Cashing in on the future

Rapid change means experts who can 'see into' the new millennium are in demand, says Roger Trapp

Business leaders are so convinced that their world is changing faster and in more ways than ever before that they are constantly seeking insights from those who claim to have some kind of "take" on what the future will hold. Such is the huge demand for this kind of "information" that "futurists", ranging from doomsayers to optimistic technologists, are all the rage.

However, few organisations seem to pay much heed to what they glean, and few are making the sort of commitment that California-based SRI Consulting is. A subsidiary of the highly-regarded Stanford Research Institute, which with Shell was in at the birth of scenario planning in the 1970s, it is working with some of the world's leading corporations to mount a five- year research programme and forum with the aim of charting the future for senior executives wanting to "shape their corporate destinies in the new age that is now dawning".

According to Roger Camrass, head of SRI Consulting's London operation, getting the idea off the ground has been a momentous task. But with 10 leading organisations signed up and many others interested, he feels that the concept, given the title "Business in the Third Millennium" (BiT3M), is now in a position to get down to some serious work. Indeed, he claims the project has already "surpassed some people's expectations".

Part of this impact must be due to the fact that scenario planning, which Shell used last month to explain its commitment to developing alternative fuels, is, in Mr Camrass's words, "the hottest thing in town because there's no certainty". However, some of the response must be due to SRI's special position.

Far from resting on its laurels as a co-developer of scenario planning, the organisation is continually seeking insights into what the future might bring for it and its clients. And in Watts Wacker, author of the best-selling book The 500 Year Delta, it has a "resident futurist" who appears more inclined than most in his trade really to challenge assumptions.

Some of the material in his book appears plain daft, and Mr Wacker admits to making a lot of it up, but it is so thought-provoking that none of the executive who stick with it to the end are likely to feel the same way about their company as they did when they began.

Significantly, Mr Wacker is playing a central role in the BiT3M project, chairing the thought leadership panel that will combine a diverse group of opinion formers in the realms of consumer forecasting, organisational development and technology trends.

But this will be just one of three ways in which the project will operate. The other two are a global research team that will examine trends in such areas as computer literacy, consumer power and digital information infrastructure, and a collaborative network designed to encourage interaction between project partners.

SRI is confident that participants will benefit in four main ways. They will be in the vanguard of thinking aimed at improving their brand value and sustaining their market position; they will gain vital insights into likely areas of discontinuity and uncertainty; they will be able to use specially developed planning tools for use in "navigating" future markets; and they will be able to form partnerships with global leaders that go far beyond industrial sectors and national boundaries.

"In essence," says SRI's promotional material, "we will create together the intellectual property of doing business in the third millennium". Or, as Mr Wacker puts it: "We are organising how business, technology, society and economics dance together in a new culture."

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