Robert Johansen: Changing Foresights Into Insights

Robert Johansen is president of the Institute for the Future, a think tank based in Menlo Park, California. His own research these days explores new models for leadership and the art of creating meaningful work environments. Much of his past work has focused on the business, social, and organizational effects of new systems, on team building, and on future organizations in a high tech and global era.

Johansen (B.S., University of Illinois; M.Div., Crozer Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Northwestern University) came to IFTF in 1973 to work on the design, implementation, and evaluation of the first computer conferencing system on the Internet (then called the ARPANET). He was one of the first social scientists to explore the human and organizational impacts of new communications and computer innovations. He led a National Science Foundation project to evaluate the effects of computer conferencing on the productivity of energy researchers.

Johansen was also the principal investigator of the “Intermedia Project,” which compared audio, video, and computer-based teleconferencing. The results of the Intermedia Project were published as Electronic Meetings: Technical Alternatives and Social Choices (Addison-Wesley, 1979), a basic reference work on teleconferencing. He is also author or co-author of Teleconferencing and Beyond (McGraw-Hill, 1984), Groupware: Computer Support for Business Teams (Free Press, 1988), Leading Business Teams (Addison-Wesley,1991), Globalwork (Jossey-Bass,1994), and Upsizing the Individual in the Downsized Organization (Addison-Wesley,1996).

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Ethix: Tell us a little about the Institute for the Future and its goals.

Bob Johansen: The IFTF is an independent, non-profit research group, founded in 1968 as a spin-off of the Rand Corporation. It came out of the mathematics and engineering traditions of the aerospace movement. The idea was to set-up a long-range futures group that would work with business, government, and the public sector and would not do classified research, an orientation at Rand they wanted to escape.

IFTF focuses on how to make sense out of the longer-term future and link that back to practical decisions. We’ve defined our territory as “a step ahead of the good consultants.” Being a non-profit and intentionally small gives us an opportunity to think beyond the planning scope of most companies. And yet, we can’t go too far beyond because we don’t have an endowment or independent funding. We have to do things that people are willing to pay us to do.

We’re essentially in the foresight business — collecting foresights through almost any methodology you could imagine. Our job is changing those foresights into insights. Most of our clients would say that’s what they get from IFTF: some insight into their strategy options.

The future is not determined though, is it? When you look at the future you not only get some insights but also some ideas for changing that future.

Nobody can predict the future. Our purpose is not to predict but to create a plausible future context for people to use as they make decisions in the present. Our criterion for success is whether they make better decisions.

In what ways does this future context change near-term planning?

It depends where you are and what kinds of decisions you’re making. We work with people who have been given a license to think about the long-term future in some strategic way for their companies. What we give them is an outside-in view of emerging areas which exercises them and puts them in position to make better decisions.

We’re trying to help people “field the future,” to use a baseball metaphor. In fielding you never quite know what’s coming your way but you can position yourself better and improve your chances. You can get better at fielding and change what look like problems into opportunities. That’s the game: taking something that looks scary and turning it into an opportunity. When the organizations that use our research do that, we’re a success.

Do you bring certain values into play in deciding where to steer the future? Toward profit, or toward environmental responsibility, for example?

We look at a wide range of possible futures, not just one particular kind. We’re always happier working with companies that have a good sense of their values and look long-term, not just for the next quarter’s return. We like companies that promote from within because that grows some internal cohesiveness and momentum. We like companies that have a corporate mission beyond their financial goals. Procter & Gamble, for example, has a mission to “improve the lives of the world’s consumers.” That theme actually comes out at their business meetings; people understand it and actually think about how to accomplish it.

What the future does is challenge you to ask if you really mean your values. The future is like a magic mirror in which you see yourself. If you do not like what you see, you can alter what you are to some extent. Then, you must figure out what you will do in the present.

So the IFTF helps its clients forecast and then achieve their future visions?

Well, it’s a mix. Because we’re an independent non-profit, we usually pick a topic and then find a group of interested companies that cost-share it. For example, we do an ongoing map of the information technology horizon, right now showing the convergence of biotech and infotech thinking twenty years out. That’s a cost-shared project where each client pays $65,000 toward a $2 million/year budget. We have a series of research projects like that.

After creating the big picture we may do more specific interpretation for some individual companies, but we really do try to stay “one step ahead of the good consultants.” When the consultants come into an area, that’s our sign to go look at the next one. For example, we began looking at knowledge management eight years ago. Now all the big consulting firms have practices in knowledge management and we are out of it. We always try to stay a step ahead and look for the next blob on the horizon.

Speaking of knowledge management, in my opinion there is more hype than substance. People say they are selling knowledge management tools when in fact they’re selling data bases. A new container is being sold, not a new content.

It’s a sad story that essentially mimics what happened with re-engineering. Re-engineering was a very interesting concept about process change within organizations but, to begin with, it was misnamed. It was never about re-engineering because most organizations weren’t “engineered” in the first place. The term re-engineering really came from Mike Hammer’s particular experience as a reformed engineer who discovered the social sciences. Then, it got packaged and oversold — and it under-delivered. People feel like they tried re-engineering and it didn’t work.

Pretty much the same thing has happened now with knowledge management. It is a suspect term, with a vague meaning at best. The emphasis is on explicit knowledge because that’s all today’s systems can handle. The tools really aren’t all that good and the processes are more art than science. A lot of the same consultants who did re-engineering are now doing knowledge management. We think the term knowledge management will be dead within a year. Then we’ll be looking for the next pop management buzzword.

The sad thing is that we’ve got a book publishing industry now that’s geared towards creating the next management buzz phrase, each new one only slightly different from the previous one. We are forced to read the next book to find out what the difference is. Ghost writing shops around the country compete with each other for the next hit book. Many management books aren’t even written by the stated author. One of the most troubling aspects of the innovation game right now is that you’ve got these very weird forces keeping peoples’ eyes off the ball.

But the basic concepts of re-engineering or knowledge management have some importance. How do you go back and capture the valuable essence of the ideas?

It’s very tricky. Essentially, we are in a metaphor-making game. We have to use words to describe possible futures and metaphors turn out to be the best descriptions. Good, creative metaphors actually pull people toward a particular kind of future. Bad ones create visions of the future that people have to fight in the present. “Re-engineering” is badly-named. “Knowledge management” is almost as bad. “Artificial intelligence” was probably the worst-named metaphor of all.
American business has a romantic fantasy about wanting as much control as possible. In the foreground of this new world we’re able to control more but in the background we control less. The real definition of leadership today is how you lead when you can’t control.

How do you see the role of information technology in changing the nature of business in the future? We’ve come through a strong revolution and things are rather turbulent at this point. Are things going to settle out now and be simple?

I don’t see any signs of settling. We argue a lot internally about what information technology is doing at a fundamental level. We used to say it was a driver. Now most of us describe it as partly an enabler and partly an amplifier. It doesn’t really determine anything, but it does change the rules and it definitely speeds things up. If you introduce new media to support a good organization, you can make it a better organization. If you have a dysfunctional organization, new media amplify your dysfunctionality.

Information technology extends the ranges in many different directions. For example, e-mail and group communications media through the internet aren’t inherently more democratic or autocratic but they expand the range of alternatives in both directions. If you’re clever you can use the media for social control in ways never before imagined, but you can also use them for new forms of democracy never before imagined.

So, information technology widens the playing field and then amplifies and speeds up the process. Here is where our role has actually changed. IFTF used to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s new; now we’re focusing much more on what’s important.

In The Control Revolution, Andrew Shapiro talks a lot about both the upsides and the downsides of the change in control base.

ITFT used to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s new; now we’re focusing much more on what’s important.
American business has a romantic fantasy about wanting as much control as possible. In the foreground of this new world we’re able to control more but in the background we control less. The real definition of leadership today is how you lead when you can’t control. What is leadership in chaordic organizations — part chaos and part order? Dee Hock’s Birth of the Chaordic Age (Barrett-Koehler, 1999) has a credibility most management books lack because he actually created a giant company, Visa International.

Chaordic organizations require a different leadership style — an ability to work in organic structures without a high degree of control. That’s very tough; it’s not what most of us were trained to do. My divinity school training is more relevant here than most business school training — although, frankly, many divinity schools don’t teach you to be very flexible.

This control issue ought to be obvious when you think about the shortage in the workforce. The fact is that your employees are all free agents and could be gone tomorrow. How do you manage in this out-of-control context?

It’s very delicate. Here in Silicon Valley the definition of “corporate loyalty” is “loyalty to your Rolodex.” People networks are what drive the valley, and each company’s people inventory goes out the door every night. The most effective leaders are those who can create communities of people which are very loyal to them, but which can form and re-form quickly in new settings.
Having a few principles followed unanimously by everyone, allows great freedom at the edges. You can pretty much do anything you want as long as you play by the principles.
A very unique and creative dynamic between the “culture of ideas” and the “culture of money” drives Silicon Valley. These cultures require each other to survive but they don’t have the same values. Leadership in this context means having the respect of the venture capitalists and access to their resources — but also having the ideas, because you can’t innovate with just money. Nor can the idea people do much without the venture capitalists.

Business leadership used to be hierarchical, command-and-control by strong personalities. Today authority is decentralized and leadership is diffused to individuals and teams. Is it possible, in any sense, to steer this ship?

I think steering is possible. When I became president of IFTF four years ago, we identified six guiding principles. We don’t tell people how to implement these principles in detail but everybody knows them. Performance evaluations are linked to the principles.

As a leader, I try to be very clear about our basic principles and values and then set up procedures for deciding how we move ahead in the face of uncertainty. For example, we have something called the “pending decisions” process. Every time there is a big decision at IFTF we issue a “pending decision” on our intranet. It describes the decision, who is affected by it, who will make the decision, and when. It gives everyone an opportunity to contribute but it also says who will decide because if we had to do everything by consensus around here nothing would get done. We hire for diversity and we’ve got a bunch of mavericks going in eighteen different directions at once. We have found that people don’t want to slow the process down and demand consensus on everything — but they do want to be consulted.

This pending decision process is a simple yet powerful leadership model. Having a few principles followed unanimously by everyone, allows great freedom at the edges. You can pretty much do anything you want as long as you play by the principles.

How has information technology changed the operation of IFTF?

We were always a “same time, same place” group with clients around the world, but in the last five years we’ve become much more of an “anytime, anyplace” group. Our facilities were designed with individual offices on the perimeter and shared space in the middle. Our researchers used to close their doors to think, write, talk on phone, or have meetings. But now, most of us carry laptops and much of the writing and thinking happens at home. The escalating cost of housing has also made it difficult for newer staff to live close to the office.

So, now about half of our staff work out of our San Francisco lab and about half here in Menlo Park. Further out on the edge, we have staff members in Woodstock NY, Detroit, Beijing, and Stockholm. Some of our research teams still prefer a same time, same place work environment but we are more and more a virtual work organization. This couldn’t really be done without information technology.

But, social interactions are still very important. As a general rule, about one week of every six you’ve got to be together in person, although it varies depending on the person, the role, and the team. Our book, Globalwork, describes some of the principles.

Technology creates a common platform linking people of very diverse locations, values, and backgrounds. Does technology enable — but then repress — that diversity?

Technology can repress or amplify diversity. We just did a report for the Nature Conservancy on information technology and environmental sustainability — looking at the intersections of infotech, biotech, materials science, and energy. We hosted a meeting of companies with active interests in sustainability questions, trying to bring in knowledge about information technology trends and then look at opportunities at the intersection. It’s too close to call in terms of how it is all going to play out.

Optimistically, about the time the resources begin to dwindle we have the opportunity to completely interconnect the globe and come up with some global solutions to these systemic problems. On the other hand, there is a potential for information warfare and a kind of balkanization through information technology that fragments more than it unifies. The information warfare area is very scary, much more so than physical warfare.

Another dimension to information technology globalization is the fundamental leveling effect of information access. Does this fit in your perspective?

It fits in the sense that there’s a new economy emerging but we’re not at all sure yet what its dynamics will be. Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute and Stanford University has described “economies of increasing return” — network economies that can grow at the point where traditional economies reach the end of their cycle. We’re very interested in the intersection between diffusion of innovation and the new economy. What does that mean in terms of technology diffusion?

For example, how does viral marketing play out? In a recent meeting, Warren Packard of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, used a marvelous phrase, “global sneeze” in describing the process of viral marketing. If you’ve got a cold and want to pass it around you could shake hands with people one at a time, but if you want to spread it very efficiently, you sneeze. The marketing of the Blair Witch Project or Hotmail were like global branded viral electronic sneezes. There is a certain leveling effect as this new economic phenomenon hits. The Blair Witch Project had little money but a massive reach.

And, what are the ethics of viral marketing? Have you seen the Hotmail messages that say “free hotmail — if you want it click over here”? Originally, this message in the base of the text looked like it came from the sender as an endorsement, and then linked them to the site. Hotmail made an ethical decision to move their invitation to a very clear footer. They were a huge success anyway, but it was very interesting to see where their ethical threshold was set.

The IFTF has also explored the concept of “meaningful work.” What do you see?

The good news is that in the networked economy there is a lot of flexibility about who you work for. In effect, everybody can be a free agent. If you have your values clear you may have many more opportunities to find work that has meaning for you. The bad news is that it is going to be harder to find companies that build loyal, sustainable community. The problem with the current economy is that it emphasizes short term, individual self-interest so much that collective interest can get lost. It is very difficult to find meaning all by yourself — it is usually found in relationships with others and those relationships could get harder to find.

Information technology can either free an individual to think more creatively and have a more meaningful job or it can straitjacket them and stifle them. We haven’t thought enough about what kind of systems will sustain greater meaning and not just greater efficiency.

Creating a sustainable organizational structure requires a long-term view. Today’s short-term opportunism and the heavy emphasis on increasing stock prices as quickly as possible get in the way. The hopeful thing is that we see some emerging communities facilitated by electronic networks. Some of the communities that developed around Y2K concerns or even around the WTO protests were interesting community and Internet stories that, unfortunately, were overlooked in the craziness that surrounded them.
The more technology we have in the foreground the more people are going to become open to the spiritual side of life in the background.
Duane Elgin argues in The Promise Ahead (William Morrow & Co., 2000) that a growing number of people in the world are moving toward voluntary simplicity and thinking about purposeful lifestyles separate from the money they make. A very popular book right now, Your Money or Your Life, makes much the same point.

Do Clifford Stoll or Stewart Brand fit in here?

They’re really quite different. Stewart Brand has a long view of technology and life, with a sharp edge to his thinking. I find Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil a more aggressively negative, almost cynical book about technology. Duane Elgin is more of a visionary about voluntary simplicity who thinks technology might help. Stewart’s a visionary, Clifford’s a cynic, Duane’s a prophet.

It’s good to criticize technology, but it’s a question of how you do it. CPSR (Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility) has a bumper sticker that says “Question Technology.” I think that is a healthy perspective. Questioning technology is good because it is way too early to tell how it will play out.

Your bio says you also studied some theology. Is there a future for religion to impact the direction of our business and technology?

The more technology we have in the foreground, the more people are going to become open to the spiritual side of life in the background. Rather than technology replacing religion, I suspect we’re going to see more of an interest in the spiritual side of life.

One of the things that has come out of our research is that substitution effects are extremely rare. Everybody used to think that a new technology replaced an old one — for example, that video conferencing would replace face-to-face meetings and eliminate the need for airline travel. We have found such substitution so rare that one of our colleagues, Richard Dalton, has a rule of thumb “nothing replaces anything.” Everything I know about technology forecasting says that you’re dealing with a fundamental difference here and that no matter how good technology gets, it cannot replace human thought — or spirituality.