1. Hi Stephen –
    Appreciated your post and I agree with your concern about theory. You might be interested in the work underway on “anticipatory systems” thinking and how it might provide a set of theoretical frames for “using the future”. This is what I’ve called the Discipline of Anticipation and the capacity to use the future as Futures Literacy. See http://www.fumee.org/. And: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1864166

    As well as an article I have written on precisely this topic of the need for theoretical foundations: http://www.rielmiller.com/images/Being_Without_Existing_and_the_Futures_Community_-_Riel_Miller_v4_to_pdf.pdf


  2. Stephen McGrail

    Hi Riel,

    Great to hear from you and thanks for reading and commenting on my post.

    I’ve read your piece in Foresight and the response from Richard Slaughter (perhaps you two have had further dialogue since?). You are clearly of the view that the theoretical foundation needs much more attention, whereas Slaughter seems to think we already know plenty about the future (both ontologically and epistemologically [i.e. ways of knowing the future]) and that the theoretical foundation is already well established. As my post indicates I’m more on your side of the debate. Slaughter draws heavily on the natural sciences (e.g. climate scientists) to argue that we know enough to act in a more future-oriented ways. However, he provides no additional substantive theory and his work mainly consists of literature reviews.

    A question I’m left with, however, if the future is to very large extent unknowable and novelty rich – as you argue – then what is the point of Futures Studies? Indeed you argue the field is haunted by this unresolved problem. I don’t think you’ve really answered this question.

    The related issue you raise of finding “ways to live and act with not-knowing the future” seems to me to be more within the realm of philosophy than an area of scholarly studies. It is possible to study the different stances towards the future that are adopted, how they are enacted (in terms of practices, methodologies, etc), and the implications of such stances. Perhaps this is the best that can be hoped for, if Futures Studies is to be a scholarly activity?

    Similarly, I find your work on anticipatory systems to be somewhat unconvincing in that these theories are centrally about the physical world (e.g. as developed by biologists) and are being greatly extended almost to the level of “theories of everything”. This extension is fraught and problematic, and seems to bring us back to facing the same issues that trouble the integral futures cult. (Now cult is perhaps too strong a word, and probably too emotive, but I use to try to get at the general dynamics that exist in that space).

    I’d love to hear more of your thoughts if any are triggered by this response.

    Warm regards,

  3. Hi Stephen – Spot on. I agree with all of your points as long as you work within the currently dominant perspective of agency – about creating our own future, making a difference, etc. These colonial approaches to imposing today’s ideas on tomorrow bias what we see and do towards creating heavy legacies, encouraging path dependency and fundamentally treating unknowns and unknowability as the enemy. However, if you move towards what I like to call walking on two legs – which is really what I was trying to argue in my comment on Ogilvy – then spontaneity, improvisation and surfing the unknown becomes equally if not more useful as ways to embrace novelty, freedom and diversity. Agency that is more at home with complex emergence and the richness of experimentation and time-place specificity. By taking a more modest perspective, recognizing that we don’t very often create the future, much less as intended, allows us to recast agency in a way that makes Futures Literacy and the Discipline of Anticipation very practical and powerful when it comes to being through both doing and not-doing.

  4. Hi Stephen,

    when reading your post and discussion with Riel, I am wondering if can not facilitate the search for theoretical underpinnings, if we are more specific about the constructs that the theories should link.

    In my view a theory is simply a hypothesis about the relationship between two constructs.

    From my reading Riel suggest that the construct “futures studies exercise” (in fact we lack a clear operationalization of such a construct, but let us assume that this limitation can be overcome) with the construct “ability to overcome path dependency and shape the future”. This hypothesis is clearly relevant and has been also at the core of the French “La Prospective” school, ever since the founder Gaston Berger has emphasized the need to overcome the dominance of the debate about the “means” to encourage and facilitate the discussion about the ends.

    Personally I can see different longitudinal research setups in which one could attempt to test this theory, however I am not aware of any project that has seriously attempted this.

    In my own work I focus mostly on the firm-level and study the relationship between corporate/ strategic foresight activities and organizational outcomes (such as the ability to explore new markets, survive disruptions, etc.). Here I can build on a large pool of conceptual papers, that have suggested such hypotheses. However here also little empirical work has been reported so far. In addition there are theoretical schools of thought (or theoretical lenses) such as the behavioral theory of the firm that help to explain why organizations achieve so seldom to break away from path dependency.

    I think part of the explanation why we see so much conceptual work and so little empirical theory testing is certainly the difficulties of designing and running such research projects. But I believe that there are already many theoretical propositions that are available for testing and I hope that in the next 10 year more empirical work in our field.

    I believe that we will only see more usage of futures studies and foresight methods if we can empirically show their impact and contribution to the ability to break away from path dependency.

    And I think that foresight can to much good and is needed to overcome today’s challenges. It seems that the current frustration with the fact that mankind is unable to engage in a meaningful debate about how to steer towards a sustainable future is very similarly to the frustration of Gaston Berger that the Europeans after the WWII were unable to engage in a meaningful debate how to avoid WW III.

  5. Stephen McGrail

    Hi Rene,

    Thanks for stopping by (so to speak); great to include your thoughts in the discussion.

    What are some of the theoretical propositions that you think are available for testing?

    I’m also keen to see more research done (including in my PhD) on the efficacy of foresight methods/futures research in developing the ability to break away from path dependencies. So I’d especially appreciate hearing further thoughts on this specific topic.

    Methodology certainly is a challenge, and it’s not just a problem for corporate foresight / foresight methods. This is a problem throughout the management sciences, and much of social science too. Some management scholars have concluded that it is impossible to robustly test management techniques and strategy theories. The content of business degrees tends to reflect the fads and trends of the day for these reasons, too – whether it is marketing, strategy, leadership, you name it, they constantly change.

    Re: the term theory, I’d suggest that theory must be more than “a hypothesis about the relationship between two constructs”. A hypothesis is an expected relationship / finding; a proposition that has not yet received empirical support. Whereas, in contrast, a theory is something that hypotheses are derived from and then tested in order to assess the validity of the theory.

    In the natural sciences, an understanding of some phenomena or regularity only reaches theory status after it has been tested and confirmed over many independent experiments.

    This is a bit different to general usage of the term theory in conversation, when we might say to someone “I have a theory about that…”, but have little empirical support.

    To-date, there are no theories in corporate foresight (and futures inquiry more broadly) that meet the standards adopted in the natural sciences. Practitioners might say “I have a theory about that…”, but those theories have not been adequately put to the test.

    Lastly, I share your belief that “we will only see more usage of futures studies and foresight methods if we can empirically show their impact and contribution to the ability to break away from path dependency”. Right now there are a few stories about their use, none particularly credible. I hope that my doctoral research makes a contribution to this.

    Warm regards,

  6. Hi Stephen,

    I have been following your blog for a while and appreciate it for being thought provoking and insightful.

    When it comes to what propositions (relationships between two constructs that have been proposed to exist) or hypothesis (relationships which have been proposed to exist on the basis of evidence) there are, I would claim that there is a large number. There are many constructs that have been developed both in foresight and general management research.

    In our current research on the impact of foresight activities we use elements such as
    – Strategic orientation (Miles and Snow, 1978), Environmental dynamism (Green, Covin, and Slevin, 2008), Learning orientation (Slightly modified from Pesamaa, Shoham, Wincent, and Ruvio, 2013) as antecedents
    – Corporate foresight systems, a construct which we have developed ourselves.
    – New product/service innovativeness (Salomo, Take, and Strecker; 2008), New product/service success (Baker and Sinkula, 2007) as outcome measures
    With these constructs we can than test the relationships between the individual antecedents on the design of corporate foresight systems and the relationships between the extent to which corporate foresight is performed and the innovation success.

    There is however also a number of scholars who have attempted to look at the “functions” a foresight exercise is performing. Here three examples:
    – Burt, G. and K. van der Heijden (2008). “Towards a framework to understand purpose in Futures Studies: The role of Vickers’ Appreciative System.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 75(8): 1109-1127.
    – Chermack, T. J. (2004). “Improving decision-making with scenario planning.” Futures 36(3): 295-309.
    – Chermack, T. J. (2005). “Studying scenario planning: Theory, research suggestions, and hypotheses.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 72(1): 59–73.

    Most of these studies, including ours is based on survey data, but experiments are also used increasingly in management research to great effect. It is often not the lack of options, but the difficulty of creating a consistent and realistic research design.

    Looking forward to hear more about your own research in the future.

    Kind regards,

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