Eight Ways IBM Develops a View of the Potential Futures

Last week I presented at the 47th meeting of the Technology Market Analysis Group.  The theme for the meeting last week was “Trend Spotting and Forecasting Market Disruptions”, a theme that was right up my alley.   I’ll blog more about TMAG and the meeting in the coming days. 

How IBM Develops Views of the Potential Futures - Aug2011The inspiration for my presentation came from a white paper “100 years of foresight: The importance of long-term thinking at IBM” written by my IBM colleague David Jarvis, Senior Consultant of the IBM Center for Applied Insights team.

This was a very timely topic as this past June IBM celebrated its 100th birthday…a major milestone in the company's history.  It’s important to pause and reflect how a company like IBM continues to survive and even thrive in an industry that experiences one disruptive trend after another.  The answer lies in a series of initiatives designed to help the company understand and prepare for the potential futures that lie ahead.  

During the presentation, I provided an overview of eight examples of ways in which IBM approaches the discipline of strategic foresight.  In each of the eight initiatives collaboration plays a big part in planning for the future.   If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see I’ve also embedded the presentation which I have loaded to HorizonWatching on Slideshare.

Eight IBM Foresight Initiatives

1.Global Technology Outlook (GTO).  The GTO is developed annually by IBM Research and identifies disruptive societal, technical and economic trends that might impact IBM and its clients.  The GTO is used to drive technical initiatives in IBM Research and to jointly engage with IBM in formulating these initiatives.  For more information, check out the 2011 GTO report.  A side benefit of the all the work that goes into the GTO is the annual list of Five in Five…which provides a list of five technologies that may have a disruptive impact on our lives in five years.

2.Academy of Technology. The IBM Academy of Technology is a society of IBM technical leaders across all IBM Business Units.  The academy’s mission is to advance the understanding of key emerging technical areas.  Groups of technical leaders voluntarily study, organize, synthesize and advance technical dialogue and innovation across business lines on important emerging technical topics.

3.First of a Kind (FOAK). The First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) Program encourages collaboration of early adopter companies with IBM Research and Sales.  The effort pushes early thought leadership and experiences with new technologies and results in the piloting of experimental solutions and working prototypes.  For more on FOAK see http://www.research.ibm.com/FOAK/index.shtml

4.Global Innovation Outlook (GIO).  The Global Innovation Outlook focuses more on broad issues impacting all types of organizations. This is an open, collaborative, multi-disciplinary process with external business leaders, academics, researchers and policymakers.  The focus on tackling broad and challenging topics – spanning geographies, generations, industries and interests.  Access past GIO reports via http://www.ibm.com/ibm/gio/us/en/index.html

5.InnovationJam. InnovationJams (https://www.collaborationjam.com) are online collaborative discussions and brainstorming sessions for focused audiences ranging in size from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands.  The brainstorming sessions are enhanced by real-time text analysis and data mining software that highlights hot discussions and possible solutions.  An example was the HabitJam.

6.Institute for Business Value.  The IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) is global team of 50+ consultants who conduct research and analysis across multiple industries and functional disciplines. IBV consultants author thought leadership papers, like “Future Agendas” and “C-Suite Studies” that provides an original, research-based point of view told from a client’s business perspective.  

7.Market Development & Insights.  IBM’s Market Develop & Insights is a global team of market research analysts and consultants that research topics of importance to IBM business leaders and strategists.   The team accelerates the understanding of new or emerging markets, and acts as a catalyst for future growth.  The team provides foresight from a marketing perspective, including market definition, opportunity analysis, market drivers/inhibitors, potential segmentation, and competitive intelligence.

8.HorizonWatch Community.  This is a cross-IBM community of 1900+ IBM employees from all types of functions, divisions and geographies that I have led since it’s creation in 2001.  The mission is to improve our collective ability to sense future disruptive technologies, business issues, trends and opportunities.  The community meets via monthly conference calls on an emerging topic, which are led by a subject matter expert.  In between calls, the community collaborates via an online community platform that allows the members to share and brainstorm ideas about how the future will play out.

About HorizonWatching

Profile pic from TwitterWhat is HorizonWatching?:   HorizonWatching was launched in 2006 to encourage sharing information and collaborating about emerging trends, technologies, and business issues that will impact businesses of all sizes in the future.  We’re also interested in discussing how businesses plan for the future.  So what is your vision of the future for the business/technology topic that you are focused on?

About Me: I’m an IBMer who is interested in understanding the potential futures that await us.  I’ve spent most of my career in marketing research and strategy roles.  So, I like to do research on emerging trends, technologies and business issues.  Anything I say or do related to the HorizonWatching effort is my own work and does represent the views of the company I work for (IBM).   I won’t bore you here with my background.  For more on me, see my LinkedIn Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/whchamb

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Foresight Method – A Primer on Scenario Planning

Primer on Scenario Planning Introduction To Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a Foresight technique that can help provide a view into the future in a world of great uncertainty.   Scenarios are carefully crafted stories about the future embodying a wide variety of ideas and integrating them in a way that is communicable and useful.  Using scenario planning techniques, teams can imagine plausible futures with the objective to explore potential surprises and unexpected developments.  It can help manage strategic risks and opportunities. 

Scenario planning has its roots in military strategy studies, but it was transformed into a business tool in the late 1960's and early 1970's, by Pierre Wack of Royal Dutch/Shell.  By applying scenario planning techniques, Shell was better prepared to deal with the oil shock that occurred in late 1973.  As a result, Shell greatly improved its competitive position in the industry during the oil crisis and the oil glut that followed.

Why Should Companies Do Scenario Planning?

Scenario planning is a technique analysts and strategists can use to deal with major, uncertain shifts in a company’s environment.  Scenario planning is particularly useful in emerging markets or when existing markets are gong through rapid changes and disruption.  It is during these times that information is limited and it is hard to predict with certainty what might happen in the future.  In these cases, traditional forecasting techniques often fail to predict significant changes going on in the external environment.  Consequently, important opportunities and serious threats may be overlooked and the very survival of the firm may be at stake.  

Other benefits of scenario planning include:

  • It forces people out of their typical view of the market and therefore can expose blind spots that might have been overlooked in the current long range strategic plans

  • As the future unfolds, we are better able to recognize a scenario in its early stages as it happens, rather than being caught off guard.

It is important to understand that the objective of scenario planning is not to fully predict the future.  Instead, it attempts to help describe what is possible.  The objective of scenario planning is to describe a group of distinct futures, all of which are plausible.  Once those potential futures are developed, the challenge then is how to deal with each of them.

The Basics Of Scenario Planning

Scenario planning usually takes place in a workshop setting.  The workshop can range from a half a day to a number of days, depending on the complexity of the market being studied.  It is best to have a diverse team assembled, including  analysts, strategists, subject matter experts, and industry leaders.  The idea is to bring together a group that has a wide range of viewpoints in order to fully explore alternative scenarios that are outside the current accepted forecasts. 

Any scenario planning workshop should encourage unstructured thinking, therefore, the process itself should not necessarily be too structured.  With that in mind, the following outlines the sequence of actions that may constitute the process of scenario planning.

  1. Form Team.  Identify people who will contribute a wide range of perspectives.
  2. Conduct pre-workshop interviews as appropriate.  Ideally, the process should include pre-workshop interviews with managers who later will formulate and implement strategies based on the scenario analysis.  Without their input the scenarios may leave out important details and not lead to action if they do not address issues important to those who will implement the strategy.
  3. Begin workshop.  Introduce Scenario Planning Exercise.  Define goals/objectives.  Specify the scope/time frame.
  4. Develop a clear understanding of the present situation.  This will serve as a common departure point for each of the scenarios.
  5. Document current trends any future events/elements that are virtually certain to occur.
  6. Understand external environment.  Identify the critical uncertainties in the political, economic, social, and technological factors.
  7. Identify the more important driving forces.  Take into account the potential variation and impact of each driver.  After listing all driving forces, rank the driving forces in order of significance.
  8. For the most important drivers, consider a few possible values for each.  Range between extremes while avoiding highly improbable values.
  9. Understand potential interaction between the driving forces.  One way to do this is to develop a matrix of scenarios using the two most important variables and their possible values.  Each cell in the matrix then represents a single scenario.  Assign names to each scenario and sketch out rough pictures/descriptions of different futures based on these scenarios.  One of these scenarios most likely will reflect the mainstream views of the future, while others will shed light on what else is possible.  At the end of this step, there is not any detail associated with these rough scenarios.  They are simply high level descriptions of a combination of important environmental variables.
  10. Develop Detailed Stories.  During this step further work is needed to develop detailed impact scenarios that explain in more detail how each scenario might affect the corporation.  Specifics can be generated by writing a story to develop each scenario starting from the present.  The story should be internally consistent for the selected scenario so that it describes that particular future as realistically as possible.   Experts in specific fields can be called upon to develop more detail around each story.  The goal of the detailed stories is to transform the analysis from a simple matrix of the obvious range of environmental factors into decision scenarios useful for strategic planning.
  11. Quantify the impact of each scenario on the firm, and formulate appropriate strategies.
  12. At this point, if the team is comfortable doing so, it can be useful to assign a probability to each scenario.
  13. Establish signposts for each scenario.  During this step, the team should identify a set of early warning signals or signposts for each scenario.  These are event that could happen that would indicate to the team that the particular scenario is beginning to unfold.
  14. Finally, the team should establish a process that regularly monitors, evaluates and reviews the scenarios.

What comes out of the scenario planning process is a number of plausible scenarios that can be used to as input into strategic planning discussions.  The point is not to select one scenario as the preferred future and hope for it to become true.  Nor is the point to fund the most probable future and adapt to it.  Rather, the point is to make strategic decisions that will be sound for all plausible futures. 

It should be noted that strategists/executives may not take scenarios seriously if those scenarios deviate too much from their preconceived view of the world.  Many will prefer to rely on forecasts and their judgment, even if they realize that they may miss important changes in the firm's environment.  To broaden their thinking,  it is useful to create "phantom" scenarios that show the adverse results if the firm were to base its decisions on the mainstream view while the reality turned out to be one of the other scenarios.  For each scenario, I always like to ask the question:  What is the worse impact that we can imagine will happen if we do nothing and this scenario comes true?

Summary

 

Scenario planning works by understanding the nature and impact of the most uncertain and important driving forces affecting the company's future.  It is a group process which encourages knowledge exchange and development of mutual deeper understanding of central issues important to the future of the business. 

The goal is to craft a number of diverging stories by extrapolating uncertain and heavily influencing driving forces.  The stories together with the work getting there has the dual purpose of increasing the knowledge of the business environment and widen both the receiver's and participant's perception of possible future events. 

I'd encourage you to try out scenario planning as a way to imagine the potential futures. 

Additional Reading/Resources

Dr. James Canton: Top 20 Trends That Will Shape the World in the Next Year

Canton - Global Futures Forecast 2010 Since 1990, Dr. James Canton, a futurist and founder of the Institute for Global Futures, has released an annual Global Futures Forecast 2010.  These annual forecasts from Canton are always a little too sensational and dramatic in how the trends are worded.  I know he does this just to ‘sell’ the trends list and pull people into his marketing engine.  But if you ignore all that drama and read between the lines for the message of the key trend, the lists can be useful. 

In this years report, Dr. Canton lists 20 trends that he says we need to watch in 2010 as these trends are transforming our lives today and will continue to do so for many years into the future.  Here is my summary of the 20 trends. See below for a link to a 13 page pdf file wiht more detail.

  1. Future Positive.  We’ll once again look at the future in a positive way.
  2. The Existential Consumer.  Relationships have been strained between governments, business and individuals.
  3. Business as Unusual.  Expect some bold moves by businesses in 2010.
  4. Design for a Better World.  Canton says that giving back to others, social responsibility will emerge as a key trend this year.  Perhaps the Haiti earthquake is the spark we needed.
  5. Energy X.  Canton says our future is tied to finding new sources of plentiful and cheap energy.
  6. Asia Self-Reliance.  Asian economies will increasingly rely on internal sources of growth and prosperity.
  7. Personalized Medicine.  Technology will start to deliver on the promise of personalized medicine.
  8. The Neuro-Society.  Canton expects 2010 to be a breakout year for neuroscience and that there will be broad-based impact.
  9. Hungry Planet.  Canton says there will be progress made towards a cooperative approach to solving food shortages, food security, and improving quality of life.
  10. Products That Think.  Canton says we’ll have more smart products as manufacturers embed chips into everything.
  11. Social Capitalism Emerges.  Canton says that efforts to remake capitalism into a populist or social welfare tool will fail. 
  12. Workforce Talent War.  Canton expects that companies will have a talent shortage as increased complexity, competition and demands for performance drive the talent search…and talent wars.
  13. Jobs and the Innovation Economy.  Real job creation will not come from government but the private sector stepping up the innovation game.
  14. Rogues Among Us.   Canton says to watch out for rogue organizations that seek to destabilize the world’s security order.
  15. Green Tech.  Canton says there will be increased focus on helping nature help itself by geo-engineering the planet using science to protect the planet. 
  16. Internet Everywhere.  Canton safely predicts that the Internet will be everywhere this year.
  17. Tomorrow’s Markets.  Canton points out that the emerging middle class in the developing world is a huge opportunity for all businesses.
  18. Robots R Us.  Canton says “The robots are coming!”.
  19. Singularity Watch.  Canton believes that Singularity discipline (the use of advanced science and technology to cope with planetary social challenges) will get increased attention in 2010
  20. Reinventing Education.  Canton says we need to reinvent Education to make it more relevant, modern and future-ready.

For a 13 page pdf file that covers the 20 trends, check out Global Futures Forecast 2010