Looking Back at Looking Forward

sharing knowledge about organisational foresight


I read Ross King’s biography Machiavelli over the break. I found it a fascinating and insightful view of Machiavelli and life in 15th century Europe. How things have changed….and remained the same!

King identified an inherent conflict in Machiavelli’s thinking which I feel is very profound. On the one hand Machiavelli held that “Men are unable to master their own natures” (p176) effectively stranding the individual in a form of perpetual stasis.

Whatever influences through birth or environment work to forge the individual, once developed norms of behaviour are hard to change. Unable to learn either from the past or adapt that which is emerging they act as passive vessels… mistakes and history are repeated.

So much for freedom of action. How can a Prince dispense wisdom and advice to others and expect them to change.

There are obvious parallels with operationalising strategic thinking and achieving organisation change. Perhaps it is better to act in collaboration with like minded individuals working through interconnected networks.


January 13, 2008 Posted by | knowledge networks, philosophy | , , , , | Leave a comment

Blended realities, blended lives

The Institute for the Future’s Technology Horizons 2008 Research Agenda article ‘Blended Realities, Blended Lives’ looks more like the present than the future. The article notes that the “wireless Web, virtual worlds, augmented realities overlaid on top of physical ones, advanced simulations and networked knowledge promise to transform our everyday experiences…”.

In today’s The Age there is a report on research into the web and social networking. The article claims one in five Australian’s “feel their online identities were closer to their ‘true self’ than their real-world identity [and that] many are defining themselves through their virtual identities”.

That is certainly consistent with IFTF’s view that “our personalities are becoming multiple and portable”. Even the forward-looking statement that we will soon be “able to carry our avatars from one context to another…from Second Life to…Google Earth” seems to be very near future given the trend towards integration (of social networks, other web sites, communication tools).

I’ve posted on the emergence of multiple identities:


and on Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things; of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not”.

People have always had there own distinct view of ‘reality’, there own way of making sense of and interpreting things. I see the growth of multiple virtual identities as being complementary to ordinary life…through dreaming, art, conversation. The Web enhances creative expression.

December 3, 2007 Posted by | foresight, philosophy | , , , | Leave a comment

On ethics

After having read what Michel Onfray, Sam Harris and Bertrand Russell had to say on religion and the fragmented moral universe in which we life, I have to say my views on international collaboration and globalisation have suffered.

At one point in the 1980’s I assumed secularisation would continue unbounded but the clashes in various part of the world between the mainstream religions, terror attacks and other tensions around immigration of recent times have put paid to that.

Is is plausible to suggest that distributed networks may be one avenue to seek headway? Is it possible to envisage the articulation of global social and ethical norms that might one day bridge existing chasms will arise from sharing knowledge about cultural norms and practices, and from the fostering of dialogue inhibited by institutions and hierarchies?

November 19, 2007 Posted by | knowledge networks, philosophy | , , , , | Leave a comment

Belief systems

Over my two and half weeks vacation I read Michel Onfrey’s The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The introduction contains some excellent observations. For example, “no one reaches the opinion that the critical mind, so relevant and always so welcoming when applied to others, would be put to good use in a scrutiny of one’s own beliefs.” (page 2).

This problem arises in strategic thinking too. Substitute “assumptions” for beliefs in the quote above. And what’s more, in my experience people are willing to hang on to dated assumptions in a way that believers hang on to faith – reason is suspended and dialogue is not possible.

October 26, 2007 Posted by | philosophy | , | Leave a comment

Locke’s theory of knowledge

Continuing on my investigations into ways that philosophy aids futures thinking and practice. Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy has a chapter on John Locke’s theory of knowledge. There is one piece that stands out in relation to my interest: the interpretation of ‘reason’ (pages 554-555).

‘Reason’ – as Locke uses the term – has “two parts: first an inquiry into what things we know with certainty; second, an investigation into propositions which it is wise to accept in practice, although they have only probability and not certainty in their favour. The grounds of probability are two: conformity with our own experience, or the testimony of others’ experiences”.

In futures research those developments that are nascent or that are emergent – that may at some time in the future prove to be disruptive – but that are available to experience in the present, are where probabilities can be assessed.

To influence others to take action in response to foresight (that can never be certain) – the acceptance of which requires they should quit their assumptions or opinions and embrace the foresight – takes time and the “common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions”.

What is at stake to invoke acceptance and action from others is to engage them in the acquisition of new ‘knowledge’ gained from their examination of information about the issues and the grounds of probability. Where engagement of that sort is not taken, according to Locke we should not expect others to blindly submit to the will and the dictates of another, is like asking them to put aside their reason.

These passages help understand why it is so hard to have foresight understood and acted upon. But what is so often missing is the facilitative environment – humanity and friendship!

July 22, 2007 Posted by | foresight, knowledge networks, philosophy | , , , , | Leave a comment


Continuing my readings in philosophy, according to Plotinus, because reality is less than perfect – and the world of practical affairs offers no hope, “happiness if attainable at all, must be sought by reflection upon things that are remote from the impressions of sense” (History of Western Philosophy, p271). This is the external world of ideas – the perfect world of Plutonian beauty must be a rational abstraction.

This search for the rational ideal helps me to understand the Christian concept of ‘heaven’. It is intrinsically human to want for better things. But the mental hurdles involved in developing and understanding abstract rationalisations is beyond the capacity of the masses – which is why invocations to ‘ believe’ and ritualised behaviour are substitutes for reason.

There are parallels between thinking about the longer-term and rationale ideal states – both go beyond impressions of the senses.

June 19, 2007 Posted by | foresight, knowledge networks, philosophy | , | Leave a comment

More on philosopy

In the History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell observed that “modern definitions of truth, such as those of pragmatism and instrumentalism, which are practical rather than contemplative, are inspired by industrialism as opposed to aristocracy” (page 42). The absence of strategic thinking (contemplation) in many contemporary organisations appears to be due to the dominance of pragmatisim, and in my view incrementalism – products of the industrial age. Consequently those that are in effect destitute of the long-term view are comfortable in judging those that articulate foresight as foolish.

And on Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things; of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not” (page 83). So each man in the measure of all things. There is no objective value in truth. There is no objective value in foresight.The absence of objectivity makes the majority – or at least those that dominate – the arbiters of what to believe. Foresight must be expressed in ways that are of practical value to the majority – or to the dominant – to be influential.

April 10, 2007 Posted by | foresight, philosophy | , , , | Leave a comment

Innovation and philosophy

“What we need is a paradigm-shift” or words to that effect – how many times have a heard people say that over the last few years! I’ve used the term myself, such as when talking about the internet and suggesting to others to review their assumptions about telecommunications and broadcasting markets, technologies and the needs of users or consumers. Tough gig I can tell you – it is hard for people to independently rethink the way the world works.

Given my renewed interest in philosophy (I did a paper as an undergrad) , I took particular note of Humberto Schwab’s interview on the Club of Amsterdam blog. Humberto said that “Innovation sometimes demands new paradigms – philosophy is the producer of new paradigms”. Lovely!

Humberto went on to talk about educating people and the importance of asking the right questions, not the answers. I like that too. What about when you are surrounded by people whose idea of doing the right thing is to give answers – at meetings I can see that need take hold of discussions as the group races to provide direction, make plans, take action…anything but really getting to grips with the underlying drivers.

Humberto had this to say about the role of Socratic discourse, that it “…forces people to rethink other positions and to rehearse steps in thinking taken by others, it forces people to listen and repeat and to clarify all concepts used.” Fantastic. Would there be much of this in organisational life! Particularly those that value innovation, creativity and learning. It all goes to support my contention below that the skill set of an organisational futurist needs to good amount of philosophical scholarship.

March 4, 2007 Posted by | knowledge networks, philosophy | , , , | Leave a comment

Organisational philosophy

Over December – January I like to have a good book to read. My latest was Peter Watson’s Ideas – a history from fire to Freud – an excellent work. Happily for me it transcends most of my favourite material – philosophy, history, politics, economics, sociology. Perhaps the greatest attraction for me was that history is a fundamentally important point of reference in strategic thinking.

One of the more relevant sections of the book covered the origins of science, philosophy and the humanities. I realise that so much has been said about the continued influence of thinkers like Plato and Confucius. What I offer here is an organisational futurist perspective on this.

For Plato, the object of spiritual life was concentration on abstract entities. Much of thinking about the longer-term is abstract conceptualisation over time – a sustained concentration if you like. Logical reasoning is an element of concentration but Pluto it must also have disciplined intuition resulting in an ‘ecstatic self-transcendence’. For most us having an epiphany – a moment of sudden and great realisation – is as close to ecstatic self-transcendence that we are likely to experience. Pluto’s pure essence of ‘The Beautiful’ (ideal beauty) becomes available by intuition, study (the logical reasoning bit) self-knowledge and love. Now, how much of that apart from study was covered in my MBA/BA? How much of that occurs at work? Stuff all mate! Actually one of my MBA lecturers said that I have a big heart. The CEO of an organisation that I worked for 12 years ago said that I was ‘nice’ – but perhaps too nice climb the corporate ladder. There is a pattern there! Would Pluto have made CEO? Socrates paid the ultimate price…but I digress.

In a contemporary organisational sense, I think Plato’s pure essence can be encapsulated in the art of contemplation. Certainly for an organisation to ‘contemplate’ requires extraordinary discipline. Effective strategic thinking within an organisation requires contemplation – by individuals, and in groups through strategic conversation. I attended a Future Summit in 2004 (organised by the Australian Davos Connection) where representatives from the private and public sectors agreed there is a need for contemplation – but also that so little is actually done, and the political election cycle acts as a constraint in taking the long-term view. But there is a dilemma in all of this and it lies in the nexus between the individual (and individualism) and the community.

Watson wrote about the origins of individualism in ancient Greece dating from the decline of the city state (community) and the rise of centralised power in the governance of nations. With centralised power the primary concern is self – people retreat into themselves. With individualism, all are islands. What is more, Watson observed that a powerful state is hostile to free thinking because it threatens centralised power & authority. From my experience command and control organisations don’t warm to free thinking either. Here is one element of the dilemma – free thinking is a way to suspend judgements and assumptions that underpin current systems and values. Or you may prefer this take on it ‘thinking outside the square’. So hard for many organisations.

Watson’s piece on Confucius is relevant here too. Confucius said that universal order and harmony is only possible where people show a wider sense of community and obligation than their and their family’s self-interest. Lets put a contemporary take on this by substituting ‘learning organisation’ as the goal…on the face of it easier than ‘universal order and harmony’. But how easy really? To be a learning organisation its people need to show a wider sense of organisational obligation than their and their branch/sections self-interest. Yeah, right. Here is where Machiavelli comes into my analysis.

Machiavelli concluded that a person will always tend to act in their own selfish interests – and the only defense is this state. As life without the state is unthinkable (harsh brutal and short – where have I heard that before) the maintenance of the state requires justification beyond its survival. So when it comes to politics, this ends always justifies the means. No ideal beauty in that.

Promoting strategic thinking in organisations in effect asks its individuals to show a wider sense of community manifest in strategic conversation with others. In command and control organisations, with business function and processes justified on reason only, there is little chance of community strategic knowledge and action. The powerful self-interested core is in command of the conversation.

Now to draw the link to the title of this post. Those that practice the art of the long-term view in organisations really are organisational philosophers where they succeed in disciplined intuition. They must suspend their own self-interest to see the wider sense of community and to tap into whatever pure essence or ideal beauty that might be achieved – which for me is the creativity and value from a community engaged in authentic strategic conversation.

I have a great respect for Richard Hames – a self-styled ‘organisational philosopher’ who likes to say that he asks questions that no one else does (or at least not the high priests of the cathedral)
So add philosophy to the string of skills that organisational futurists have – including facilitation, planning, analysis, relationship management, presentation and excellent written and oral communication – the subject of a future posting.

February 24, 2007 Posted by | foresight, philosophy | , , , | Leave a comment