Ingredients of Futures Agility – Learning Organizations and Communities of Practice. Are we ready to take our collective learning to new heights? Can we afford not to?

It has been said, that we might as well be “starving at the banquet” of the information age.

So much to know, to decide, to act upon…with the stakes increasingly high to GET IT RIGHT. And yet…how are we doing learning together in our organizational contexts to prepare for these endeavors? How do we integrate good information, new trends, results of signal scanning and mapping? How do we calibrate a changing basis for the way we determine cause and effect in the increasingly complex world around us?

As often as not, so many report feeling mostly overwhelmed – with data, with information, with ideas…. How do we keep up with all there is to know for now, let alone how to prepare for what is next? How do we make sure that our plans and actions are not merely “reactions” to what is happening around us, or the result of our fears, but rather the result of the collective learning that we are each engaged in? How can this knowledge we are generating be better pooled, organized, and focused for the good of all? Does this result in both power and agility? I would strongly suggest that it does. And commitment to boosting our organizational learning, as well as our commitment to communities of practice, can help us get there.

Along the way of learning about, and working with groups and organizations about future readiness, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the loosely related topics of “learning organizations” and “communities of practice” are essential concepts and frameworks for our success moving forward. Yet surprisingly, there is an absence of urgency in the way we talk about it – almost as if these ideas are luxuries rather than keys to competitive advantage or successful community building (depending on your perspective).

The truth is the way we learn together needs to be revised to afford us the kind of capacity, creativity and energy that is needed to result in the necessary agility required by the future and what’s required to succeed in the “VUCA” world.

This is true of both of the organizational settings I’m most connected to – social work practice in both private and public settings, as well as across higher education.

Yet because of our level of “busy-ness” our shared learning doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. I look with fascination at organizations that have committed deeply to this idea by positioning a “chief learning officer” whose literal job it is to assure that a) learning is happening that is strategic and intentional and b) that this learning is shared and focused and directly embedded into larger strategies of the organization. I’m sad to say, these kinds of positions don’t often show up in the places where I’ve worked – this role is often earnestly distributed among many and prioritized by almost no one. Without a deeper commitment, this gap inhibits the kind of ideas, energy and potential that we need right now. I believe learning together is our most vital investment for the future – and that it should be prioritized.

There is truly pressure on everyone to “plan strategically” for what comes next. I would suggest that every bit as important as planning can be – equally important is to focus, amplify, reinforce and strengthen the ways that we seek, consume, share and apply what we are learning. This includes “sharing the learning load” and “cognitive overwhelm” we are all experiencing by organizing ourselves better not just as an “implementation team” as so often happens in busy organizations, but as “learning teams” to make sure that our implementation is regularly, indeed inherently, well-informed along the way. This isn’t about just “learning more effectively” in episodes, but rather changing up what we do so that work and learning are so deeply intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.

The concept of the “learning organization” was first introduced in 1970 by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline.” He defines this as the organizational quality of continually seeking new information by the members, and using this knowledge to intentionally evolve and transform. Senge suggests that there are five qualities including systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. There have been numerous iterations, variations and evolutionary versions and applications since the introduction of this durable model – and it was prescient in terms of implicitly anticipating how the complications of the coming years, would require new ways of operating.

Futures thinking and evolving towards future readiness – combines these ideas in ways that keep a keen eye on what lays ahead. Futures thinking is a practice that requires learning- not just a philosophy. Increasingly, I look at boosting our “organizational learning quotient” as among the most important organizational survival skills for whatever comes next.

Can we really afford NOT to be a learning organization at this point in history? In my estimation – our ability to learn effectively as well as collectively, and evolve accordingly based on our learning – is among the most important ingredients of the agility much discussed as a hallmark of “future readiness.”

Additionally, I’d suggest that understanding “communities of practice” is a way to understand broader and evolved ways of thinking about how within-organizational learning, as well as trans-organizational learning occurs in the modern world. While definitions vary somewhat, most definitions of a community of practice is a collection of people who intentionally learn together – whether in a shared organizational space or, generating even more bandwidth, beyond it. This is aided by technological reinforcements and connections that boost intelligent networks among interested learning partners whether near or global. I believe that these complex learning networks are increasingly demonstrating new ways of solving problems collectively (think about the new to our decade term “crowd sourced” as a cursory example), and that we’ve only begun to see what they will accomplish in the years to come.

Futures readiness means getting serious, disciplined and intentional about engaging in reflection and committed restoration about our organizational learning capacity and beyond.

To advance dialogue on these concepts, I did a search and put this list together for study and conversation. As always, it is in process and more will be added. For my own practice, getting clear about these ideas was essential.

Let’s keep learning together – and let’s help our organizations and learning networks greet the future with a new capacity for embedded and focused learning.

Qualities of Good Questions – An Essential Futures Frame

Just loved this list of qualities of good questions from Kelly (2016). Good questions are the key to being ready for new futures and ultimately, when executed well, the most human of our strengths. I’ll post a fuller review of the book (which I liked very much!) later, but until then, here’s one from the web. Consider these and add more! Thinking about this “what are the most important things for social work to do to be ready for a dynamic, unpredictable and turbulent future?” I think part of the answer…is challenging ourselves to ask better, deeper, more disruptive questions with courage and creativity…!

“A good question is like the one Albert Einstein asked himself as a small boy ‘what would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?’ That question launched the theory of relativity (E=MC2) and the atomic age.

  • A good question is not concerned with a correct answer.
  • A good question cannot be answered immediately.
  • A good question challenges existing answers.
  • A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you could before it was asked.
  • A good question creates new territory of thinking.
  • A good question reframes its own answers.
  • A good question is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics and business.
  • A good question is a probe – a ‘what if’ scenario.
  • A good question skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.
  • A good question cannot be predicted.
  • A good question is one that generates many other questions.
  • A good question may be the last job a machine will ever learn to do.
  • A good question is what humans are for (pp. 288-289).”

Kelly, Kevin (2016). The inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. New York: Penguin Books.

Jobs of the Future

There is a huge literature and tremendous public discourse about the future of work. Here’s a few resources that can help you get a sense of what is out there. As social workers – we have two dual tracks of inquiry: 1) How will this future of work impact vulnerable communities, and 2) How will the future of work change the actual practice of social work? Here’s a bunch of interesting “jobs of the future” that I’ve collected – several might directly, and a few others, indirectly – be places where social workers might find themselves. Collecting these stretches my thinking about how much has changed and how quickly. Just to get your brain warmed up…here’s a few jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago…

Popular jobs today that didn’t exist 10 years ago:

  • App developer
  • Social media director
  • Uber driver
  • Drone operator
  • User experience designers
  • Airbnb host
  • Cryptocurrency manager
  • Influencers/evangelist
  • Genetic counselors
  • Big data scientist
  • Cloud services specialist
  • Chief listening officer
  • Digital marketing specialist
  • Podcast producer
  • Search engine optimization analysts
  • Content moderator
  • Virtual assistant
  • Telemedicine health specialist
  • Sustainability director

Public Interest Technologist

Jobs of the Future…!

Nuclear Fusion Energy Sales

Robot Paramedic

Quantum Computer Programmer

Virtual Reality Spotter

Ultra-Exotic Destination Travel Agent

Professional Luddite/Digital Detox Services

Here’s where these came from!

Chief Productivity Officer

Excess Capacity Broker

Drone Manager

Private Industry Air Traffic Control

Medical Mentor

Self-Driving Car Mechanic

Autonomous Transportation Specialist

Personal Medical Interpreter

Human-Technology Integration Specialist

Wholeness Mentor (think life coach but more so)

End of Life Coach

Here’s where these came from.

Commercial Space Pilot

AI Lawyer

3-D Food Printer Engineer

Augmented Reality Architect

Dismantlers (talent that relates to ending industries at the end of their life cycle/or in profound disruption) – mentioned in this list:  prison system, hospital and healthcare, income tax system, government agency, education system, college and university, airport security, airport customs

Atmospheric Water Harvesters (and other technological approaches to weather management)

Global Data Integration Specialist

Sharing Economists

Future Sports Specialists

Sensor Anthropologists

3-D Printing Specialists (body parts, houses, and much more)

Personal and Global Internet of Things Integration Specialists

Energy Transition Specialists (as the national electric grid breaks down)

Bio-factory Doctors, Strategists and Developers

Micro-College Specialists

Bio-meat Factory Engineers

Extinction Revivalists (people who revive extinct animals)

Robotic Earthworm Drivers

Avatar Designers

A Selection of Online Talks That Can Boost Your Futures Literacy – Revised September 2020

Black Freedom Beyond Borders: Memories of Abolition Day (2020)

Sohail Inayatullah – Causal layered analysis, futures thinking and a post-covid 19 world (2020)

Ruja Benjamin – From park bench to lab bench. What kind of future are we designing? (2015)

Ruha Benjamin – The new Jim Code: Race, carceral technoscience, and liberatory imagination (2019)

Yuval Noah Harari – 21 Issues facing the 21st century (2019)

Sonia Livingstone – Parenting in a digital age (2019)

Thomas Hubl – The trauma of technology (2018)

Jamais Cascio – Magna cortica: The ethics of brain augmenation (2014)

Douglass Rushkoff – How to be “Team Human” in the digital age (2018)

Bryony Cole – The future of sex (2019)

Amber Case – Cyborg anthropology and why it maters (2014)

Jane McGonigal – Gaming can make a better world (2010)

Aryana Elizabeth Johnson – How to use the ocean without using it up (2019)

Joy Buolamwini – Algorithmic Justice League (2018)

Anab Jain – Why we need to imagine different futures (2017)

Peter Diamandis – Imagining the future: The transformation of humanity (2017)

Walida Imarisha – Living the legacy: Afrofuturism & possibilities for Oregon (2018)

Nnedi Okorafor – Sci Fi stories that imagine a different Africa (2017)

Nicolas Negroponte – A 30-year history of the future (2014)

Michael Bennett, Ytasha Womack, Wale Oyedije, and Aisha Harris – Afrofuturism: Imagining the future of Black identity (2015)

Greta Thunberg, Youth climate activist and the global youth movement leader. (2018)

Marina Gorbis – The history and future of work (2015)

Octavia Butler – Why you should read the Afrofuturist legend Octavia Butler

Bettina Warburg – How the blockchain will radically transform the economy (2016)

UNESCO/Riel Miller – How to build “Futures Literacy” (2018). This author has a book called Transforming the Future which is available free online here.

What do futurists and foresight practitioners do? What qualities and skills are required among those who engage in this practice?

The term “futurist” is a generic term – generally referring to people who do work called “foresight” or “futures” practice.   One sees this referred to a number of ways among people who are occupying this role in government, business and academia as well in popular culture.

“Futures” work refers to a developing field of professional and academic practice that has been evolving for many years, most commonly is currently referred to as “strategic foresight” work*.  It specifically involves a disciplined approach to systematic individual and collective tools and processes that assist people in using knowledge, culture, creativity, imagination, logic and data to imagine possible futures and their consequences.   Insodoing, futures practice involves amplified strategic planning to navigate these possible futures – to enhance the probability of contributing or guiding towards desired futures, and decrease the probability or guiding away from undesirable futures.   As futures expert Maree Conway (2015) suggests, “the term ‘futures’ should always be viewed as a collective noun, in the same way we talk about ‘economics’ or ‘politics.’   The term is always plural, because there is always more than one future to consider.”

It is important to note, that all credible people who work in this area are careful and explicit to note that futures practitioners are not in the habit of “predicting” the future in any way.    Foresight practitioners use specialized tools to facilitate personal and systemic discovery, dialogue, insight and related action among interested individuals and/or groups who wish to have more agility, agency and effectiveness, in navigating an increasingly disruptive and unpredictable future.    Use of scanning and sensemaking, scenario planning, deep consideration of impacts of various individual and overlapping possible futures are all examples of activities that would comprise foresight building efforts.

It is related to, but different than, strategic planning.  While historically prevalent, strategic planning often works toward identified goals in a variety of ways, developing “a plan” and acting upon it,  whereas foresight work incorporates a more dynamic “container” for uncertainty, emerging shifts, and dynamic evolution.  Planning and action is involved in strategic foresight practice, but there is an assumption that plans will be in a constant state of revision through an action phase as new information, new disruptions and new dynamics will continue to play a role.   In strategic foresight work, plans are alive and evolving.  

Many suggest that strategic foresight practice, is as much “a way of being” in the world, as it is a set of philosophies, tools and practices. 

What is known about people who are successful in this practice area?    Upon examination, one can find many overlaps and intersections with social work practice.  Our profession has an opportunity to join with others and contribute our own emerging expertise and dedication to equity practice in these futures spaces.    However futures work has it’s own distinct voice, language and perspectives.   The following is a sample of ideas about this I’ve gathered a few ideas from well-known and respected sources.

Characteristics of “foresighters” – Conway, M. (2015).  Foresight:  An introduction.  Melbourne, Australia:  Thinking Futures.  

  • I am open to new ideas, including what others might call weird and whacky.
  • I am curious – I want to know why it is so.  I’m a good observer.
  • I think outside the box – I understand my field of practice but I’m interested in global change as well.  
  • I challenge assumptions about the future – mine and others.
  • I value diversity – I understand the perspectives are neither right nor wrong but just are.
  • I am resilient.  I understand the value of foresight to better understand the future, and that this future may be sometimes difficult to communicate.
  • I trust and value my expertise and knowledge to be able to identify observations relevant and important to my organizations future (p. 31).

What makes a good futurist?  Kedge (2017).  Strategic foresight primer.  Kissimmee, FL: Author.

Someone who will:

  • Crave curiosity (active ability to ask “why” relentlessly, or to build upon and go beyond obvious questions and answers, seek new connections, discover regularly and be effective getting others to do so as well)
  • Act courageously (see and move beyond what feels safe or known, and embrace that new perspectives emerge beyond comfort zones)
  • Welcome diversity (ability to challenge one’s own filters and work in teams comprised of different points of view)
  • Think outrageously (ability to stretch minds well beyond what is expected or “normal,” and be open to unusual and unexpected ideas)
  • Connect the dots (look for pattern in trends and signals)
  • Think in multiples (not one future but unlimited futures possible).

What is the role of a strategic foresight practitioner?  Angela Wilkinson (2017).  Strategic Foresight Primer. Brussels, Belgium:  European Political Strategy Centre. 

  • Futures midwife – helping new ideas be born and help new parents understand how to navigate what is happening.
  • Storytelling coach – using the power of storytelling to open new possibilities.
  • Window cleaner – helping people think outside the box and see beyond their usual constraints.
  • Map maker – enabling a bigger picture to be seen with new perspectives.
  • Psychoanalyst – help move through the anxiety of the unknown and help to create positive thinking, cultivating empathy, and deep reflection on peoples’ roles in understanding and setting paths forward through change.
  • Learning facilitator – engaging user-learners as reflective practitioners (p. 5).

Foresight practitioner role. (2018).  Foresight Practitioner Training Materials.  Palo Alto, CA:  Institute for the Future.

  • Analyst and synthesizer(absorb and synthesize information, create frameworks and metaphors to facilitate understanding and action)
  • Translator (organize discoveries and possibilities into languages and options that fit a particular organizational or community context)
  • Community facilitator (helping groups of many sizes imaginatively explore together and. find shared meaning in complexity, dynamic change and preferred paths forward towards the future)
  • Trusted advisor (present role model for futures thinking, provide informed input at multiple levels of organization, and help to drive future facing strategy).

*It is important to acknowledge that while “modern” futures work might be traced to the mid 1800’s in the Western world, it has other and more Indigenous precursors.   Numerous examples in literature focused on Indigenous perspectives on sustainability, principles of the 7th generation and others are essential resources to gain intercultural understanding beyond dominant cultural frames.

Futures-Inspired Quotes – A Developing List

“The greatest existential challenge facing the human species, can in part be traced, to the fact that we have underdeveloped practices for thinking possible worlds out loud.”   Stuart Candy

“All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the in between period when old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense. To have any notion of a viable future, we must grasp the significance of this period of transition which is characterized by three c’s: complexity chaos and contradictions. These forces propel and sustain postnormal times leading to uncertainty and different types of ignorance that make decision-making problematic and increase risks to individuals, society and the planet. Postnormal times demands, the paper argues, that we abandon the ideas of ‘control and management’, and rethink the cherished notions of progress, modernization and efficiency. The way forward must be based on virtues of humility, modesty and accountability, the indispensable requirement of living with uncertainty, complexity and ignorance. We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times, and into a new age of normalcy – with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations fro the rich diversity of human cultures.” Ziaddin Sardar

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway, between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging our carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Arundhati Roy

“Critical futures studies asserts that the present is fragile, merely victory of one particular discourse, way of knowing, over another. The goal is to disturb the present power relations through making our categories problemmatic and evoking other places, other scenarios.” Sohail Inayatullah

“The liberated futures we want don’t exist as untouchable distant points out of our reach. When we focus on collective action, mutual self aid, self-determination, centering the leadership of the marginalized, we defy linear time. We pull those futures into the present. Let’s keep pulling liberated futures into the present over and over again, until that’s all there is.” Walidah Imarisha

“And therein lies the central truth of globalization today: We’re all connected and nobody is in charge….” Thomas L. Friedman

“Ideas that we do not know we have, have us.” William Appleman Williams

Clues for a Time of Turmoil

– Act in a spirit of hope. Hope, not optimism….Hope has to do with looking directly at the circumstances we are dealing with and still go on because one hopes that one can make a difference in the face of all that stands in the way of making a difference.
– Act according to a “tentative commitment.” Be willing to look at a situation carefully enough, to risk enough, to contribute enough effort, enough hope, to undertake your project…and to recognize that we might have it wrong. We may have to back off or change not only how we are doing something but whether to do it at all.
– Be “context alert” as a moral and operational necessity.
– Be a learner/teacher, a wary guide, and explorer in the wilderness. Be question askers all the time, not answer givers.
– Practice compassion. Facing life requires all the compassion we can bring to ourselves and others.
Don Michael

“The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”   Joanna Macy

“In the critical, futures studies aims not at prediction, or at compassion, but seeks to make the units of analysis problemmatic, to undefine the future.” Sohail Inayatullah

“I’m smart enough to know I’m dumb.”  Richard Feynman

“Keep being what people aren’t ready for.”  Emma Magenta

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”  Richard Feynman

“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”  Jim Dator

“I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will be one circle again.”  Crazy Horse

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Alvin Toffler

“The future started yesterday, and we’re already late.”  John Egend

“Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  Tom Atlee

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

― Arundhati Roy

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.” Niels Bohr

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” Sitting Bull

“Fail to dream about the future, and you forfeit your role in its creation.” Max Elder

““We believe it is our right and our responsibility to write ourselves into the future.” Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Elie Wiesel

“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” Zora Neale Hurston

“The start to a better world is to believe that it is possible.” Lily Tomlin

“In dealing with the future, it is far more important to be imaginative than to be right.” Alvin Toffler

“My interest is in the future, because I’m going to spend the rest of my life there.” Charles Kettering

“Envisioning and making the future must be a massively public endeavor.” Marina Gorbis

“Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen, and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” Rebecca Solnit

“We cannot expand our self, and our collective self, without making holes in our heart. We are stretching our boundaries…it can be painful. Of course there will be rips and tears. When we imagine a better future, we should factor in this constant discomfort.” Kevin Kelly

Collecting Definitions of Strategic Foresight – the Core of Futures Work

Strategic foresight is a decades-old discipline that allows us to create functional views of alternative futures and possibilities (Salvatico & Spencer, 2017, p.1)

Foresight competency models include six basic progressive and interrelated sets of intellectual tasks:   framing, scanning, futuring, visioning, designing, and adapting (Hines, Gary, Daheim, & van der Laan, 2017).

Ultimately, the power of foresight lies not in its tools and methods, but in its ability to alter perspectives.  For this reason, strategic foresight is not just useful within strategic planning, but it also provides a new lens through which to reframe all of our outdated, Industrial Age processes that are no longer effective in our VUCA environment (Salvatico & Spencer, 2017, p. 2).

Foresight is a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence-gathering and medium-to long-term vision-building process aimed at present day decisions and mobilizing joint actions. Foresight arises from a convergence of trends underlying recent developments in the fields of ‘policy analysis’, ‘strategic planning’ and ‘future studies’. It brings together key agents of change and various sources of knowledge in order to develop strategic visions and anticipatory intelligence.    (European Commission Research Directorate General: A Practical Guide to Regional Foresight (FOREN), 2001).

The future is not just something that happens to us but something we create every day with the decisions we make (Savatico & Spencer, 2017, p.4).

Strategic foresight calls for a systematic analysis of identifying driving forces of change before developing policies and plans. These efforts are aimed at finding solutions and policy responses that are likely to bring positive outcomes. Hence,
these activities enable better preparedness, because they generate explicit, contestable and flexible sense of the future.   By doing so, old and obsolete imagery of the future (that organizations sometimes hold on to) can be refreshed. New imagery of the future makes it possible to reveal and test assumptions of our understanding of the world. Moreover, insight about the meaning of possible futures also enables the organization to capitalize on opportunities, particularly ones that are in the long-term future that few people are aware of.  New…strategies can emerge from understanding these opportunities (Duijine & Bishop, 2018). 

Strategic foresight, and more specifically, scenario planning, act as an immune system within our organization, allowing us to create multifaceted strategies that are effective no matter which future emerges (Savatico & Spencer, 2017, p. 4).  

Foresight: Acting wisely in the present, with conscious intent to shape a deeply desirable future. This intention requires us to learn to act in light of explicit and adequate anticipations of the full range of ways one’s future context and its implications may develop. Such anticipations must be tested reflexively and even . meta-reflexively.    Strategic: Having to do with establishing, reinforcing or changing the fundamental trajectory of a person or group into and through the future.  Strategic Foresight: Acting with foresight (see above), paying particular attention to trajectory-altering events, forces, threats, opportunities and commitments.  Strategic foresight informs and provides a context for management/policy, just as management/policy provides a context for operations/administration. Strategic foresight is the applied art/science of the pure art/science of futures research (also called futures studies). Strategic foresight is focussed on one’s context. Its purpose is to ensure the continuing relevance of the person/organization in question.   (Nelson & Forsight Canada, 2015).