The Culture of Foresight Associations Need

Too many associations have been slow to create a culture of foresight to explore and shape their future.

This observation comes from almost 20 years observing how US-based national associations operate, and as I work to help the Foundation of the American Society of Association Executives  build a foresight research program that will create a culture of foresight in associations.

I observe associations using foresight in four ways:

  1. To support strategic planning. Associations generally recognize that environmental scanning is a necessary precursor to effective strategic planning. They can be better at assessing their internal operating environment than analyzing external trends and issues with implications for their association.
  2. To conduct risk analysis. Associations are effective at managing issues that could lead to public policy and regulatory changes. They also are good at spotting new developments that affect business of all types, such as information and communication technologies or generational shifts.  
  3. To inform anticipatory learning. Members do expect their associations to offer topical conference & webinar experiences and report on timely topics in their publications. Some associations produce annual outlooks that flags key changes for the year ahead. High performing boards regularly engage in strategic conversations. When members are surveyed about their needs and expectations, they often report access to the latest information as trends as an important member value.
  4. To inspire innovation and business development. Some associations use foresight to identify and build on new technological capabilities or changes in customer priorities and preferences. They see the emerging opportunity in doing things a new way.

This all sound like actions you would expect to find in organizations that have a culture of foresight, correct? So what is the problem?

Few associations do any of these practices consistently. They spend their time on maintaining current operations and responding to today's crisis. They practice foresight episodically and on an ad hoc basis. And too often, if what they learn is inconvenient or requires levels of change they cannot accommodate, they let their insights about the future languish.

My ASAE Foundation project partners, the Foresight Alliance, created this diagram illustrating a structured approach to foresight based on a common model futurists use. I added the boxes to indicate where in this model associations seem to be stronger. These are the weaknesses I see:

  • Too few associations give sufficient thought to framing that would help them better understand what they need to learn and do. This leads to scanning that is less purposeful and systematic. It’s like setting out on a journey with no forethought about your destination.
  • Associations value scanning but under-perform forecasting and doing a deep analysis to make sense of what is changing and what could happen. They need to do more to understand the implications of alternative futures.
  • Associations need more powerful visions of the future they want to create. Without these visions, they continue to accept business as usual or react to the latest crisis, ceding any power they might have to affect meaningful change.
  • Because planning is the priority, associations tend to focus on a near-term time horizon of one to three years; they consider it a stretch to think out three to five or more years where they might find zone of opportunity in that uncertainty. Thinking ten years out can be intriguing but most association leaders feel they can’t work that far ahead. This short-sightedness is the source of most of what we experience as surprise and shock. Some changes will always come faster than we ever anticipated.

Associations do need to work toward having a culture of foresight. It will take training, practice and patience to develop these disciplines and processes. The ASAE Foundation wants to make it easier for associations of all types and sizes to do this. Stay tuned.