What About the Future?

Fixating on the short term is foolish in the long run. The future’s all we’ve got.


Most CLOs I talk with are so busy taking care of today’s business that they spend little time preparing for the future. We all know in our hearts that fixating on the short term is foolish in the long run.

Short-term thinking is good for responding to incremental change, but deciding things one step at a time doesn’t prepare you to thrive in a world of systemic, wholesale change. You can’t leap a chasm in small jumps.

To get beyond immediate concerns, you have to make the future tangible. Examining scenarios — stories about alternative futures — makes the future imaginable and potentially real.

Royal Dutch Shell, the fifth largest company in the world and a long-term player (Shell’s more than a hundred years old), has been learning from scenarios for forty years.

At Online Educa Berlin in late 2011, Shell’s Hans de Zwart and Willem Manders led a scenario planning process to address these issues:

  1. How do different global and national trends shape the future of corporate learning?
  2. What opportunities and challenges does this create for corporate learning organizations?
  3. How do those insights also help to make better decisions around current learning challenges the organizations involved in the exercise are facing?

To answer questions like these, you have a escape your current mindset. In Berlin, Willem and Hans led us in an exercise where we came up with these key drivers:

  1. Ten years out, how might work be organized? On the one hand, it might be structured, regulated, and managed. On the other, work could be flexible, individual, and enabled.
  2. In the same timeframe, how will work be done? Will it be relationship-driven or data-driven?

Putting the drivers in a 2×2 matrix yields four scenarios. We named them as follows:

  • Old Boy Network (Structured & relationship-driven)
  • In Crowd (Flexible & relationship-driven)
  • Big Data (Structured & data-driven)
  • Quantified Self (Flexible & data-driven)

“Scenarios are stories about the future, but their purpose is to make better decisions in the present” – Scenarios: an explorer’s guide, Shell

These scenarios are neither forecasts nor projections. They do not predict what’s to come. Rather, they provide alternative views of the future. At Online Educa, some of us used the scenarios to reflect on what we were hearing from speakers and the grapevine. Crafting stories around each scenario is a great way to wring meaning from them.

Think over how you’d prepare for futures like these; I’ll append a few thoughts on each to get you started.

Old Boy Network (Structured & relationship-driven). This is a world of  clear expectations and roles, organizational-driven development, structural talent management, competency mapping, Subject Matter Expert-focused (authoritative knowledge), planned innovation (business cases, calculated risks), planned careers, and large structured curricula.

Many old-school companies think this is where they live. Big plans. Don’t throw away your LMS. Can it work in a increasingly fast-paced world?

In Crowd (Flexible & relationship-driven). Community of practice: hyper connectivity (also physical) inside community – low connectivity outside community, interest/passion driven, many repositories of content, wide variation of roles, development: peer, self directed, personal networks, professional connections, community is curator, personal value aligned (purpose, meaning), Subject Matter Experts emerge from community.

This is social business. Informal learning thrives here. Make your social networks thrive.  Get your mobile learning strategy together.

Big Data (Structured & data-driven). Data-driven organization, outsourcing / franchise models (company = data), high volume, high variety (personalized information), structural competence visualization.

Seems like a throw-back to the time-and-motion studies of the industrial era, but maybe not. It works for Amazon. You have to choose the right data to act on. The customers are creating the data, this set-up can make companies more agile in responding to change. It cuts out a lot of wasted motion, too.

Quantified Self (Flexible & data-driven). Individual in control, competence development through monitoring / automated feedback, high talent mobility, self compliance (data to proof compliance).

Some people predict the end of jobs and corporations as we know them. Might this be where we end up? It could be chaotic. We’ll need more engaging learning resources than ever before to keep people’s attention. Get those learning games online.

This is the tip of the iceberg. There’s more about the Berlin Scenarios and scenario planning at http://www.internettime.com/scenario-planning-for-corporate-learning/

Among other things, this exercise taught me to rip my blinders off. I’ve been such a cheerleader for one of the scenarios (guess which one) that I’d slighted the rest.


An edited version of this article appears in the April 2012 edition of CLO magazine.

More information on scenario planning.

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