Monday, December 6, 2010

Shadows of the Future

I read about scenario planning as a grad student.  The idea sounded great.  It was started in the 1970's by Shell Oil to analyse multiple potential futures.  The result was a strategic plan with built-in flexibility to compensate for unpredictable risk.  According to all the literature, it was wildly successful for Shell.

What baffled me was that in my entire management career, nobody ever practiced it.  Moreover, I've never met anyone who had.  But today we tried a scenario planning exercise for research libraries.  A group of library and systems managers worked together to analyse four potential scenarios.  Each scenario was set 20 years in the future, and each represented wildly different final states.

Are we to become an institution whose research community was made up of global followers, research entrepreneurs, discipline driven specialists, or scrounging re-cyclists?  We divided into four teams and spent the morning analyzing how our institution might be driven into these possible situations.  I really looked forward to the debate that would ensue as each group presented its vision for the future and how we would get there.

I certainly didn't get what I expected.  Although the future worlds all looked different, there were similar forces at work in each scenario.  A shifting economy, changing demographics, and growing international competition, amongst several other changes, are shaping our next two decades.  We discovered the difference is not in what forces are pressuring us, but in how we react to those forces.  Each reaction is a decision.

Twenty years may seem like a long time.  But our scenario planning exercise made it clear that the choices we make today can have dramatic consequences.  The future casts a long shadow on the present.


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