Futurizing Business Education; Global Competition, Accelerating Technological Transformation, and a Myriad of Other Forces Are Altering the Business Landscape. a Futurist and Business Educator Offers Lessons to Guide Tomorrow's Business Leaders through Turbulent Times

By Bracken, Paul | The Futurist, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Futurizing Business Education; Global Competition, Accelerating Technological Transformation, and a Myriad of Other Forces Are Altering the Business Landscape. a Futurist and Business Educator Offers Lessons to Guide Tomorrow's Business Leaders through Turbulent Times


Bracken, Paul, The Futurist


Good communication and teamwork are critical leadership skills. In a stable world, they are often enough to bring success. But in a turbulent world, they are not enough. They need to be complemented by a new set of leadership abilities. Turbulence is usually thought of as something bad, but it can be a real positive for those with foresight and the agility to act on what they see. Turbulence means more big problems and opportunities. The ability to take advantage of these is a crucial leadership skill for the twenty-first century.

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For many years I have helped business and government deal with the rapidly changing conditions that each faces. But in 2007 I was asked to do something different. As part of a remodeling of Yale's MBA and Executive Education programs, I designed a course that taught foresight and agility. I immediately turned to scenarios as a basic building block of the course. Scenarios are powerful tools for thinking through a wide range of problems from different perspectives. But finding the right kinds of scenarios and related methods for a course was something I had never faced before.

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A Turbulent World

The global business environment is becoming more turbulent. Companies are facing complex situations for which there is little or no experience. It isn't difficult to identify the drivers behind this. Although their importance varies by industry, four major developments characterize today's business environment.

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First, technology is transforming one industry after another, from telecommunications to finance. Second, political risks are becoming more important. Choices about accounting rules in Russia or technical standards for mobile phones in China are mode not just on efficiency grounds, but also to give one company advantage over another. In the United States, likewise, standards for college loans, Medicare reimbursement, and regulation of adjustable-rate mortgages have a high political content to them, whether we like it or not. Being on the wrong side of these decisions can destroy a tremendous amount of corporate value.

A third trend is the blurring of industry boundaries, with interlopers attacking new sectors outside their traditional domain. Examples: cable companies selling telephone service, Wal-Marts with health clinics, local banks offering financial services, Starbucks showcasing and selling music, and nearly everyone selling credit cards. We use terms like "cable TV," "store," "bank," and "coffee shop" as if these labels described the business these companies were in. They once did. But now it seems that nearly everyone is going after new markets beyond their own.

Finally, new competitors are appearing with different strategic personalities than traditional compa-nies. Business capitalism was once a Western club. But it's now getting more "democratic" as multinational corporations from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and others compete globally. Gazprom and Lukoil (Russia), Haier and Lenovo (China), Infosys and Mahindra (India), Petrobras and Embraer (Brazil) are vying to become the General Electrics and Toyotas of the twenty-first century.

New Leadership Skills

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A turbulent world requires new kinds of leadership abilities. At one time, sticking to your craft and making modest improvements in it guaranteed success. No longer. Increasingly, foresight and agility are needed to stay ahead of the game. Surprisingly, foresight and agility have not received the emphasis that has been given to traditional leadership skills such as good communication and teamwork.

We can see the new skills at work in dynamic industries that thrive on turbulence. Ronald Cohen, a respected leader in private equity, argues that instability and uncertainty favor leaders with foresight. His book's title, The Second Bounce of the Ball (Orion, 2007), comes from foreseeing where a bouncing ball is headed. …

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Futurizing Business Education; Global Competition, Accelerating Technological Transformation, and a Myriad of Other Forces Are Altering the Business Landscape. a Futurist and Business Educator Offers Lessons to Guide Tomorrow's Business Leaders through Turbulent Times
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