Most plans are one-dimensional. They use the best thinking from experts to create a narrow range of possible variances to a set of underlying assumptions. You might get lucky and see those assumptions manifest themselves, or you might be incredibly wrong. If the future doesn’t fit your assumptions, you will find your organization, at best, scrambling to react, at worst, selling off its assets to the highest bidder. If watching trends is your answer, be cautious. Watching trends can be a ticket to following a trend over a cliff. With all of the uncertainty in the world, we need to not just understand trends, but the context that will reinforce a trend and see it realized, or derail a trend into irrelevancy. There is no good way to forecast the future, but there is a good way to anticipate the forces that will be in play in the future, and understand their implications so you create a resilient organization ready for not just one future, but for any future.
This June at Enterprise 2.0, I’ll be assisting in the facilitation of a workshop on Organization Next. Given the title of the conference, some might call it Organization 2.0, but I’m not keen on version numbers for ideas. I am interested, however, in helping people understand how to think about the future in a more robust way. Most conference sessions only have enough time for the speaker to provide one perspective on the future. In this workshop, we will be exploring not only the questions that need to be asked, but how to think about those questions.
Consider the following brief stories:
A large bank is creating a strategic plan. It’s 2021 and an HR specialist named Sarah is asked to help create a human capital forecast. She doesn’t work for the bank, but for an outsourced HR resources firm that manages many of the Fortune 500 companies in mid-town Manhattan, the new thriving center for downsized corporate offices. She works from home most of the time, as do many of the bank’s non-customer facing staff. She has forced herself, finally, to stop saying employees because most of them aren’t really the bank’s employees; they are either self-employed or work for the bank through one of its myriad outsourcing contracts.
The very question of a human capital forecast gets her head spinning as she looks over her shoulder at the last decade. The big banks collapsed under their own weight in 2015 with regional banks and credit unions rapidly stepping in to redistribute power. Most of the large banks are large because their brand still commands name recognition, but in terms of assets, they are half to a quarter of what they once were. The government couldn’t step in to save them, not because it didn’t want to, but because it couldn’t afford to. And despite the seeming calamity of the opening weeks of the financial collapse, regular people just kept going.
So rather than look at hiring plans, as she was taught her MBA course, Sarah starts to look at the network of available resources against a forecast of skills. Her firm specializes in future skills, something she probably wouldn’t be as good at had she worked directly for the bank. Forecasting skills was always a periodic, peripheral activity. Forecasting skills is, as her firm, the bank, and many other companies now recognize, critical Rapid changes in global power structures, new technology and the breakdown of old rules means the evolution and emergence of new skills all of the time. Skill forecasting is what Sarah does, and it is why she was chosen for this task—and like many of the talents and skills Sarah forecasts, her own specialty is better outsourced than become an ineffective, underinvested necessary distraction within the company. Sarah’s plan will not be so much a human capital forecast, as it is a multi-national coordination effort to ensure that when the bank needs a specialized skill, or a full suite of skills to open a storefront, they can deliver at a moment’s notice.
It is 2021 and an HR specialist named Sarah is asked to create a workforce forecast. Consolidated bank has just taken over its fourth bank this quarter. They are working closely with government regulators to ensure continuity of service. They have worked hard on rebuilding trust and they believe in strength through size. They have become the second largest bank in the world, and continue to gobble up local and regional banks, to merge with slightly smaller competitors, and create a truly world class, customer-centric model of banking.
Sarah’s job is not easy. She knows what people will be doing, but she has a hard time thinking about scale. How big the bank will be, how many duplications of job roles will occur during mergers and acquisitions is nothing but a guess. Sarah, however, is an expert is scenario planning, so rather than develop one set of forecasts, she gives the bank a smorgasbord of forecasts, as they expected, each tied to specific contingencies. Should one of the contingencies get triggered, the plan of record shifts. Sarah prepares a revised set of scenarios. Sarah’s job isn’t so much to figure out the workforce plan, as to anticipate, in a multidimensional way, all of the things that will affect the workforce plan, the relationships needed and the forces at work, and then spin up alternative futures close enough to reality that at least one of them is useful when the time comes. Because of all the uncertainty about size, location, background of the acquired bank staff, currency markets and other factors, Sarah pretty much lives in a world of speculation about her firm’s reach and the implications of that reach. As the second largest bank, plenty of assets remain to be acquired and integrated, and the competition isn’t sitting still.
Each of these stories focuses on the same task: creating a human capital or workforce plan. Each story, however, creates a different context that changes the details of the task, the relationship of the protagonist to the organization making the request, even the language used to describe the world. Both of these futures are plausible, so when planning for the future, when thinking about Organization Next, where do you place your bets? Simple extrapolation: tomorrow is pretty much going to be like today, only more so…or do you recognize that radical innovation and business discontinuities could take place and the only way to forecast the future is to look at the forces in play and speculate about how they might reshape the future.
This session will let attendees dip their toes into the future of Organization next, but like a river, once you see the future in a fluid way, you will never step into the same future twice.
Join me and my colleagues at Cisco and Roberts Golden Consulting as we explore organization next.
This blog is also posted on Cisco’s Collaboration Blog.