Special Report: 20/20 Foresight

2020 Foresight Associations Now January/February 2018 Issue By: Mark Athitakis and Tim Ebner

When you see change clearly, you can build the future you want. A major new research initiative of the ASAE Foundation, ASAE ForesightWorks, has identified the sweeping trends most likely to affect associations in both the near and long-term future. Our special report looks at six of the 41 drivers of change identified in the research—and how associations are adapting to them today.

The future, like all unknown things, can be a scary place. But it can also be a place you know better.

Many associations do some form of planning ahead when they work on their five-year strategic plans. But even then, boards and staff leaders often think too narrowly—making program tweaks for the next few annual meetings, reshuffling member categories. To think more broadly about larger trends in society and technology can be seen as complex, intimidating, even irrelevant.

“Volunteer leaders and CEOs often focus on firefighting and dealing with the most current problems first,” says Sue Pine, CAE, vice president of professional development at Association Headquarters. “Boards especially tend to focus on just their own industry issues. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be having those conversations. But I think some discipline is required to look beyond the industry issues, to look into global trends.”

Pine served as cochair of the advisory group that guided development of ASAE ForesightWorks, a far-reaching research initiative of the ASAE Foundation that is designed to make looking into those trends more accessible and manageable. The research identified 41 “drivers of change,” in six broad categories, that are likely to have a significant impact on associations in the future.

Some of these trends have to do with broad political and economic forces, others with the ways everyday life is being reshaped. Not all will be relevant to every association in any given moment. But ForesightWorks resources on all 41 change drivers are meant to spark an essential conversation that associations too often neglect: What macro trends in the world will affect our ability to serve members in the next five, 10, and 15 years?

The strength of ForesightWorks is that it encompasses a variety of future-planning tools, says futurist Marsha Rhea, CAE, president of Signature i, a consulting firm that—along with Foresight Alliance—helped the foundation conduct the research. It includes what’s commonly called environmental scanning (gathering information on future trends), as well as forecasting (imagining what the future looks like, given those trends) and visioning (plotting a “preferred” future in light of multiple trends).

When there’s a lot of change in an industry, Rhea says, “that’s a time for visioning, and that’s a part of foresight. That’s saying, OK, given all these possibilities about the future, what’s the preferred future we would like to create with our vision, and where do we need to make changes as an organization to achieve it?”

Rhea stresses that engaging in foresight doesn’t mean you’re playing defense, responding to the storm clouds on the horizon. It can be used intentionally to plan technology investments, stress-test your business model, and kick off conversations with members and other stakeholders.

“One area that I think associations don’t do enough work in is using foresight as an idea starter, as an engine for innovation and business development,” she says.

The six short articles on the following pages offer a snapshot of how ForesightWorks change drivers are affecting associations and how they’re responding. And although thinking about the future might be intimidating, most associations should recognize that they’re not starting from scratch, Rhea says.

“We’re all, to some degree, already scanning, and probably at some level most association execs could name some pretty significant changes ahead for their field,” she says. “But what may be lacking is that discipline in processes and practices that lead to the follow-through and the actions in the organization.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.

Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.