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Tools for Foresight, with a French Twist: "Prospective" as developed by French futurists is a huge toolbox to help organizations build better futures.

As the epicenter of the United Nations' global welfare initiatives, UNESCO must oversee a dizzying array of programs. To make sense of the huge workload, it uses a French foresight tradition called "strategic prospective." Most English-speaking readers might not have heard of prospective, but in Strategic Foresight for Corporate and Regional Development, Michel Godet and Philippe Durance both economists and futurists at the Paris-based research institution Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers--thoroughly introduce this method and the ways in which organizations inside and outside of France use it to integrate long-range strategy into all their day-to-day management processes.

Perspective's roots trace back to the 1950s, when France was caught up in waves of rapidly accelerating social and cultural changes, coupled with deep apprehension about the future. Economic growth was momentous and technology was advancing; however, the prospects of nuclear war loomed large, and the carnage of World War II was still fresh in people's memories. In this milieu, French thinker Gaston Berger outlined prospective as a method for discerning social change and the factors that drive it in order to craft optimal public policy. Together with colleagues, he undertook the first prospective studies in 1959 and 1960.

In the decades since, according to the authors, prospective has been adopted by public and private organizations throughout the world. It's proven to be particularly effective for business strategy and regional planning. The name has changed at times--in some circles, it's called "strategic prospective" but the practice itself has remained almost entirely the same.

Prospective's core ideas are similar to those of most of the futuring schools of thought with which English-speaking readers might already be acquainted. It illuminates the impacts that present actions will have over the long term, extrapolates the futures that may result, and helps participants determine how to bring about the futures that they hope will result.

Where prospective differs is in the unique tools that it brings to the endeavor. Scenarios, one of the favorite tools in most futurists' toolkits, do go into use in strategic prospective exercises, but they are not required.

Practitioners use them along with other tools. For example:

* The Tree of Competencies maps the organization and all factors relevant to it in a treelike diagram: The staff and personnel's skills, talents, and knowledge are the tree's roots; the organization's productive capacity is the trunk; and the product lines and markets are the branches. This visual depiction clearly presents the organization's strengths, and once you know your organization's strengths, you'll have a better sense of how to direct strategy. But not every organization can be accurately represented in a tree shape, the authors caution. Also, the method is not good at depicting uncertainties.

* Structural analysis identifies and distributes across a matrix all the individual elements that make up the larger environment in which the organization works. Participants study the matrix to discern which elements relate to or influence others. Afterward, they rank elements in terms of their importance to the system's evolution. Structural analysis is a potent generator of thought and discussion, but it can be time consuming. More--over, its analyses are often highly subjective and can be tainted by participant biases.

* Morphological analysis especially comes in handy in technological forecasting. It breaks the system down into its components, projects several possible states for each component, and then mixes and matches component states to produce cohesive scenarios. While it is useful for exploring elements within the larger system, thereby helping to illuminate the whole field of possibilities and to reduce uncertainties, it can be challenging: Users need to take care not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible combinations, nor to skew their scenarios by failing to incorporate enough combinations.

* Regnier's Abacus is a polling method. A ballot lists yes-or-no questions, with an array of colored boxes following each question. For each question, respondents mark off a box to signify if they agree or disagree and, either way, how strongly. Respondents are free to change their answers at any time. Godet and Durance praise this method as a fast and fairly simple way to track the range of opinions of a large group of people and compare them with other groups. What it cannot do, unfortunately, is help to reconcile diverging opinions.

There are actually so many tools within strategic prospective that most organizations that use it will not have time to deploy all of them. Savvy practitioners who know the tools well will pick and choose which ones will help their clients the most in the given situation.

"However useful these tool s might be, they are not ends in themselves, an d should be applied according to the needs of the organization, the problems confronted, the constraints of time, and the means available," the authors write.

After they describe each tool in de tail, Godet and Durance share case studies of real-life organizations that used combinations of them with great success. Among them are the French Ministry of De fen se a n d Armed Forces, which used strategic prospective in the 1980s to accurately p edict some weapons systems breakthroughs that would occur by 2010. Also, French insurer Axa carried out a prospective study in 1994 and, using it as a guide, undertook a successful comp any wide restructuring in 1996-2000. An d France' s National Aviation Administration relies on prospective when it is deciding the best locations for new airport space.

The volume closes with a dialogue between the two authors in an appendix: Godet poses questions to Durance about why he took interest initially in prospective, what he has achieved in the field, and how he expects the discipline to continue to develop in the future . Durance points out a number of areas where prospective might benefit from further research, such as how to better link history with prospective, as well as links between prospective and psychoanalysis.

Michel Coder and Philippe Durance blend enthusiasm and expertise as they illuminate what strategic prospective is, where it ha s come from, and what it can do. They don't try to hide what it cannot do, however. Readers will learn where users can go wrong if they are not careful when they are using prospective, and in addition where the methodology has some room for improvement and growth.

The authors do a commendable job of not selling the method, but explaining it so as to ensure that more organizations will not only use prospective, but use it right. For future minded researchers and organization leaders, Strategic Foresight for Corporate and Regional Development is an informative and authoritative guide to a rich French futurist tradition.

About the Reviewer

Rick Docksai is assistant editor for THE FUTURIST and World Future Review. E-mail
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Author:Docksai, Rick
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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