Special Report: 20/20 Foresight

When you see change clearly, you can build the future you want. Read on for some highlights from the ASAE ForesightWorks research initiative.

The future, like all unknown things, can be a scary place. But it can also be a place you know better.

Many associations do some form of planning ahead when they work on their five-year strategic plans. But even then, boards and staff leaders often think too narrowly—making program tweaks for the next few annual meetings, reshuffling member categories. To think more broadly about larger trends in society and technology can be seen as complex, intimidating, even irrelevant.

“Volunteer leaders and CEOs often focus on firefighting and dealing with the most current problems first,” says Sue Pine, CAE, vice president of professional development at Association Headquarters. “Boards especially tend to focus on just their own industry issues. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be having those conversations. But I think some discipline is required to look beyond the industry issues, to look into global trends.”

Pine served as cochair of the advisory group that guided development of ASAE ForesightWorks, a far-reaching research initiative of the ASAE Foundation that is designed to make looking into those trends more accessible and manageable. The original research identified 41 “drivers of change,” in six broad categories, that are likely to have a significant impact on associations in the future. (Since this story was originally published, the collection of change drivers has expanded to 50.)

Some of these trends have to do with broad political and economic forces, others with the ways everyday life is being reshaped. Not all will be relevant to every association in any given moment. But ForesightWorks resources on all of the change drivers are meant to spark an essential conversation that associations too often neglect: What macro trends in the world will affect our ability to serve members in the next five, 10, and 15 years?

The strength of ForesightWorks is that it encompasses a variety of future-planning tools, says futurist Marsha Rhea, CAE, president of Signature i, a consulting firm that—along with Foresight Alliance—helped the foundation conduct the research. It includes what’s commonly called environmental scanning (gathering information on future trends), as well as forecasting (imagining what the future looks like, given those trends) and visioning (plotting a “preferred” future in light of multiple trends).

When there’s a lot of change in an industry, Rhea says, “that’s a time for visioning, and that’s a part of foresight. That’s saying, OK, given all these possibilities about the future, what’s the preferred future we would like to create with our vision, and where do we need to make changes as an organization to achieve it?”

Rhea stresses that engaging in foresight doesn’t mean you’re playing defense, responding to the storm clouds on the horizon. It can be used intentionally to plan technology investments, stress-test your business model, and kick off conversations with members and other stakeholders.

“One area that I think associations don’t do enough work in is using foresight as an idea starter, as an engine for innovation and business development,” she says.

The six short articles in this collection (see links in the yellow box at left) offer a snapshot of how ForesightWorks change drivers are affecting associations and how they’re responding. And although thinking about the future might be intimidating, most associations should recognize that they’re not starting from scratch, Rhea says.

“We’re all, to some degree, already scanning, and probably at some level most association execs could name some pretty significant changes ahead for their field,” she says. “But what may be lacking is that discipline in processes and practices that lead to the follow-through and the actions in the organization.”

A Deeper Dive

The ASAE ForesightWorks program creates ongoing, practical, and actionable research that explores what the future holds for the association sector.

Each of the 50 change drivers identified in the research, culled from an original list of more than 300, is summarized in a concise action brief. Each brief includes a summary of the trend, impacts, uncertainties, data highlights, and strategy discussion points relevant to the issue—as well as concrete steps users can take to respond to the issue at their organization.

The collection—which includes a users’ guide to help association leaders make best use of the resources—is available in the ASAE Bookstore.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on September 9, 2019.

(Ann Cutting)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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