The goal of Applied Futurism is to develop resilient organisations that can survive and thrive in a world of accelerated change.
To be agile, an organisation needs three key characteristics or capabilities: foresight, responsiveness, and flexibility.
Foresight is the ability to recognise threats and opportunities early. For the vast majority of organisations, foresight and horizon-scanning processes have been infrequent and informal. Activities for the occasional corporate away day. They have not been an accepted component of day-to-day management and operations.
This has to change. Not only do leaders need to embed in their annual cycle much more frequent and formal attempts to look beyond the organisation’s walls, but members across the organisation need to be encouraged to watch, consider and share learning from other facets of their lives and adjacent or relevant markets and environments.
Foresight is without value if the learning from it is not acted upon. Responsiveness is about the flow of information through an organisation and the translation of that information into a compelling plan of action.
Again, the planning cycles in most organisations are too long for an accelerated age. And the means used to capture and communicate their output are often unwieldy.
Flexibility has been engineered out of most organisations. They have been built — or more often allowed to evolve — to do what they do, not for the possibility they need to change what they do, frequently. Though few organisations approach real efficiency, it is this notional goal that has defined their shape.
Today, agility is more important. Organisations need to be designed explicitly for regular realignment to new markets, products, services and objectives. Structured in functional blocks that can be more easily broken down and reassembled, with clear data flowing across units and out to management.
The expected calls came in today, albeit slightly later than you might hope. Two radio stations, one national, one local, asking for my input on the tenth anniversary of Twitter. For various reasons I didn’t end up doing either show, but it was enough to set me thinking more seriously about the subject than I might otherwise have done.
Given that thousands of people have doubtlessly posted blogs on the subject, I wasn’t planning to contribute another one to the pile. But this question seemed worth discussing: why do we tweet?
I mean this in both a very practical sense and more philosophically. Why do we tweet? You could answer that question with all manner of answers from biology and psychology: an innate need to communicate and participate? To establish our role in the group? I won’t pretend to know all the answers. This article does a good job of collecting some possibilities: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/september-2015/why-do-we-social-media
Whatever the answers, and I am sure there are many valid ones, we know that we do have a desire to use networks like Twitter. Social networks that I have always — since I was forced to think about it while preparing social media training sessions for businesses back in 2008 — defined as having three characteristics:
Connect: a shared address book, storing our contacts
Communicate: send messages, one-to-one or one-to-many
Share: attach media to our messages
All social networks share these features to a greater or lesser extent. So why do we choose to tweet?
I believe the answer lies partly in the particular combination of functions that Twitter offers, and partly in the community that has assembled around it.
The transparent nature of Twitter’s network and the dominant mode of use means that it is a great place for discovery. If you want to find someone, it is an effective directory of a certain class of individual.
This openness is also what makes it appeal to many of those people. It’s the reverse of the old Groucho Marx quote: the more productive and contributive Twitter users very much want to be a part of a club that will have them. And they don’t just want to be members, they want to achieve some status within the group.
This isn’t necessarily the narcissistic exercise it sounds. As mentioned above there’s the sense of attachment, but there’s also good commercial arguments. After all, Twitter is in most months the biggest driver of traffic to our website, and always of ‘relevant’ visitors — people we might be interested in selling to or partnering with.
Net contributors don’t make up the majority of Twitter users. But this doesn’t matter. Other users are still discoverable and their presence as a follower carries some weight.
Twitter is not on the financial uppers that some would suggest. But it is potentially in trouble. Because none of these ties are particularly binding: why would someone always choose to tweet if their social group moves platforms? Functionally it is easily replicated and we know that audiences are fickle.
My biggest concern in Twitter’s position would be the same as for LinkedIn: that it is replaced not by another commercial entity but by a set of standards for its most popular applications: hosting a discoverable and applicable profile, and facilitating messaging and sharing.
When such a thing exists, Twitter will need a very compelling answer to the question of why we tweet, in order to survive.
Last week I was the target of the infamous ‘Windows tech support’ scam. It wasn’t the first time.
If you’re not familiar with this hustle, it typically starts with a call on your landline from an Indian call centre. The person at the other end tells you they are from Microsoft and that they have been monitoring your PC, and that it is infected with a virus of some description. In order to convince you they then walk you through opening up the Event Viewer, an administration tool, in order to show you a series of errors and warnings.
In reality these errors and warnings are completely harmless, but many people are convinced and subsequently talked into installing a remote access tool which then provides the scammers with access to their PC for real, ostensibly so that they can ‘fix’ the problem.
From there it’s all down hill: charges, extortion, malware etc.
Now I knew it was a scam from the start. Even if I’d never read about the scam before I got the first call, I would have known it for what it was.
You could say it’s just down to experience. That technology has been a major part of my career and even before that I was mucking around with machines from a very early age. I understood what I was being shown and what it meant.
But actually the understanding that this was a scam came much earlier in the call than the point at which the caller directed me to the event log. I knew the moment they said they were from Microsoft and that they had been monitoring my machine.
A few things gave it away. The terrible quality of the phone line for one. But even more than that, I knew Microsoft would not be monitoring my machine in this way. I knew they couldn’t staff a call centre with people to remotely monitor and manage users problems without some explicit contract. Both to address the cost of doing so, and the privacy issues it would raise.
None of this was particularly conscious. It was just that my sceptical spider-sense started buzzing.
I don’t think this instinctive scepticism is solely the domain of the geeky. I believe it can probably be taught. And doing so is one of the key parts of solving some of technology’s major security challenges.
Most of the security threats that we face, at home or at work, still require some form of human co-operation, willing or unwilling. Clicking on a dodgy email or link. Installing an insufficiently-checked app.
A healthier level of trained scepticism would prevent much of this behaviour.
How do we teach scepticism like this? I’ll cover that in my next post.
Periodically I find myself updating the Book of the Future story*. It changes to reflect my current perspective on the business.
As I’ve been telling the Book of the Future story a lot recently, pitching The Applied Futurist’s Toolkit around the country, I thought I’d capture the latest version here. It explains how this business started as a vehicle of convenience, but has developed into a mission: to change the way we design and operate organisations in the UK, to make them more agile and responsive to the fast-changing world.
Three years ago when I started Book of the Future, it was a business of convenience. I was leaving CANDDi and needed a vehicle through which to bill for my time. I’d been writing and broadcasting about technology and the future for six years at this point. I knew I wanted to translate my blog into a business but didn’t really know what to call myself.
My friend and branding guru Stewart Aitken nailed it: “You’re an Applied Futurist!” he said.
And so I was. But at that point I didn’t really know what it meant.
Fortunately it wasn’t long before old clients and friends got wind that I was now an Applied Futurist and started asking me questions.
The first one was straightforward enough: “What does the future look like for us?”. ‘Us’ in this situation could mean their company, their client, or their marketplace.
I started off using off-the-shelf tools to answer these questions but quickly became aware that they weren’t fit for purpose for most of the engagements I was being asked to take on. While tools like Scenario Planning are enormously powerful, preparing and delivering them was the work of months. Attaining any serious output from them meant taking large numbers of senior managers off line for long periods.
Some organisations can afford the time and money to do these things. But very few can afford to do them frequently. And given the increasing pace of change, it became clear that a more rapid method of examining future trends would be required. One that could be repeated on a six or twelve-monthly cycle.
Intersections, our foresight tool, was born.
The second question people asked me was “How do I tell this story?”. They either had a vision of the future, or were compelled by the one that Intersections had generated for them. But they now needed to show how this vision would impact their stakeholders and communicate their response in a way that compelled change.
After a few engagements I found that this process too could be systematised, and so I developed Arcs.
The third question came from a large public sector organisation. Deep in the latest wave of cuts, the Chief Executive asked me to redesign his organisation from a blank sheet of paper, knowing this would be very different to what he would be left with after the cuts were complete. He wanted a benchmark against which to compare.
I created the Stratification framework for an agile, customer-centric organisation that would be capable of responding rapidly to the output of foresight processes like Intersections. And over the course of a large engagement with a FTSE100 client, I found that this same framework was applicable elsewhere, refining and building on it to create a more complete model for agile organisations.
Not long afterwards, around two and a half years into being an Applied Futurist, something became clear: every organisation I talked to was facing the same issues. Whether they were public sector or private, small or large, charity or corporation, they were suffering from a lack of foresight and an inability to respond to what they saw.
What I had created with Intersections, Arcs and Stratification is part of the solution to this problem. A problem that is near universal.
I’m very clear that it is not the whole solution. These tools don’t tackle much of the human challenge of change, or internal communication beyond the development of a story. They don’t tackle issues of finance or law, marketing or communications. They might propose changes in technology, partners or the development of new products but they can’t deliver them.
But I believe they are an important part of solving this problem of a lack of organisational agility.
Given this, I had a question to answer: do I try to build a big consultancy business to deliver these tools to all the organisations that might need them? Or do I license them to organisations who are already talking to lots of other businesses and trying to solve their other problems? Often other parts of the same problem that I was trying to solve.
The answer for me was clear, and so this year we launched the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit.
I’m pleased to say the reaction to date has been fantastic and we’ll be announcing our first batch of licensees before long.
If you are a consultant of some kind, who spends their days working with other people’s organisations to help them to solve issues of strategy and finance, marketing and communication, structure and law, then take a look at the Applied Futurist’s Manifesto. It may be that we can help you to solve a larger piece of the puzzle.
*Like all human beings, I editorialise the history a little to fit the new narrative. It’s not a conscious effort and there’s no fiction involved, just the relative scale and occasionally timing of events gets shifted around. When you’ve been writing as long and as much as I have, it’s second nature.
If you don’t do this for your business, role or proposition, I think it’s a healthy process to get into. Especially if you’re trying to pitch a new start-up. You need a compelling story to tell people off the bat, not just about what you’re doing but why you’re doing it.
On this day each year, International Women’s Day, endless numbers of idiots post the same question on social networks: “But why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?”
If they are a particular brand of idiot they add a hashtag like ‘#equality’ or ‘#justsayin’. Far from showing their digital literacy, this behaviour demonstrates a complete lack of appreciation for what the internet has given them: untrammelled access to the world’s knowledge.
If they cared about the answer to their question, they would have typed it into a search engine. Then they would know that International Men’s Day is on the 19th November.
They would learn this before the comedian Richard Herring has to point it out and in doing so, publicly shame them for their crass stupidity, which he spends this day each year doing.
They might also find some information about the continuing inequality between the sexes and realise that the tone of their question is offensive and ridiculous when asked in this venue.
As Marshall McLuhan said, ‘the medium is the message’. Where you ask questions counts.
Ask such a question of a search engine, and you’ll get a sensible answer. You will learn and be improved.
Ask it of a social network and you will be rightly pilloried. Because even if your question was an honest one, the venue in which you’re asking it carries as much meaning as the message itself.
This is because such questions are rarely asked honestly in a social venue. More often, asking them in this context is the worst form of passive-aggressive cowardice. Should they be challenged, the questioner tends to dive back under cover and wave a little flag marked ‘#justaskin’. They claim that they have been wronged by the angry response and their respondents should ‘calm down’.
That’s not acceptable any more.
‘Knowledge is power’ is a phrase for which the earliest attribution from Wikipedia is to Imam Ali back in the 7th century. I know this because today, knowledge is commoditised. If you have access to the Internet, you can acquire knowledge at a marginal cost near zero.
Those of us who are connected all have access to knowledge. We all have access to power. And to quote a less erudite though no less important source, Ben Parker, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ (no, I didn’t have to look that one up).
We have a responsibility to apply the wealth of knowledge and power at our disposal, and to do so for good.
No-one should be denied their opinion. But equally we should all accept that in an age where information is more available than ever before, to be wilfully ignorant is to be a poor participant in society. It is a dereliction of duty to your fellow humans, whether they are geographically close to you or located on the other side of a social network.
For those who continue to be wilfully ignorant, the pillorying of comedians like Richard Herring is the absolute least they should expect.
Driven by ideology, a previous government decided that the private sector could do a better job running the railways than the incumbent public body, despite the impossibility of creating any real sense of market conditions to motivate improvements in performance. The result is that single companies have control of a uniquely valuable asset over long periods. Since there is no market — the previous government’s answer to every question — they have no real competition*.
As a result, the operators make little effort to deliver for their customers.
There are exceptions but my local operator, Northern Rail, is not one of them. When I commuted daily into the city centre few years ago, I recorded the delays I experienced for a week. From memory, nine out of ten journeys were delayed. I live just one stop from the centre of Manchester. It should take less than ten minutes to get into the city centre. Yet over the course of a week, I was delayed cumulatively by more than an hour.
This was bad, but my real complaint was with the company’s inability to share information. Time after time it would fail to inform passengers about delays in any way that would allow them to make proper decisions about re-routing their journeys. Largely inaudible manual announcements would contradict the immediately following automated ones. Screens would give completely wrong information. And the staff would have no access to information that allowed them to assist.
Every time there was a more serious delay, this turned a mini drama into an unnecessary crisis.
So three years ago, I wrote to the company, laying out my most recent experience of the problems in detail.
In response I received the usual platitudes and a promise to do better.
As you may have guessed from the tone of this post. Nothing changed. Yesterday I found myself delayed again, and baffled by the total lack of useful information to help me to decide how to respond. The digital signs still showed my train, on time and going to my stop. Automated announcements contradicted the one, barely-audible notification that something was wrong. Staff were clueless, suggesting I travel two stops beyond my destination with no guarantee I would be able to get back again.
I got a taxi, and from the back of it, took to Twitter to bemoan the uselessness of the service, as is the modern way.
Rant (almost) over, this is where we get to the point of this post. After the usual insincere apologies*, the customer service rep suggested I complain to their customer services team.
Now, having spent some time making a detailed complaint before, I took umbrage at this. Writing a detailed complaint takes time. And frankly, doing so is not that different to what I might be asked to do professionally when analysing the problems in a client’s business.
If a company were genuinely motivated to do better for its customers, then detailed complaints should be an enormously valuable resource. A customer’s eye view of what is wrong with the business. After all, look at what good businesses pay for mystery shoppers or user testing.
So my response to Northern Rail, and frankly to any other company that wants its customers to diagnose its failings is this: pay us. We are providing you with incredibly valuable feedback.
You never know: if our advice is costing you money, you may just act on it.
*Yes, there are other forms of transport but the direct and uncongested nature of railway tracks plus the format of the vehicles and the way they are powered means that buses and cars are not competitive from a speed or cost perspective if you live within a sensible radius of a station, as I do.
*I can only assume they don’t mean it when they apologise. If they really meant it, they would have made changes by now. I don’t level this criticism at the social media operators, who I am sure are nice people, but the company and its leaders.