Research validated through both practice frameworks (foresight experts and case study research) that a future agent network and think tank (or strategy committee in the case of one case organisation) are of great value to an organisation in its efforts to continuously monitor the environment, enrich both the signals database and the current scenarios, exchange foresight knowledge and participate in conversations, open debates and link foresight with strategy. Most interestingly, this element of foresight is not specifically discussed in the reviewed literature on frameworks, but is described by others as a strategy, planning or foresight unit or committee.
The future agent network is an important element for such a flexible but institutionalised exchange of foresight knowledge and the approach is strongly supported by foresight experts. The main objective of a future agent network is to ensure an ongoing feeding and updating of the weak and strong signals database and the development of future scenarios. Future agents are seen as the primary source for input into the foresight process. They look ahead, gather thoughts about future developments and deliver input to the centralised foresight function. They meet both ad hoc and formally three to four times a year to discuss changes in the environment based on new signals and to prepare input for strategy reviews and the scenario building and strategy development process. The key success factors are voluntary participation, their proximity to the daily business and a requirement that their participation is independent of existing company hierarchy. Companies hope to achieve a “network effect” through these agents, independent of a centralised management structure, and to foster communication and collaboration. This network enables open discussion, exchange of opinions and thoughts with a focus on future change and impact on the organisation; it means that knowledge of future potential changes is embedded in the organisation across functions and hierarchies; it mitigates the risk that foresight knowledge can be lost and ensures that more managers consider future impact during planning activities. The future agent network will not only enable a company to collect, analyse and process signals, but to monitor and update the signals database (and scenarios) on an ongoing basis later in the process.
The think tank (or strategy/foresight committee) will discuss current and future developments and help to identify opportunities and threats and decide on strategic responses to surprises, wildcards and changing behaviours in the environment. The committee represents every business unit with strategic relevance and reports to the CEO and/or Board of Directors. The committee members, most of them senior managers, are potentially rewarded by incentives (and/or punished by sanctions). They meet ad hoc if required (for instance when strategic surprises or wildcards emerge) and formally on a quarterly basis in order to discuss current and future developments, to identify opportunities and threats and to allocate budgets for relevant projects and actions. Once a year, the committee also decides on relevant strategy input for the annual strategic planning process. Their competencies are to decide on risks/threats and opportunities; their responsibility is to avoid environmental signals of change being ignored by the organisation.
The responsibilities and accountabilities of the two foresight roles, future agents and the think tank members, in combination with the senior management of the organisation, can be listed as follows (from case study research):
|Process Tasks||CEO/Board of Directors||Future Agent||Foresight Committee|
|Foresight framework, process, method sets and infrastructure||P/O||O||D/O/C|
|Environmental analysis; signals collection and storing||D/O||P/E/O||O/C|
|Signals analysis and processing||–||E||O/C|
|Analysis of consequences and strategic alternatives/initiatives||D/E/C||E||D/E/C|
|Scenario transfer and business strategy adaptation||(L/P)
|Monitoring of scenarios and signals||O||E/O||O/C|
Key: L = Lead, P = Plan, D = Decide, E = Execute, O = Cooperate, C = Check
Table 2: Corporate Foresight Tasks and Roles (© Marc K Peter / FutureScreening.com™)
The performance of the members from the foresight network and foresight committee could be linked to the company’s overall performance in order to drive the foresight function and continuously measure the achievements of foresight activities. Criteria could be innovation strengths, successful project implementation and time to market, financial benefit and shareholder value.
Practice Implications Derived through the Research
Foresight has an element of delivering aggregated foresight information to senior management, which means that there is a link to strategy and business management/adaptation. However, it is equally necessary to push the cultural aspect of foresight in the organisation. This means that foresight tasks need to be allocated to various stakeholders across the organisation, reflected by the two roles of future agents and think tank members, which represent and cover all areas and organisational levels of the business. The roles of all stakeholders in the strategy process, especially foresight, need to be clarified and described. One case organisation is moving away from focusing purely on structured processes and traditional analytical methods: its focus is on exchanging knowledge through a network of internal future agents and strategy or future workshops, and signals analysis and scenario building is mostly based on qualitative methods, using intuition, verbal and visual communication. It is about bringing people within the company to a common understanding regarding the need to think ahead. Therefore, the starting point for foresight could be the establishment of a corporate development or strategy team, in combination with a future agent network or think tank, which allows focusing on the foresight process while spreading accountabilities and sources for foresight insights across the organisation. A future agent network in combination with future workshops is seen as a simple and user friendly methodology to be utilised to scan the environment, build scenarios and challenge an organisation with outcomes of scenarios. For a medium sized organisation, around fifteen to twenty future agents will meet three to four times a year to update the list of signals, analyse them and update or modify scenarios, and report back to senior management. The key success factors for a future agent network are voluntary participation, proximity of members to the daily business and involvement being independent of existing company hierarchies.