Duty of Foresight

Robert Voltmann

EVERY BUSINESS, INCLUDING trade associations like TIA, wants to stay in business. But, like most of life, “wishing don’t make it so.” Instead, boards and business leaders must look forward, not to predict the future, but to envision the future they wish to have, the future they fear, and the future they dread. The process is called foresight.

Think about what it must have been like to be on the RIM board of directors in 2009. At the time, Blackberry had 21% of the global mobile device market. In 2011, they sold more than 50 million Blackberry devices. Yet, the RIM board failed to take Apple and Android devices seriously. They failed to look forward to where they thought, or more importantly, where they wanted the market to go. They failed in their duty of foresight. The result, Blackberry devices went from 21% of the global mobile device market to 0% in seven years; from selling more than 50 million devices to selling less than 4 million in five years.

Foresight is not the same as trend knowledge. Trend knowledge is helpful, but can only tell you what people are doing now, not what you may need to know to prepare for the future.

TIA is a member of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), and yes, that is the trade association for trade associations. It’s where we, as staff, go to learn and improve just like you come to TIA. ASAE and their foundation have done a lot of work to help associations practice foresight. We will be using this research with the TIA Board as it looks forward to the future we want for the industry, the future we fear, and the future we dread. The process then involves adopting policies and positions that guide us toward the future we want while preparing in case that future does not come to be.

ASAE has outlined a three-step process for helping the board in their duty of foresight. The first step is initiating the foresight practice. What is the purpose and rationale for the organization? How do current processes need to be adapted to engage in foresight? And, how will the board prepare for its duty of foresight.

The second step is to conduct foresight research and analysis.  To do this, the board will scan the horizon, what’s going on now and what is likely to happen in the future. What drivers of change are affecting the industry? For example, how can TIA help members attract, train, and retain a dynamic workforce in a full employment and possibly declining workforce environment? How can TIA help members increase profitability in an unstable and flat market? The final step is to envision the future, plan for it, and act on it. This is where strategic planning takes place. During the next few months, I will use this space to talk about the board’s journey through this process.