(With apologies to Robert A. Heinlein)

Strictly speaking, predicting the future isn’t just hard — it is impossible.

Yet predicting the future is something testers are called on to every day, with so simple a question as “will the customer be happy with this version of the product?”

For that matter, is something project managers do every time they create a product plan, something management does every time it produces an annual plan.

We could joke around all day about the impossibility of fortune-telling or the fantasyland that many project plans reside in, but the reality is that we do have to plan for tomorrow.

Likewise, I can’t say for certain if you’ll get up next monday and go to work; with a few thousand readers, it’s likely that some will be sick or on vacation or something … but I might be certain enough to bet on it.

I don’t have a problem with this sort of analysis and educating guessing. We have to do it, and, if you do it well, over time, you can have better results than your peers.

That takes me to the annual futures study produced by the American Society for Quality.

As some of you readers know, I was invited to be a member in the ASQ “influential voices” program, which involves writing blog responses to their own monthly blog post. This month’s entry is about that annual futures study.

The ideas behind the study make sense — to observe the changing landscape of industry that impacts the quality professional, and provide you information about those changes so you can react. This year the study identified eight issues, which I will (briefly) summarize below:

1) Social Responsibility. Government and popular pressures are causing companies to take the environment, sustainability of the business, and how they treat everyone in their supply chain a lot more seriously. The ASQ analysis indicates this is not about philanthropy, but about better business and profit.

2) Consumer Awareness. This blends with #1; people are using new tools to do more research on the companies they purchase from. Get on the bus, or people will purchase around you.

3) Globalization. Not a whole lot of meat here. The study says globalization is coming (check it out; I wrote that in 2003!), which will bring new opportunities, new markets, and new potential suppliers, but also transportation and oversight challenges. They do point out that consumers (I really dislike that term) are more and more interested in locally-sourced products. That’s a fancy term to say “I’d like to buy vegetables grown by a neighbor, not ones shipped from a different continent.”

4) Increased pace of change. Nanotechnology, reduced product cycles, and within our grasp is the potential to solve some of these enduring problems of our age like HIV, hunger, etc. It’s a truism, but I’m not sure what to do with it. In his book, The Management Myth, author Matthew Stewart points out that the management literature has been talking about these problems for at least the past thirty years, going back to “In Search of Excellence” in 1982.

5) The Workforce of the future. Okay, I have real concerns over this one. Here’s what they wrote:

The Workforce of the Future will challenge our notions of talent, work, workplace, and learning. While hard to fathom we’re being told unemployment, as we think of it, will become a thing of the past. The number of jobs will soon exceed the number of people available to fill them. Demographers predict organizations will find themselves competing for talent and that competition will move jobs around the globe. High tech companies already report this reality. This search for talent, along with technological advances will change the nature and place where work is done and organizations will grow increasingly flexible in their definitions of work engagements. Those who of retirement age will be re‐attracted to work with flexible hour arrangements and work that can be done without commuting.

I’m not sure if these authors are incompetent and full of happy-talk, or scarily competent and using very specific words for a specific reason, to convey one feeling but actually mean another.

Take for example the term “While hard to fathom we’re being told unemployment, as we think of it, will become a thing of the past.” On it’s face, that’s crazy. This is a guide written for members of an America Society with historical roots in manufacturing. They’ve seen their jobs systematically outsourced, offshored, and just plain eliminated for the past three decades. The trend is exactly in the opposite direction of the implications here!

Or is it? One trend I see with employment in the USA is a move away from lifetime employment with pension, toward project-at-a-time contract work. If that’s the case, “unemployment” stops being a safety net for people temporarily out of work, and becomes a regular part of the freelance/contract lifestyle. If that is the case, well, I guess unemployment doesn’t mean what it used to — but that’s certainly not what I got from a cursory reading of the study!

Yet the next claim is that the number of jobs will exceed the number of people. Yes, we do have an aging population (more about that below), and yes, certain high-skilled folks may be called back from retirement to keep the machine running. What I haven’t seen yet are any statistics or data to back up this happy-talk.

This is a public study, done on behalf of the members of a professional society for the benefit of it’s members. I originally wrote “somebody should get fired over this one.” Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. I understand the demographic data the team pulled to come to those conclusions … but I wonder if the authors of the study would care to make it interesting …

6) An Aging Population. The baby boomers are going to retire, and that will create both a crunch in the workforce (#5) and a need for elder-care services. From healthcare to in-home nursing to that cell phone with the big buttons, demand for services will increase. (One trend the study didn’t note is that when these people retire, they will start to sell off their 401(K) and stocks, instead of accruing them. That will change the supply/demand ratio for the entire stock market. Now that is a trend to consider.)

7) 21st Century Quality. I read it twice. I still don’t really know what this section is trying to say. My best guesses are that how people look at Quality will change, that Quality will be more important in the next century, and that global companies will increasingly need to look to quality across the entire value chain — from raw supplier to retail sales.

8) Innovation has become a buzzword. (No, really, the study actually says that.) The basic idea here is that innovation is increasingly important to stay competitive, which, yes, reminds me of Matthew Stewart and his argument that we’ve had some crisis or another in business for thirty years, which sure seems to be a
good way to sell books on excellence.

What do we have here?

It seems to be me that the study isn’t pointing out trends as much as making predictions. Due to the nature of fortune-telling, I guess the predictions are okay … as far as they go. I’m still not sure what to make of number seven or number eight; you can read the study yourself and perhaps chime in with your two cents.

As for me, I’m left with mixed emotions. On one hand, change is inevitable and I think it is good to think about what the future might bring. The eight bullet can be a sort of roadmap — they can tell people what kinds of change might be helpful to think about.

Still, it would have been nice if the study had connected the dots. For example, the stock market predictions I mentioned earlier, and, in the United States, the increasingly precarious position of our Social Security Administration. This means retirement will be increasingly uncomfortable for people; they’ll be retiring later and later, and, most likely, more cost-conscious than in the past. That means those products and services for that market had either better help you save money (generic drugs) or else face stiff price competition.

Another example: According to the study, innovation is important. Yet fifteen years ago, ASQ stood up and gave it’s complete support to international standards on process, things like ISO 9001, and the whole idea of registrars and certifications for process compliance.

These process standards codify process into procedures. By doing this you create a defined process and defined process actively resists continuous improvement.

Thus we if we split innovation in half: Product Innovation and Process Innovation, we find a significant constituency within ASQ has been actively fighting the second, and not much discussion of the first.

I don’t have any easy answer for that, but raising that issue would have been a fascinating outcome for the study.

My bottom line here: These ideas are okay. They are some food for thought; they have some potential. To see real value out of the study, though, we need to move the ideas from theory to action — to get to practical application for the membership, or at least heated discourse.

How we get there I’m not sure. If the bloggers on this influential voices program can be part of that, well, I’d sure like to try.