A little 'what if' can save you a big 'oh no'.
For months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, scenario planning authority Juval Aviv had been quietly warning US law enforcement agencies, the American Bar Association and US business interests that America was in imminent danger of assault.
"Based on information we had developed in Europe and the Middle East, there were warnings of a very big event coming up in America," says the anti-terrorist expert. "It was even discussing the use of airlines, hijacking . . . not specifically targeted at the Twin Towers, but based on experience in the 60s, 70s and 80s, we always knew that the terrorist networks' dream was to hit monuments and buildings that represent the power of America."
But like Cassandra of Greek mythology whose fate was to foresee the future but whose predictions were always ignored, Aviv's warnings went largely unheeded despite his intelligence links and years of experience.
A special consultant to the FBI on issues of Middle Eastern terrorism for more than a decade, Aviv formerly served in an elite Commando/Intelligence Unit of the Israel Defence Force. He hunted down and brought to justice the terrorists responsible for the Munich Olympic Games murders in 1972 on behalf of the Israel Secret Service (Mossad) and was Pan Am Airways' lead investigator into the Pan Am 103-Lockerbie bombing. His company, Interfor Incorporated, provides corporate intelligence to Fortune 500 companies, US and foreign law firms, major banks, insurers and governmental agencies, including information on terrorism. But wherever he tried to warn about an imminent terrorist threat in the months before September 11, he was accused of seeing terrorists under every tree.
Even those experts who weren't surprised to see the terrorists resort to that kind of attack were amazed at the ease with which the attacks of September 11 were committed and their ultimate horrifying success. Aviv thinks in their wildest dreams neither the terrorists nor law enforcement officers believed any foreseeable attack would result in such devastation. But that belief merely reinforces the need "to always prepare for the worst" in the mind of the man with more than 20 years' experience conducting vulnerability studies and scenario planning.
Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and there's no doubt those organisations that were prepared for the worst fared best in the aftermath of the attacks. Aviv says at least the attacks have - if somewhat belatedly - aroused a tremendous amount of interest in scenario planning and disaster preparedness amongst US business interests.
"I think corporate America woke up to realise that America and Canada were not immune against terrorism; that they had had the luxury of years really not investing enough in prevention and security and safety. They really got away with, I would say, murder to not invest, to not prepare, and we're paying for it now," Aviv says.
Similarly, the tragic events of September 11 have convinced many Australian organisations to consider more directly how to cope with the uncertainty of the future. Proponents say scenario planning is gaining new currency as organisations contemplate how they would react in the face of attack.
It is a response that gets Aviv's total endorsement. He possesses no information that would suggest Australia is currently a terrorist target. But he warns that such situations are disconcertingly fluid, and that since disaster preparedness takes time, the time to institute protection is now. "I'm not suggesting that you are as exposed by any means as Europe or North America right now; however, you never know how things shift," he says. "People didn't believe that it would ever come to America and it did arrive. Since the world has changed, become more violent, the world is much more exposed to terrorism of any kind.
"I think it's more cost-effective to start slowly to get into the 21st century and acquire the minimum logical security for your facility. When you do it slowly and in stages you have plenty of time to choose the right system, plenty of time to bring in cost-effective equipment, enough time to train people, there's no rush in it. Once it is done and you just need to upgrade, it is like buying a computer that has features that could be upgraded in the future at minimal cost. If you have to do it all under an emergency crisis: a) most of it won't be available, b) it's costly, and c) you have already lost time, business and maybe life."
Heeding the Call
It seems some Australian businesses are taking such calls very seriously indeed. Trudi Lang, manager of the Scenario Planning and Research Unit (SPARU) at Curtin University's Graduate School of Business, says since the terrorist attacks there has been a perceptible change of attitude towards the work of centres such as the SPARU.
Curtin is the only Australian university with a dedicated unit using scenario planning to undertake specific projects for clients. SPARU experts have been teaching and consulting in Australia and internationally for some six years. The unit uses scenario planning to help organisations better position themselves to compete in global markets by exploring future possibilities and preparing for many eventualities. Organisations like British Airways, Shell and the United Nations use scenario planning as a comprehensive way to understand emerging issues and trends.
"Scenarios are a tool for helping us to take a long view in a world of great uncertainty," says Peter Schwartz, chair of the Global Business Network and author of The Art of the Long View. "Scenarios are stories about the way the world might turn out tomorrow, stories that can help us recognise and adapt to changing aspects of our present environment. They form a method for articulating the different pathways that might exist for you tomorrow and finding your appropriate movements down each of those possible paths. Scenario planning is about making choices today with an understanding of how they might turn out."
Scenario planning also recognises that prevention is much more cost-effective than cure and that certain procedures and areas of security cannot be created overnight. And taken seriously, it can help insulate companies against nasty shocks. Past SPARU projects have considered scenarios such as terrorist attacks on public infrastructure, cyberterrorism and major technological developments that might fundamentally alter the way organisations do business.
Lang says the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks have prompted more organisations to ask how to plan in such an uncertain environment. There is now strong interest in better understanding the implications of terrorism and this type of war on business. For instance, she noted a perceptible change of attitude amongst attendees of a workshop held on September 12 and 13, with participants far more open to considering a variety of worst case scenarios.
Hugh Pattinson, coordinator e-business marketing programs at the University of Technology, Sydney, says since September 11 managers have realised the level of uncertainty "has lifted significantly".
"I think the realisation that large companies could be a few weeks away from bankruptcy or great financial difficulty at any time rages on people's minds a lot more. An example of that is that I ran an e-business marketing course about a month and a half after the event . . . I did the last session and we started to talk about scenarios because everybody realised just how uncertain things had become," Pattinson says.
Peter Sfoglia, a partner in Ernst & Young's national Security & Technology Solutions Group, says since the attacks, two major components of disaster recovery planning have significantly developed.
In human resources, scenarios are widening to include terrorism, he says. "The people component is being rethought. Because no one expected a disaster of that magnitude, corporations have responded to the attacks with a heightened awareness of the types of scenarios they need to address. Not only does scenario planning have to consider the physical elements of a business, like the technology, intellectual property, files, and so on. but also now, corporations are prioritising people in scenario planning," Sfoglia says.
Meanwhile in technology, security corporations are seriously addressing the problem of hacking of Internet systems, a virtually free and easy attack that can be as destructive as any physical attack, but without the human casualties. "We're seeing a higher degree of technology security awareness, and corporate budgets are freeing up to include technology security measures," Sfoglia says.
An Ounce of Prevention
There would have been very few businesses whose plans pre-September 11 factored in anything like the devastating attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. That should not necessarily be seen as a failure of the scenario planning process, Lang argues. It is more a reflection of the fact that people are naturally conservative when thinking about the future.
"It's very hard to get many of us to think about the things that are kind of wild cards, if you like, or the things that put us outside our comfort zone. Scenario planning has been criticised in the past for not taking into account events like September 11, but that's largely because the people in the groups formulating plans for organisations don't contemplate such ideas; they just say: 'That's ridiculous. Why are you putting that sort of stuff in a scenario? That's crazy.'"Should people be looking to include asteroids crashing into the planet or other unlikely events in scenario plans? I guess the most important thing with scenario planning is it at least gets people systematically asking the 'What if?' question. It gets people conversing with the future or conversing with some of the major risks that possibly could happen to the organisation," Lang says.
Scenario planning may also help organisations pick up signals such as intelligence about terrorist threats, by leaving them more open to possibilities. "Sure you wouldn't have thought through what happened to the World Trade Centre, but if you were tuned in you might have been looking for some of the smaller terrorist attacks or the sorts of things that might have led up to a bigger terrorist attack," Lang says.
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organ-isation (ANSTO) did just that when it considered in 1997 what would happen should a passenger aircraft be crashed into HIFAR, ANSTO's High Flux Australian Reactor. (It concluded if it ever happened, the precautions recommended in ANSTO's emergency would be appropriate and adequate.) And the Australian Centre for Innovation and International Competitiveness (ACIIC) executive director, Ron Johnston, recently checked about 100 scenarios constructed by the centre for clients over the last five or six years in all sorts of different situations. He found five of them posited a breakdown of national security (typically not in Australia) involving terrorism.
"What was interesting to me is that all of them said the physical impact would not be the crucial thing, it would be the psychological and symbolic impact. I think September 11 has just been a classic example of that," he told Radio National recently.
So September 11 shows the importance of having resilient plans which can protect the organisation and position it for growth whatever the future might hold. At its best, scenario planning should posit a range of possible futures (threats and opportunities), develop strategies to counter all of them then evaluate each on measures of effectiveness and resilience.
Kung Fu for Corporations
The CRC for Enterprise Distributed Systems Technology (DSTC) began scenario planning in 1996, largely directed at deciding its optimal research focus five years into the future. Senior research scientist Andrew Wood says the organisation has picked scenario planning up again recently, particularly in the context of September 11. He says the organisation sees scenario planning as an ongoing process designed to ensure the organisation is never surprised by current events.
"I think of it almost like Kung Fu for corporations. It's just preparing yourself for any kind of eventuality that you mightn't particularly like, but at least that you won't be shocked by, so you can take appropriate action in the face of events without being stunned," Wood says.
He says organisations should see scenario planning as an ongoing dialogue that could help them interpret the present in terms of the possible future. "My advice is to not think of it as a kind of problem solver directly. It's more just that you have a dialogue where you're able to talk about social and political and economic change, and you've got a framework to discuss those issues and how they affect your organisation."
Meanwhile Pattinson says he advises organisations to compile a list of perhaps 20 or 30 "wild card" events such as explosions, volcanic eruptions or wars, on the grounds that at least one of them has a good chance of happening in any one year. "Now that can be a worldwide event like September 11, but when we're looking in the business area it could equally be a sudden new technology, like the Internet or optical fibre that just changes the whole rules of the game of how business works.
"Scenario planning on the one hand can be used to plan for risk, which is the traditional Shell way of looking at oil prices: it did some scenario planning in the late 60s and had some provisions in place when the oil crisis hit in the 70s. Shell is probably the most well-known scenario planner in the world. But the other side of it is, if you can see emerging trends with various technologies, then as an IT provider or software developer or something like that you can then get on the coat-tails that drive that as a future opportunity for your company."
Do Not Overreact
But while scenario planning always has value, Strategic Planning Group managing director James Crown warns organisations against overreacting to the events of September 11.
He says from a risk management point of view the likelihood of such an event hitting downtown Sydney is so small, and the consequences so grave, that it is usually enough simply to formulate some contingency plans against such events, then ensure business continuity plans are in place.
Crown starts every scenario planning exercise for clients with a quick audit of measures they have in place in four areas:
How well have they structured their strategic and operational risk management.
Whether disaster recovery and business continuity plans are in good shape and easily accessible in event of disaster.
Whether there is a good issues management six-step process in place that will prevent most issues from becoming a crisis.
The effectiveness of crisis management plans, including in relation to media relations.
"I think it's been made very clear that even if we're a small business or a mid-size business operating somewhere like Australia, international events have an enormous and immediate impact upon us," Crown says. "That even though you can be a long way from Europe and America, you're not in many senses. We're very much connected, and I think what was happening with the stock markets and Wall Street after September 11 obviously had an immediate impact on us.
"People are saying also that organisations that operate overseas really need to be looking at this rise in Islamic fundamentalism around the world and what it means for capitalism. The whole movement towards world trade has assumed a fairly free flow of goods and services, but what if you actually do get a much tougher rise towards anti-globalisation pressures? It may be in the form of Islamic fundamentalism or some of the other things we've seen like S11. What does that do for global commerce?
"And I think for companies that operate in some of these hot spots it's a question that they should at least build a scenario around, or think about the impact of these sorts of forces on doing business in those areas," he says. vVisionaries Wanted: Apply HereWithout visionaries and appropriate leadership, much of the potential of the progress and innovation that will occur in the coming years will be squandered or ignored under a growing backlash against change, Bob Hayward, Gartner senior vice-president of business development and research Asia Pacific, warned the 2001 Gartner Symposium.
Urging business to make greater user of scenario planning, to think outside the square and to consider wider issues that confront our society today, Hayward said greater certainty about the future can be achieved by incorporating future-related thinking into business projects.
"We need to leverage our business and technology leadership skills to challenge current thought processes. Instead of just focusing on the time-to-market pressures of implementing Internet strategies and aligning IT with tactical revenue growth, we as a group of technology strategists also need to focus on how we might use technology to tackle broader issues that confront society," he said.
"Optimists and pessimists need to change seats - optimists should look out for pitfalls and pessimists should believe that breakthroughs and triumphs can occur. Most importantly, each should be able to recognise real and significant change when it does occur."
Hayward advised business to use scenario planning in ways that prepare an organisation for a multitude of circumstances and help it to manage uncertainty by offering options against any eventuality.
"The unpredictability of the world makes this form of planning an imperative. Scenarios allow a manager to say: 'I am prepared for whatever happens.' They are not predictions - they present alternative images of the future and provide vehicles that help people to learn," he said.
" . . . To cope, you need strategies and you need to plan . . . I believe that the best way to plan for an uncertain future is to develop scenarios that prepare you for any outcome, rather than rigid forecasts. Even shining a dim light on the future is better than proceeding blindly," he said.
A New World Ordered
Around the globe today, 50 per cent of children under the age of 12 are being raised under Islam. The largest school in Australia is an Islamic school. Forty per cent of the world's population was Anglo-Celt 100 years ago. Today the figure stands at just 12 per cent and population projections suggest that in 100 years time it will be 4 per cent. In 10 years time most of the world's decision-makers in their early 20s will have had an Islamic upbringing.
"The world is shifting very much to a 'brown', if you like, non-Christian world," says Dr Robert Burke, program director for Customised Management Development at Mt Eliza Business School in Melbourne and managing director of Futureware Corporation. Scenario planners have not only to take those facts into account, but learn to think more like Muslims, he says. "We're brought up very much with a Judaic-Christian way of knowing, but there are other ways of knowing, such as Islam."
And that Islamic way of knowing incorporates much more long-term thinking. The Western world view tends to discount the future and concentrate on the here and now. Muslims in general and some terrorists in particular have other "ways of knowing", incorporating a vastly longer-term focus.
"I think that we're going to have to evolve a better world view, if you like, a much more eco-centric world view. One that says we are part of the planet, but we're not owners of it, as the Western world says we are. In order for us to survive we're going have to be able to think a little differently, think a little bit more holistically."
Burke says the implications for futures planners of the events of September 11 are broad. For instance, most strategic planning to date has revolved around acceptance of the free-market economy, which he says was "blown out of the water" by September 11. "Applied futures thinking" must consider the drivers and trends happening outside the business which are likely to affect the business.
Burke believes one of the most major trends of all is the drive to global governance.
"Now there are several people, I'm one of them, who believe in 15 to 20 years we'll have a global government system, that the idea of national borders is becoming less and less relevant. Organisations don't recognise them. And we have several organisations bigger than lots of countries. So perhaps an organisational model may evolve that is all about equity, that is a deeper sort of democracy than the shallow sort of democracy we have at the moment."