Looking, but not seeing

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The Independent Online
GIVEN consultants' repeated admonitions about the growing unpredictability of business, it is remarkable just how many forward-looking books have appeared in recent months. But then we are, as we are constantly reminded, approaching the millennium, and it seems as if much the same people who are warning about the futility of prediction are convinced that the next few months represent the run-up to cataclysmic change.

And it is because we have all been seduced by this notion that we fall into the trap of reading books that, if not predictive, are attempting to cast light on what will happen.

The usual vehicle for their approach is an increasingly talked-about concept called "scenario planning". Generally reckoned to have been brought to its present form by the oil company Shell, which claims it helped it cope better than most with the 1970s oil crisis, it is essentially a means of visualising various situations that might occur with a view to putting in place plans for dealing with them. Though cynics might suggest that this is a means for the author to "hedge" his or her bets, it is a method for helping organisations contemplate and prepare for the future by getting them to "think the unthinkable". The idea is that if the management has thought about the possibility of an event happening, it is more likely to take it in its stride when it happens or to be able to handle something similar that might come along.

So much for the theory. The latest addition to the growing section of the management library is rather compelling, not least because its main author, Robert Baldock, is a partner with Andersen Consulting, the firm that has lately dedicated its very being to managing change and anticipating the future.

Destination Z - The History of the Future (John Wiley & Sons, pounds 18.99) brings that experience to bear in mapping out four possible descriptions of how the business environment might look in 10 years.

The first scenario is characterised as "sun chasing". It foresees consumers in control and inviting global companies to satisfy individual needs. Technology and globalisation have revolutionised what consumers buy and how it is delivered while new ways of working have created an "exploding economy" in which unemployment is at an all-time low.

Next is what Mr Baldock terms "Kereitsu rising", after the admired Japanese corporate structure in which independently managed companies own small stakes in each other and work together in a variety of ways. It is already being much mirrored in Western organisations that have developed networks of alliances.

The third, "Acme & Co", features extremely large, vertically integrated companies competing fiercely for local market share and investing in developing markets elsewhere. In this scenario, leading corporations become so large and do so much that cuts across industry barriers that "business classifications are reorganised by company rather than by industry".

Finally, there is "excelliance" - an amalgam of excellence and alliance. In this situation the level of excellence needed to succeed in an increasingly global market makes it difficult for companies to be much more than one thing to any one customer.

The power of these ideas comes from the fact that, while each scenario is markedly different from the others, we give each of them a certain chance of success because we already recognise developments that might be contributing to the emergence of the whole concept.

The only problem with this, as with any of the other "millenniumitis" books, is that the author could end up having the opposite effect to that intended. Companies have a terrible tendency to convince themselves that they are better prepared for events than they are - and the fall from grace of Marks & Spencer is just the latest proof of that.

While it is possible to spot trends, highly important developments can be impossible to predict.