Nearly 25 years ago when the members of the Institute of Personnel Management (IPMA) began the process which lead to the creation of AHRI, they also commenced a project called ‘Australians at work in 2020’, details of which were published in HRmonthly in April 1993 and June 1995. The changes in working patterns and workplaces over the past 25 years have been profound. Largely homogeneous male-dominated command-and-control structures have (often reluctantly) embraced more diverse, team-based, self-organising models. The concept of middle managers stemming the flow of information up and down the hierarchy has been challenged, if not replaced, by ever-more powerful and sophisticated computer systems. The individual office cubicle, so caricatured in the Dilbert cartoon strip, has been replaced by huge open-plan office spaces containing ‘hot-desks’ and ‘work-pods’. An ever-expanding range of individual workplace employment arrangements has challenged Australia’s centralised employment relations system. Futurists believe that, although the future is inherently uncertain, it is capable of being systematically studied. Just as archaeologists are continuing to develop new ways of understanding the past, so can the expanding range of futurist tools and techniques be used to better prepare for the future.
How futurists work
The first advice a futurist gives a potential client is somewhat counter-intuitive. Before any competent futurist blunders into the future, they first look into the past. Their premise is that the actions we take now to affect the future are inevitably shaped by the events, situations and attitudes that have brought us to the present. The past is inextricably woven into the present and the future, and futurists have a concept called “the extended present”, which explicitly acknowledges our special human ability to simultaneously hold in our consciousness memories of the past, an awareness of the present, and hopes and fears for the future. Although this ability is something we use individually every day, it is often overlooked when it comes to us collectively exploring the future. It is common today to bemoan the lack of ‘corporate memory’ in many organisations. Not only does this mean valuable insights from the past are lost, but the factors that have contributed to the current structure and culture are often inadequately understood.
The futures cone
Another way in which futurists help people engage with the future is through the use of a tool called ‘the futures cone’. This is an effort to divide the infinite space that is the future into manageable chunks. The futures cone is designed to help the many people who find it simply too daunting to venture into the vast uncertainty that is the future, and hence don’t even try. Imagine your eye at the left-hand edge of a blank page looking out into the vastness of the future. Directly in front of you, you might imagine a black line stretching straight to the horizon. This line might be called the ‘business as usual’ future and is what would be expected if nothing at all changed. As attractive as it might be to believe that nothing will change, it is hardly believable. So around this black line might be imagined a region of space not too distant from it, that might be called the probable future. In this region are things that seem very likely to occur. Beyond this space again is an even larger region that might be called the possible future, within which things could easily happen, even if they don’t seem plausible now. Then outside this region, extending out to infinity, is what might be called the preposterous future. This is the space within which such events as the global financial crisis exist – events, which at the time, seemed preposterous, but when they did happen they had a profound impact on the present.
The use of strategic foresight in human resources practice
At least at senior levels, HR practitioners are expected to work with their management teams to contemplate and implement new practices, policies and procedures as the world of work changes. Clearly this requires some ability to prepare for the sorts of futures, which seem likely to face their organisations. It also requires an awareness of the environment in which business will be done in the future, and the expectations and desires of those who work within their companies. In fact, given the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future, it sometimes seems that an almost infinite amount of information needs to be gathered before effective decisions can be made. Helping clients effectively manage the capture and analysis of information relevant to the future are some of the techniques in the competent futurist’s toolkit. However, helping organisations actively make use of this data in their decision-making process is the futurist’s major role.