Long overlooked, futurists are coming into their own

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON - When Amy Oberg applied for work at Enron Energy Services in 1998, there wasn't a position for manager of competitive intelligence and future foresight.

"I made it up," she said, laughing. "I wanted to have 'future' in there, but I didn't want to have 'futurist' because it is still a little 'out there.' They haven't figured out what it means."

Actually, the folks at Houston-based Enron refer to Ms. Oberg as a corporate futurist, not an economist or planner.

Unlike traditional strategic planning, futurists focus longer term and on a broad array of social, political, technological and demographic trends that could affect the bottom line.

Buffeted by global competition and the Internet, a growing number of companies are granting futurists a seat at the corporate table despite the misgivings of some senior managers who view them as fringe thinkers.

The forecasters are doling out advice on topics ranging from renewable energy to e-commerce.

Just in the last few years, one local academic program in future studies has churned out graduates like Ms. Oberg for companies such as Enron, Toshiba International Corp. and Dow Chemical Co.

"A number of organizations have people or departments that really are engaged in looking at the future," said Arnold Brown, chairman of New York management consulting firm Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc.

He cites one of his clients, General Motors Corp., as an example.

"There's a lot of concern on the part of corporate management these days that they don't have a handle on what's happening," he said. "The pace of change is so rapid."

Not a new concept

The idea of futurists advising organizations or even civilizations is nothing new, says Graham T.T. Molitor, vice president and legal counsel of the World Future Society. The 30,000-member nonprofit group wrapped up its annual meeting, FutureFocus 2000, in Houston earlier this week.

As far back as the 13th century, Mr. Molitor says, Chinese ruler Kublai Khan hired 10,000 astrologers to advise his court. Mr. Molitor, who has advised several Fortune 500 companies including Coca-Cola, is publishing a series of pieces that examines the economic landscape 1,000 years from now.

The first modern-day corporate futurist, Mr. Brown says, may have been Mort Darrow, a senior executive at Prudential Insurance Co. in the 1960s who brought to his job a keen interest in examining trends and change.

But the notion of assessing future business beyond five years didn't have a toehold until the last decade, he says.

"It didn't have a lot of credence in business until we began to get into the '90s and approaching the millennium when a lot of business people began to take seriously the idea of looking into the future in some kind of systematic professional way," Mr. Brown said.

That is placing the University of Houston-Clear Lake at the right place, at the right time.

The young institution started a graduate program in Studies of the Future in 1975 . although it never has quite found a home as an academic discipline, seemingly suspended between science and the humanities, says program chair Dr. Peter Bishop. Now, it's established as one of only a handful of programs of its kind, at a time when businesses are hiring as never before.

Taking notice

"We are preparing professional futurists for the marketplace," Dr. Bishop said, with graduates going into a variety of strategic planning and outlook-type positions, armed with future-focused research models. "The business community is beginning to notice that we have some very interesting skills."

Only, he says, graduates usually don't present themselves as "futurists."

"It still has a flaky kind of image," he said, conjuring up the Jetsons or wild-eyed dreamers not firmly rooted in reality. "We don't want them to hide the degree, but when you're marketing yourself, you don't want to throw up any flags if you don't have to."

Corporate futurists used a session at FutureFocus 2000 to talk about dealing with entrenched senior managers who don't get it.

Some acknowledge that their terminology may seem fuzzy when laying out possible scenarios . while executives usually demand definite and quantifiable answers to questions about the future.

"We're comfortable with ambiguity," said Andy Hines, a recent Clear Lake graduate who's now "ideation leader" at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich. "We're different. And when we deal with the people inside the corporation, that becomes apparent.

"If you think of the typical corporate executive, their reputation is rooted in the past," he said. "Here we come in fresh from the universities saying the future is different."

Different approach

Richard Lum, who went through a program similar to Clear Lake's at the University of Hawaii, recalls one of his first meetings as a corporate planner for Blue Cross in Honolulu.

"They wanted to know about regulations coming out in the next six months, and how it's going to affect business operations," Mr. Lum said. "I said, 'Well, I can talk about how generations are going to change for the next 50 years.'

"One of the things I had to come to grips with was that 25 years [ahead] is interesting to them, but what they consider important is what's going to happen the next 12 months," he said.

Like so many fresh futurists, that meant he had to change his approach. Now, his reports to management lay out three separate scenarios: the present, the horizon and over the horizon.

Christian Crews, who joined Toshiba out of Clear Lake two years ago, has been able to link his futures studies with existing company operations to help develop new product applications such as using Palm devices to program heating and air-conditioning systems.

But to do that, he needed to find at least one senior manager who understood him.

Luckily, that was his immediate boss, who didn't mind telling him, "You're talking Greek to me, but every day, I'm learning more Greek." He became his "in" with other senior executives.

"I got the green light at that point to go ahead and work with new product lines . to work on their short-term and long-term futures," Mr. Crews said.

Shortly, he's leaving Toshiba to become director of the futures studies program at the Waitt Foundation, formed by Gateway Computer founder Fred Waitt.

To Ms. Oberg at Enron, there's a clear difference between the old way of corporate planning and futurist thinking.

Adapting to change

Traditional long-range strategic planning, she said, "is typically very staid: 'We're going to look five years out; we're going to stick to our plan, and that's the way that we go.'"

That used to work in the business environment when it was very stable, she said, when you knew who your competitors were and there weren't these big shake-ups in technology.

"What futures does," she said, "is you keep it a dynamic ongoing process, you have a much tighter grasp of the changes that are coming along.

"You structure the organization to be very flexible, very innovative and adapt to the changes that are happening in the environment," she said.

On a personal level, Ms. Oberg is one Clear Lake graduate who isn't shy about presenting herself as a futurist, even in social settings.

But when she tells people what she does, they often ask her for stock tips.

"It leads to some very interesting discussions," she said.