If all companies could employ Bill Gates, predicting future trends would no longer be a challenge. In 1987, looking ahead 20 years, he told journalists: “The dream of having a world database at your fingertips will have become a reality… Also, we will have serious voice recognition.”
Today, two words come to mind: Wikipedia and Siri.
But without a Bill Gates of their own, how can mid-market businesses predict and plan for the future?
The CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development with more than 140,000 members worldwide, spends a significant amount of time identifying future trends and how they will affect the workplace. Its lead consultant of strategic projects, Ruth Stuart, says there is plenty that business leaders can do to stay ahead of the game.
She explains: “It’s helpful to have an understanding of the big, contextual drivers of change but then it’s about bringing that into your organisation and saying, if we know this is happening in the broader world of work, what does that mean for us as a business?”
A good starting point is to have a clear understanding of your organisation’s vision, strategy, strengths and weaknesses, says Dean van Leeuwen, futurist, keynote speaker and co-founder of TomorrowToday Global, an international consultancy that helps businesses effectively plan for the future.
Then it’s a case of 'joining the dots' between your current position and likely future scenarios. It’s an exercise that can often reveal the gaps between where you are now and where you want to be.
There is real value in getting the entire organisation to participate in future planning because today’s workforce is very tuned in to some of the big changes, particularly technology-related, that are taking place.
As workplace futurists predict multiple trends on the horizon, Stuart suggests setting up several working groups across a business to look at individual predictions, weighing up their respective benefits and risks.
TomorrowToday Global’s TIDES of Change model looks at five areas of potential disruption: technology, institutions, demography, the environment and ethics, and social values. Van Leeuwen suggests quarterly discussions about the latest developments in each of these five areas. But he warns against making future planning a specific event in the diary. It is, he says, something that you need to be thinking about on an ongoing basis.
It’s impossible to cover everything, however. Businesses need to be pragmatic and focus on what’s really relevant to them. At a practical level, Stuart advises companies to consider how relevant trends will affect them in the near, medium and long term, and identify the actions needed to capitalise on the trends but also to mitigate their risks.
One obvious risk is the corporate culture of short-termism. Van Leeuwen points out: “Many organisations do not reward long-term thinking and if you’re not rewarded to think about the future, why do it? The way we reward and encourage people needs to be rethought if we want organisations that are future-fit.”
The challenge for most business leaders is striking the right balance between time spent operating today and planning for tomorrow, and ensuring they have the right skills to be future-focused.
Stuart and Van Leeuwen say leaders who are effective at planning for the future have a natural curiosity for the wider external environment. As a result, they are good at asking meaningful, intelligent questions that help to shift people’s perspectives.
“Connected to that is having a really strong internal and external network of people with a diversity of backgrounds so that you’re not pigeonholing your organisation into going in a particular direction,” says Stuart.
Planning for the future need not be as overwhelming as it might seem at first. Having a general awareness of macro predictions and focusing in on those most relevant to you is a good start. But businesses also need to implement structured processes to capitalise on relevant trends and mitigate their risks if they want to be well-placed to tackle the future with confidence.