A lot of changes have happened at Shaping Tomorrow, and users would have to read through several pages of text on the site to really understand the full extent of all these changes. So, we’ve invited Dr. Mike Jackson, Shaping Tomorrow’s co-founder and former Chairman, to speak more in depth about these changes and their benefits.
Mike, one of the most apparent changes recently launched on Shaping Tomorrow is the pay-as-you-go model. Can you tell us a little about what led to the decision to include this model and how it will help clients and partners?
The initiating force for the pay-as-you-go model was our reading of a book called Consumption Economics [ J.B. Wood, Todd Hewlin and Thomas Lah]. While the book was long and very boring to read because it repeated itself over and over, it made the strong point that subscription based models are dying away in favor of app based pricing. An analogy for that is how low cost airlines have changed the way airlines work, and we thought we could do the same thing with Shaping Tomorrow in offering our tools and content to our members for a few dollars only instead of asking them to pay large subscription fees.
Our site is still free to use in public mode by our members. And our clients still continue to pay annual subscription fees for their own private, multi-license, own-branded sites, but now members can also choose to consume our services as and when they want. For less than a dollar, in most cases, they can keep their work private, and if they are a consultant or just one member of an organization doing foresight, they can do this very cheaply and quickly.
So why did we do it? We were clearly seeing that the book was saying consumption economics could be a threat to us. Our first reason for doing this was purely defensive. If someone else comes out with app based pricing, we’re in the position that we don’t have to invent it. We already have it, and we can respond very quickly. The second point is that with app based pricing we now have an offensive model that should disrupt the large consulting firms that charge a lot of money to do something that people can now do themselves.
Why is it important for Shaping Tomorrow to be cheaper?
Good question. One of the things we did before launching the site was a member survey. We have a very wide ranging group of members. We have some of the largest organizations in the world working with us, some medium sized ones, lots of small ones and lots of individual consultants and members. What was very clear from our survey was that austerity programs over the years have severely cut back on people’s ability to buy anything. Most respondents made it clear that their budget restraints mean they can’t do expensive projects anymore but that they still need strategic foresight.
So, this is our response to that survey: you don’t have to waste time and money or, even worse, avoid doing anything at all because you can’t afford to. We can give you the price you want, and you can now do an awful lot of work with very little money.
We’ve already seen a little about how the extractor works. What do you personally expect it to do for clients and partners?
Well, first I want to credit Walter Kehl. He came to us with some of his ideas for automating certain aspects of our site and the foresight process. So, we allowed him to work on that with little understanding of what we would get but with our full support. Over the last nine months or so, he’s developed a program that’s allowed members to extract and analyze Insights with little human intervention. Now, it isn’t perfect and we are working with Walter to improve it further, but our own tests show it is about 80% accurate already. It still requires a bit of editing from contributors. It also still requires the signal strength and impact to be entered in and a choice about what the privacy is going to be. But, it’s already cut every scanners’ time in half, and it produces better results than humans can do.
This is going to give us the ability to create all sorts of mind maps and statistical analysis about the future from the machine’s input. So, you’ll soon see lots of automated intelligence that will help someone who is trying to do a lot of work quickly to get good insights, great understanding of the drivers of change with the evidence behind it, but without having to do the hard work of scouring the web to find materials. So, our clients are going to benefit by saving on time and costs and from the gains made in better output.
Back in May, you tweeted “just ran a fully collaborative strategic foresight project in Canberra in record breaking 3 days on synbio that used to take months!” You followed up with, “system automation eliminated almost all the drudge work and parallel collaboration makes big time saves”. Can you tell us a little more about the automation? Did the Extractor have anything to do with this?
No that is completely different. Our intent is to try and take all of the drudgery and waste out of strategic foresight. And anyone who has done strategy, foresight, and change know that an awful lot of time goes missing as a result of the need to have meetings. Personnel changes cause things to start again, priority changes in a business cause things to get delayed, and all of this means foresight projects take a long while to do. So gradually over the last five years we began to automate a model of how a strategic foresight project should be done that was first developed by Joe Coates, a consulting futurist in the States and one of the most well-known futurists.
Australia was the first time where we did this, but we’ve done several since. We were invited to go and talk about the future of synthetic biology with a group of ten people, only one of whom knew much about synthetic biology. We spent about an hour talking to them about their question and getting agreement on what exactly the question was that they wanted to answer. The machine has a built in algorithm that says, “I know your question so I can go away and find material for you about the future of synthetic biology which will help you improve your question and be the basis for a literature review.” That took about an hour, and then another hour was spent on doing the literature review. And not only is this process reducing the waste and drudgery by using AI, but one of the key things about it is the collaborative nature means ten people sitting in a room focusing on different aspects of answering the question and bringing it together into one collaborative process is far quicker than people doing bits and pieces and having to hold various meetings at different times.
In the afternoon, they looked at what that literature review meant, prioritizing the themes they had discovered, electronically interviewing each other and interviewing others on what they thought the future of synthetic biology was. By the end of the day, they had done their basic research, and they’d started to write what we call a deep dive. Again, they did that collaboratively, and they wrote a research brief in less than a day that they could present to any official on the future of synthetic biology in terms of what their anticipated capabilities are, who and what to watch, and what the likely scenarios are.
Now at the end of the meeting, they decided they were going to write this up properly and assigned one person to do that with the other nine people acting as editors, reviewers and thought producers. They then did qualitative and quantitative analysis—looking at their own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in terms of synthetic biology—and analysed where synthetic biology was in terms of the priorities of their organization and came to the conclusion that this was not a high priority, but was something that was growing and emerging. They determined that as such this was something that they should watch, and continue scanning for signs of growth. At the same time they decided they should finish the brief and present it within the organization to find the resources to continue the effort.
Projects like this usually take three to six months, sometimes far longer, because of the waste of time and a lack of understanding of getting from A to B. So, this is a very exciting process for us, and we are continuing to automate it, speed it up, and find new ways to make it possible for anyone who doesn’t know about foresight to do strategic foresight for themselves.
Shaping Tomorrow has also added to its suite of 100+ scenario planning, modeling and forecasting tools and made them all fully collaborative. First, can you give an example or two of these new tools and why they were added?
One is that we’ve built in a whole series of innovation tools. When Shaping Tomorrow started, we were just focusing on foresight, but we realized over the years that foresight is converging with risk management, innovation management, and knowledge management. So, we’ve now built a suite of innovation tools integrated within our system.
Similarly, we’ve been getting a lot of requests from clients to follow their competitors and to do competitive futures intelligence; not traditional BI. We now have a suite of tools that follow competitors and scan the horizon—again using the Extractor—for what competitors are doing. And, we’ve added a suite of tools for analyzing how to evaluate a competitor, how to exploit rivalries in an industry, how to find ways to extract information about a competitor that isn’t on the web, etc. These tools help users think about ways to compete more effectively against rivals.
Many of these competitor tools are suitable for defense analysts too. So, we also now have a whole range of tools for military and security analysts to evaluate emerging threats, monitor progress and determine responses.
How does the collaborative aspect differ from the old site?
It doesn’t. We’ve been a crowd-sourced organization for maybe eight years now, and everything we’ve been building has been collaborative. But, we’re expecting that by Christmas you can invite people who are not members to work with you on a particular issue, on a particular day and provide their input through the new pay-as-you go-process. So, we’re extending the collaboration to external experts who aren’t clients or even members of Shaping Tomorrow but who can give deeper insight to the process for our members and clients.
The press release highlights the structural changes to the site that make it more versatile across device platforms and languages. Has this been a major request from clients?
Well, the answer is yes, but the request mainly came from ourselves. The site was getting bureaucratic and hard to use. As we were building the things that our clients asked us for, the market was moving toward tablets and away from PCs and to the cloud and away from our own servers, etc. So, we decided about 18 months ago that we wanted to start Shaping Tomorrow again and build a system the likes of which we would have built 10 years ago if we’d had the capability or the knowledge and the tools that now exist on the web. So, we asked ourselves, “If we did it again from scratch, what would it look like?” The result is what you see.
We’ve had a lot of good innovations from this tear-down process particularly because we’ve had to do things differently and as a result, the number of buttons on the site has gone down by about 75%, the amount of web text has gone down by about 60%, and we’ve managed to squeeze much more information into what are essentially two pages. There is now only a front page and a database page. The old site had six different pages and five different relationship pages. Now, there’s only one relationship database, and it runs far faster and smoother. We’ve straightened out all of the learning over the past ten years to get there, and we continue to look for ways to simplify what is a very complex product. Foresight has never been something that is easy to grasp, but we are trying to make foresight itself as well as our website simpler and easier for people to use. We think this is a big step in that direction.
Is there a mobile app in the works?
Yes, we will be announcing very shortly ways for people to be using our tools as apps. So, you’ll be able to use our tools without entering the Shaping Tomorrow website, and although all the information will be on Shaping Tomorrow, you’ll be seeing it on the app.
How has Shaping Tomorrow improved its vocational, competency certification system for contributors?
We started out with the idea that we wanted to use the activities that people did on the site to gamify the system and to be able to say who were the top contributors each day and to be able to tell people how much their contribution was valued. We realized then we could turn site activities into an overall position where we could show people how many continuous professional development hours they’d spent on the site each year and a certificate that gave them a status level. And we’ve had that process for about 4 or 5 years, but we’ve recently turned it into a certification process.
We’re now beginning to use MOOCs. Our first course in association with Peter von Stackelberg went live on 21st October to more than 2,200 people. It was oversubscribed by more than 10% and we had to get some more licenses. The students are taking a Project Management course, but there will be an elective module in there that will teach them about project management of foresight projects. Our next venture into this process is to link the MOOC and the course so that people taking it will get their vocational training and their certificates from Shaping Tomorrow. So we envisage a process where vocational and academic training will be integrated into Shaping Tomorrow, and we are taking the baby steps to accomplish that.
What changes have affected the site’s Networking capabilities?
It’s simpler, and we have made the service multi-lingual opening up the site to the world and not just to the five percent of English speakers. We’ve also built some new tools into it. There are some personal futures tools that I would thoroughly recommend anyone to use. Some of these tools, I’ve been using throughout my life, and I can remember using one of these tools when I was 19 without knowing I was using such a tool. They’ve certainly helped me to think about where I was heading and what I wanted to achieve and what was standing in my way. We have plans for more tools, and we certainly want to expand and improve our social networking capabilities.
Now, let’s talk a little about the rebranding. You’ve explained that the new logo symbolizes: ‘first widening exploration of a defined issue and then narrowing it down through systematic analysis to determine a new tomorrow for you and your organization.’ That’s a great representation of what Shaping Tomorrow does. Was it important to you that the new logo tell this specific story?
As part of the process of redesigning the site, we asked the brand agency to work with us on the colors for the site and its look and feel. And we gave them chapter and verse of what Shaping Tomorrow was attempting to be and where its differentiations were in the marketplace, etc. They came back with about thirty different ways we could represent Shaping Tomorrow in different styles for a new logo. We thought the old logo was tired and we wanted something more modern. We took their thirty versions and narrowed it down to about three. They worked on the three and gave us about ten versions for each of those. The arrow stuck out as the one our nearest and dearest liked the best.
What I like about it is that it’s directional because I don’t think strategic foresight is about going off in all directions. I liked the idea that it symbolizes a widening out of research into something we want to know about and then narrowing down to the decision we want to make. I like the representation of the arrow as flying towards a specific target and achieving something that a company or individual wants to do.
What was wrong with the old logo, and what made you decide to change the logo now after ten years?
Because we felt the old brand was tired. Because the people we’ve been working with in the design space have told us we should be more Web 2.0, Web 3.0 design focused. It was a difficult decision for us. We’ve tried to redesign probably three times in the past ten years, but we’ve never reached a conclusion because we never saw something that inspired us. This time around, we did get inspired. Everyone was inspired out of the process. When we showed people from our User Council, we had a ten out of ten vote saying this is what we should be doing.
Have you had any negative feedback about any of the changes?
None. We’ve had some really great feedback which is on our site. We had six bugs in the first week, four of which were invisible to users that were immediately fixed. Two of which were visible to users, but they were minor bugs. Only two users noticed the bugs, and they’ve been fixed.
What has been your favorite response so far to the changes?
Well, let me give you three perspectives. I think one from the futurist community would be from Sohail Inayatullah, who is currently at Queensland Institute of Technology. Sohail has been voted by our many thousands of members as one of the top five best ever futurists, so I take this as a real compliment. He said, “Shaping Tomorrow is the best, most significant, relevant and innovative strategic foresight organization today.”
Another one is from a high-powered consultant in the United Arab Emirates. Just give me a second to find it. He said, “The power and influence you have created with our big Middle Eastern client is unbelievable! They keep telling me all the time that ‘What Shaping Tomorrow is doing is extraordinary and unbelievable!’ We look forward to many more joint assignments with our clients.”
Choosing my favorite is difficult, but there’s one from Joyce Gioia which I think everyone was delighted with. “When you really get into it, explore their site, and see all of the valuable information in their database, you’ll see that Shaping Tomorrow’s website is truly a gift to humanity.” We were all touched by that comment, and it’s spurred us on to do even more.