posted 3 Apr 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 7
Your Say: Planning to learn?
Scenario planning and knowledge managament
Although the association may not be immediately obvious, scenario planning and knowledge management share many fundamental characteristics. Simon Lelic talks to Nigel Oxbrow, Oliver Sparrow, Franz Tessun and Patrick van der Duin, and explores the relationship between the two disciplines.
Ostensibly perhaps, knowledge management and scenario planning share little in common in terms of processes or specific goals. Knowledge management is concerned primarily with the capture and dissemination of knowledge, and usually depends on a massive cultural transformation throughout the entire organisation. Scenario planning, on the other hand, is concerned with the creation of new knowledge – of possible futures – and can be as effective whether it is conducted in small, isolated teams, or involves employees from across the company. But at a more fundamental level, the two disciplines are closely linked. So much so, in fact, that many practitioners advocate a far stronger association between KM and scenario planning than that which currently exists.
“They can and should be intertwined,” says Nigel Oxbrow, chief executive at TFPL. “At TFPL’s third international CKO Summit held in Luttrellstown Castle in Dublin last October, one of the key learnings shared between the 18 CKOs who were there was that knowledge strategies should not only support business strategies, they should also transcend them. In other words, knowledge strategies should enable companies to understand how the market dynamics are changing so that business strategies can be constantly adapted.” In Oxbrow’s opinion, this perspective on the role of knowledge management brings it much closer to scenario planning than previously thought. And as Oliver Sparrow, director of the Chatham House Forum, suggests, both disciplines derive from an effort to understand how things work. “Models of this sort help teams to think about their operating environment,” he says. “They afford a common language for talking about complex issues and provide a framework within which the importance and relevance of options become apparent. They also offer a conceptual and often literal conduit through which different levels and silos in an organisation can communicate.”
In this way, scenario planning can help to lower those cultural barriers that exist within an organisation and that hinder knowledge sharing. “Any collaborative learning and group work that crosses functional divisions and silos will help to lower barriers,” says Oxbrow. “Regular scenario planning also encourages people to think out of the box, and therefore to start to understand the role and value of sharing information and knowledge across the business.” Patrick van der Duin, a scientist at KPN Research, agrees, suggesting that the use of scenarios, particularly at a corporate level, can help demonstrate to employees “that they are not living on an island, but are part of a bigger whole”. This is supported by the experience of Franz Tessun, vice president of knowledge and scenario management at EADS. Tessun describes a scenario workshop held in EADS with the three former European Aerospace companies, Aerospatiale-Matra, Dasa and Casa, which focused on the question: ‘What will the working environment of a manager in the aerospace industry look like in ten years time?’ According to Tessun, the discussions went a long way to building a common understanding among participants, as well as in creating a number of new networks.
By helping to foster a greater sense of organisational unity, scenario planning may also serve to encourage innovation among employees. “The greatest inhibition to innovation is uncertainty; as to the goals of the organisation, the methods through which to advance new ideas, and the language in which to couch these,” says Sparrow. “Good model-creation and model-sharing, coupled to inclusive processes, generates this confidence and insight.” Scenario planning can also act to open up new ways of thinking among employees by, in Oxbrow’s words, “encouraging people to think laterally and to see opportunities that they would not normally see in their day-to-day work”. In fact, in Tessun’s opinion, scenario planning and innovation management should be considered twins. “If you want to be successful with your innovation, you have to consider the business impact of this innovation in the future,” he says. “On the other hand, scenario planning can also help you to develop innovative ideas, which are needed for successful innovation management.”
A similar link exists between scenario planning and a company’s ability to generate knowledge. Van der Duin believes scenario planning can stimulate organisational learning in two main ways. “Firstly, by testing business cases and plans against scenarios,” he says. “In this way, it is possible to find out whether or not these plans are solid enough for future developments, and if the organisation is missing any trends.” Secondly, continues Van der Duin, scenarios can help to broaden the perspective of those involved. “Scenario learning or thinking opens the door to new things; new markets, new customers, new technologies and to new ways of realising the potential these discoveries hold for an organisation.” This is echoed by Tessun, who advocates working with scenarios as a means of showing people how to work more effectively in complex situations. “Especially in our environment, uncertainty is growing very fast, because the rate of change has increased rapidly over the last few years,” he says. “People who attend some scenario processes can get a better feeling of how to deal with uncertainty and complexity. They begin to understand where scenarios are helpful, and they communicate their experiences to other people. That is, in my opinion, the first step in organisational learning.”
It is perhaps logical to assume, therefore, that scenario planning will be more successful in an organisation with an established knowledge sharing culture. But this is not necessarily the case, argues Tessun. “We started about 20 years ago with scenario planning without having any idea about knowledge management at that time,” he says. Equally, Van der Duin highlights the potential danger of introducing yet another source of information, whether this is a scenarios exercise or any other type of project, into a culture that depends on its carefully constructed environment balancing knowledge sharing and information overload. Nevertheless, Tessun does highlight the importance of an “open culture, where people are open-minded and interested in the possible manifestations of the future”. And both Sparrow and Oxbrow seem to agree that an organisation in which people are already accustomed to sharing knowledge and to thinking about broader aspects of the business will offer a more receptive setting for scenario activities. “Also,” adds Oxbrow, “most successful knowledge activities are built around processes and workflows, so people will already be familiar with thinking in wider contexts.”
Looking at the relationship between the two disciplines from a slightly different angle, there is a general consensus that scenario planning has a great deal to contribute as an integrated component of an organisation’s knowledge management initiative. “Scenario planning has a valuable role to play in developing knowledge strategies and also in exploiting the learnings resulting from knowledge sharing to enhance the business and its services to clients,” says Oxbrow. And Van der Duin emphasises the value scenarios have in identifying the surrounding actors and influences that are important or may be important in the future to the organisation, thus also highlighting potentially valuable sources of information. But ultimately, according to Sparrow, both knowledge management and scenario planning are visible signs of something deeper. “It is the process that sociologists call ‘discourse’, by which people interpret their world into individual or collective models,” he says. “These models explain their experience and guide their actions. Good models are maps by which to navigate; bad maps do not show the rocks. The use of too many maps is a recipe for dispersion and muddle; a common but bad map is a pointer to lemming-like leaps off collective cliffs. The issue is how to get a good map and keep it good, for our operating terrain changes constantly. We need processes, mediated by knowledge bases and scenario processes, strategy reviews and assessments of intangibles and competencies; the list of tools is very long and never exhaustive, merely exhausting to implement. It is in the end, however, terminally exhausting not to have implemented it.”
There is clearly the potential for a considerable degree of overlap in both the theory and practice of scenario planning and knowledge management. Just as scenario planning can benefit from an organisational culture that embraces open-minded reasoning and encourages people to think in broader terms about business processes and goals, the technique can also help in the construction of an environment that revolves around these traits. At the very least, as Van der Duin says, scenarios offer a medium for structuring a significant part of the information available within an organisation, thus facilitating the cultivation of this information into knowledge. “Scenarios, by their very nature, are complete and consistent stories that can be used to put information in perspective,” he says. “Scenarios can transform singular pieces of information into coherent and solid knowledge, from which every employee within an organisation can benefit – now and in the future.”
Nigel Oxbrow is chief executive of TFPL Ltd. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Oliver Sparrow is the director of the Chatham House Forum. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Franz Tessun is vice president of Knowledge & Scenario Management at EADS. He can be contect at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick van der Duin is a scientists at KPN Research. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
If you would like to take part in a future Your Say discussion, please contact the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org