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Prophet and loss: a master’s degree in Foresight

Prophet and loss: a master’s degree in Foresight

Much of business forecasting involves analysts crunching numbers and extrapolating scenarios from current reality, relying on their market knowledge and a number of reasonable assumptions. But what about when things get unreasonable? Companies have been wiped out by things coming at them from left field that their bean counters failed to predict.

It is not enough for executives and analysts to react to changing circumstances and adapt policy and strategy incrementally in line with what they see. They need oracles to see the change coming in the first place. Enter a different breed of predictors: futurists.

Somebody within every large organisation has to be constantly sticking their head over the parapet and gazing beyond the horizon to prevent the company blundering over a cliff. Organisations lacking such individuals are like submarines with no portholes, periscopes, cameras or sonar: strong, impregnable and with plenty of momentum, but doomed to wander off course and crash into a submerged mountain eventually, no matter how busy and productive their occupants.

Those oracles are called futurists these days, and their speciality is Foresight. Rather than extrapolating current trends and making predictions based on those, they study the dark art of discontinuous change. This means envisaging multiple radically different possible futures as well as the predictable ones more likely to emerge from current reality. Futurists look at futures outside their organisation’s own narrow niche: global trends shaping the world, including technological, environmental, social, demographic, political and cultural changes. Sensing these potential disturbances in the Force, they then provide quantitative and qualitative speculations on how these trends might affect the organisation were they to come about.

This emerging discipline is in increasing demand. Higher education is listening, and master’s degrees in foresight are springing up to provide specialist training that goes beyond standard undergraduate modules in Strategy.

The University of Houston’s Master of Science in Foresight offers business studies graduates a grounding in business clairvoyance (to coin a more picturesque term).

“Professional futurists emphasize systemic and transformational change as opposed to traditional forecasters and planners who focus on incremental change based on existing conditions and trends,” says its online prospectus.

“Since long-term predictive forecasts are rarely correct, futurists describe alternative plausible and preferable futures, in addition to the expected future. Instead of limiting themselves to traditional forecasters' quantitative methods, futurists also use a balance of qualitative and quantitative tools. The program provides collaboration and innovation with multiple perspectives on foresight, business and marketing, consumer science and retailing. Our experience suggests that the demand for strategic foresight graduates in commercial and public sectors will continue to rise.”

Graduates from the Houston program have found employment in commercial firms, government agencies, non-profits and research firms. Job titles have included Analyst, Consultant, Human Resources Planner, Strategic Planner and New Business Developer.