis has clearly shifted from strategic planning (an annual cycle of planning documents) toward strategic thinking (a change in the mindset and attitude toward the organization and its environment) and strategic management (the integration of strategic thinking and operational action in a seamless web)" (Wilson, 1994, pp. 1–2).

Educational institutions would do well to learn from corporate experience that clearly demonstrates that it is counterproductive to centralize planning, and to force planning into a set model with prescribed steps and rigorous terminology. In this regard, the traditions of educational institutions work both for and against our objectives. On one hand, the democratic nature of governance in schools and colleges makes it easier, indeed mandatory, to diffuse responsibility for planning throughout the organization rather than relying totally on a central planning component. But the equally established academic tradition of teaching by means of typologies, models, and prescribed terminology can be at odds with the looser, more creative thinking that a futures orientation entails.

We need to be less concerned with defining jargon (situation assessment, issues identification, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and similar terms) and more concerned with posing and answering a series of relatively straightforward questions. At the risk of oversimplification, true strategic thinking focuses on such questions as:

How are our stakeholders (students, faculty, alumni, community) likely to change in the future? In "strategic-planning speak," this would become "What are the opportunities and threats that our future environment will pose?"
What impact will technology have on our curriculum, teaching methodologies, and organization?
What is our competition up to? That is, "Who are our competitors, and what are our sources of competitive advantage?" Colleges and universities have always competed with one another; now, with the advent of charter schools, vouchers, and private academies, the concept of competition is starting to reach the elementary and secondary levels.

What do we want our organization to become five to ten years hence? This is the crucial "vision" question (Wilson, 1996). In my experience, nothing is more powerful than this in sparking the imagination, involvement, and commitment of an organization’s members. This is both the essence and the capstone of the sort of "futures thinking" that we should try to instill in our educational organizations.

What are the major obstacles in the way of realizing our vision? That is, "What are the key strategic issues?"
How are we going to deal with these obstacles? Or "What should be our strategies?"

What do we want our organization to become five to ten years hence? This is the crucial "vision" question.

By creating a strategic planning process that focuses attention and effort on a series of relatively straightforward but powerful questions, we achieve two objectives: We recapture the process from the planning professionals and (if you will) democratize it, and we put a premium on creative and imaginative thinking rather than on the pro forma completion of planning documents. If the planning process is designed to require of its participants that they "think and act in the future tense," then over time the planning culture--and, by extension, the organizational culture as a whole--will begin to change.

Reward Futures Thinking and Action

There is an organizational equivalent to the popular saying "You are what you eat." As a member of an organization (at least those in which we earn our livelihood), "You become what you measure." No matter how much lip service is given to the need for strategic thinking and to taking the long view, if an organization’s members see that what is really valued, and what secures advancement, is incremental change and the short run, then that is the way most will behave. Actions speak louder than words, and none more so than the actions we take to measure and reward individual performance.

It is all too easy to say that this future focus is a nebulous concept; that efforts to change values and behavior are manipulative; and that, in any event, any such effort is doomed to failure. But, in fact, it is possible to translate this concept into specific types of performance that we want to encourage--for instance, ability to anticipate the impacts of change, imaginative ideas for dealing with these impacts, initiative in translating these ideas into action, risk taking, tolerance for diverse opinions--and then to communicate and develop consensus on these values and standards as the basis for performance evaluation.

If there is one obvious change in organizational culture that a futures orientation entails, it is a shift in the balance between management and leadership.

I am very well aware that raising any suggestion of changing performance evaluation in academia is tantamount to stepping into a minefield. But changes in the civil service or in paternalistic companies are scarcely less difficult--and no less necessary. The point in any case is that, if we agree that our institutions are too fixated in the present and too neglectful of the future, then some change in the prevailing value system is required. One essential step toward this change is a shift in the basis for the measurement and reward system.

One final word: "reward" does not have to be defined solely in financial terms. Nor does encouraging the development of shared values mean that we are promoting conformity. Indeed, if there is one trait that is shared by futurism and our current emphasis on workforce diversity, it is the conviction that there are multiple possible routes to the future.

Focus on Leadership

If there is one obvious change in organizational culture that a futures orientation entails, it is a shift in the balance between management and leadership. As I pointed out in the March/April 1996 issue of On the Horizon, preparing an organization to deal with future change depends more on the qualities of leadership than on the attributes of management. What sets the leader apart from the manager is reliance on vision and inspiration versus emphasis on control; determination of direction ("what will be") versus dealing with "what is"; and leadership of people versus management of things (programs, budgets, schedules, and so on).

Two caveats are in order here. One is the obvious point that any organization requires both management and leadership. It is not an either-or proposition. The other is perhaps more subtle. We should focus not so much on the leadership of a single individual, but rather on developing the qualities of leadership broadly through the organization.

We should focus not so much on the leadership of a single individual, but rather on developing the qualities of leadership broadly through the organization.

The initial impetus for organizational change may indeed come from a single visionary and determined leader. But the degree of change that we are envisioning in this article can come about only if these qualities are not merely admired but practiced by many individuals at all levels of the organization. Futurizing by fiat is, in this day and age, simply a nonstarter. To succeed, and to take root in an organization, requires a blending of top-down and bottom-up effort.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that each one of us should be a leader. While the human resource system should identify, nurture, and promote those most likely to lead the organization, each of us has a responsibility to develop these qualities in ourselves and to lead in our own spheres of influence.

Dealing so briefly with a shift in organizational culture of this magnitude is almost to trivialize the problem and its solution. I hope, however, that I have made clear that while On the Horizon can provide us with invaluable intelligence, it alone should not be expected to prompt responsive action. This is a task for those of us in the network. Our role should be that of agents of change in achieving this need shift in our organizations. It is a task, not for a year, but (as Jack Welch reminds us) for a decade.


Morrison, J. L., and Wilson, I. "Analyzing Environments and Developing Scenarios for Uncertain Times." In M. W. Peterson, D. D. Dill, L. A. Mets, and Associates (eds.), Planning and Management for a Changing Environment: A Handbook on Redesigning Postsecondary Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Wilson, I. "The Strategic Management of Higher Education: Lessons from Corporate Experience." On the Horizon, 1994, 2(3), 1–2.

Wilson, I. "Envisioning (and Inventing) the Future." On the Horizon, 1995, 3(3), 1–2, 5.

Wilson, I. "The Practical Power of Vision." On the Horizon, 1996, 4(2), 1, 3–5. l


This article should be cited as Wilson, Ian. "Focusing Our Organizations on the Future: Turning Intelligence into Action." On the Horizon, 5(3), 1997, 1, 3-6. It is reproduced here with permission of Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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