Does futurology have a place in social enterprise?

Making schedules, putting together plans and thinking about the year ahead are all integral elements of good business management – but for Carol Deslandes, head of strategic development at Inspire 2 Enterprise, this does not go far enough. 

Ellie Ward finds out why long-term strategic planning and an in-house futurologist lead to more effective business practise.

The concept of futurology in business is not about looking into crystal balls or reading packs of cards – it is a practical technique involving predicting future policy developments in order to ensure that your business is prepared for the unexpected. 

Inspire 2 Enterprise – a joint venture between the University of Northampton and business support provider Exemplas – is a social enterprise that provides a free social enterprise support, information and advice service.

Pioneers Post: What does your role as head of strategic development at Inspire 2 Enterprise involve?

Carol Deslandes: There are two critical elements – market making and market shaping. I look at how the social enterprise sector can shape their services in terms of the opportunities that exist.

I also think about the future and the policy developments that are coming out of government departments and how the sector can think about what their services will need to look in the future. 

Practical thinking

The online business dictionary defines business futurology as a “systematic attempt to predict future developments” through the study of historical and current trends for example. 

For big corporates with countless departments and money to spend on business forecasting, the idea of having a dedicated futurology team won’t be a daunting prospect. But for small social enterprises where budgets are already stretched and the priority is delivering core social aims, this prospect may seem ludicrous. 

PP: How can smaller organisations and social ventures implement an effective business futurology strategy?

CD: It’s similar to how you would plan your own personal life. You think about where you are currently at and what your aspirations are for the future. An organisation might have started off to address a particular social need for example, so they need to spent some time thinking about where they want to be in the future, what outcomes they want to deliver and what changes they want to effect. 

It can be difficult to set this time aside but it’s very difficult to move forward without looking at the bigger picture and just thinking about the immediate actions involved in service delivery. Theoretically, organisations should take the helicopter approach – zoom out, look at the big picture. 

It involves collecting a number of different bits of inspiration – your aspirations to start off with, what your values are, where they fit with the needs of individuals or groups and linking that to changes in policy, which you need to keep up to date with. 

Criticisms of futurology

The idea of futurology in business has generated a lively discussion among academics. In 2007, the Economist published an article declaring that futurology has no place in business – that yes predicting changes that might occur in the year ahead can be useful, but that looking forward even further than this is somewhat futile.

“You can still get away (as we do) with predicting trends in the world next year, but push the timeline out much further, and you might as well wear a t-shirt saying “crackpot”,” the article reads.

PP: How would you respond to the critics of futurology who believe the practice is futile?

CD: Sometimes the best innovation comes when you’re thinking the unthinkable and if you’re looking beyond a year it gives you the flexibility to do this.

Five years ago who would have said that most of the probation service would be up for grabs and would be reshaped in the radical way that it has been? 

That would have been an unthinkable thought but the organisations that were able to foresee this shift would probably have been able to put themselves in a really good position. It’s all about scenario planning and that’s really what looking to the future is about – the ‘what ifs’. 

What the future holds

As part of the European Commission’s event, Social Entrepreneurs: Have your say, which was held in Strasbourg in January this year, the British Council investigated how a group of social enterprise experts predict the sector will look in 2020. 

According to the report, the social enterprise sector should brace themselves for a world even more focussed on social impact measurement than that which exists already. The general consensus of the interviewees was that, “There may well not be a recognisable ‘social enterprise sector’ by 2020.”

“Attempts to confine social enterprise to specific legal structures or models of governance will have ceased. But the concepts and ideals of social enterprise will be spreading rapidly into all corners of society, becoming main-stream.”

Essentially, the report finds that social enterprise will no longer be considered a niche sector of business. The idea of delivering both social and financial return will increasingly become an ingrained element of businesses, charities and the public sector more generally. 

This may be a somewhat utopian and arguably simplistic vision of the future but one of the key elements of business futurology, which Carol Deslandes emphasises, is that it is important to prepare for the unexpected and embrace ideas that may initially seem unthinkable. 

Pioneers Post Business School content is delivered in partnership with Inspire2Enterprise. Inspire2Enterprise provide a unique, free-to-access social enterprise support, information and advice service – from start-up through to initial growth and beyond. Call them on 0844 9800 760 or visit www.inspire2enterprise.org to find out more.

Photo credit: Kristen Andrus, Flickr