Peddling in Used Futures

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This stunning 1991 Holden Torana has to be seen to be believed. Only 230,000 kilometres on the clock and running like new. Clutch sticks occasionally and 2nd gear inoperable most of the time. New tyres and brake pads also needed. Small persistent oil leak but super clean leather interior and bright orange custom trims. No scratches on bodywork. Only one owner. Genuine bargain for someone who appreciates character and is willing to overlook a few minor flaws. Ideal for a senior citizen.

I have no idea what your reaction would be to this sales pitch. Personally I am not gullible enough to venture anywhere near this car. The advert shrieks of a cast-off wreck that would not make it out of the parking lot. Yet of one thing we can be sure. It will sell. There are always buyers looking for good deals. Some might even be duped – beguiled by the shiny exterior but failing to look under the hood.

You can snigger. We all know someone who purchased a second hand car at some stage, only to find out that they had bought a lemon. Such disasters waiting to happen are commonplace in the field of management consulting – especially when it comes to helping an enterprise prepare for its future.

For example, it recently came to my attention that one of the most eminent management gurus in the field of people and culture (he still quaintly refers to this as the HR community by the way) is marketing his management consulting prowess in the field of future human resources strategy. The irony is that his advisory work and research capabilities are clearly predicated on a few obsolete assumptions about how large corporations work (or should work) today. They betray enormous gaps in comprehending how work and the workforce is changing, and likely to change still further, over the coming decade.

There is absolutely no public evidence to suggest he and his colleagues have any appreciation of how new economies, social media, peer production, knowledge commons, co-working environments, disruptive innovation, social entrepreneurship, real-time planning methods, digital platforms, impact investment, networked data, artificial intelligence, the blockchain, or a myriad other factors, will turn his current assumptions inside-out and upside-down, thereby rendering his prior experience, and therefore his advice, utterly irrelevant.

His pronouncements on the changing nature of work are naïve. He speaks of leadership as though it is an advanced form of management. He talks of organisational development as though it hinged on training, and appears to view talent management through the eyes of a third-rate Hollywood agent. And yet this man is a highly-regarded professor. An award winning international consultant. Author of over 200 articles and 25 books. An acknowledged global authority in his field. In reality he is little more than a dinosaur in a digital world.

He might not realise that of course. But neither do his clients. And so it is highly probable they will pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars to give them strategic advice about how to prepare for a future neither of them truly comprehend – advice that could so easily damage their capability, and dent their confidence, to conduct business in a world turned upside-down.

In other words his worldview is grounded in outmoded ideas and theories. Although he may have known what he was talking about a decade ago, he has become a used futures salesman. In another career, with a slightly modified spiel, he could easily be the author of my used car advertisement at the top of this piece. For in spite of the fact that his lexicon is old-fashioned – actually quite probably because it is old-fashioned – his combined expertise and gravitas will doubtless create an aura of proficiency that speaks to many. But purely because of their mutual ignorance.

Meanwhile seriously competent foresight practitioners with extensive knowledge of current patterns and future trends abound. People capable of accurately helping any business through the maze of innovations, new regulations, and mindblowing disruptions that are occurring in the broader business ecosystem. People who remain under-valued and under-utilised. Foresight practitioners who are disapassionate witnesses of the future today.

So let me pose a serious question. If you are the Chairman, CEO or a senior executive of a large commercial enterprise, operating in a fiercely competitive and complex business environment, faced with critical uncertainties, and in need of accurate strategic insights regarding the future of your workplace, who are you going to call? The equivalent of a used car salesman who happens to have an illustrious international reputation based upon prior knowledge? Or someone who really does understand the future?

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