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Scenario planning for a turbulent world

Oxford University’s Saïd Business School says scenario planning can boost sustainability, security and public policy initiatives set amid an increasingly unpredictable, turbulent world.

In a fast-paced and uncertain globalised economy, business leaders and policymakers across all sectors and countries alike face challenges in making the right decisions to prepare their organisations for the future.

This overwhelming challenge, says Oxford University’s Professor Rafael Ramirez, can be aided by scenario planning - an essential tool to help organisations flourish in the face of an increasingly unpredictable world.

Scenario planning is the process of visualising several plausible visions of the future to help test and strengthen business decisions in the present. Practitioners see this as a more timely and relevant alternative to other strategies such as forecasting and modelling.

“Forecasting the future is useful when business as usual holds, but in today’s turbulent and uncertain times, building and using longer-term and multiple versions of possible futures can help organisations navigate (these uncertain times) using assumptions and prepare for unpredictable changes”, Professor Ramirez tells Eco-Business.

Prof Ramirez is the programme director of the Oxford Scenarios Programme, part of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School (SBS) Executive Education programme.

Founded in 1996, SBS is an extension of Oxford University’s long-standing legacy of globally renowned tertiary education. In recent years, it has emerged a leader among business schools in integrating sustainability into its curriculum and recognising its importance in business decisions.

The Oxford Scenarios Programme is a five-day course that advocates scenarios thinking as an important way of looking at an increasingly unpredictable world, and trains participants from a broad range of professional sectors on how to build and use scenario planning skills for their organisational objectives. It is targeted at participants from business, government, NGO’s, academia, professional bodies, and inter-governmental organisations.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is the former deputy president of South Africa and an honorary fellow at Warwick University, says of the programme: “Education and technology are radically changing sectors, and scenario planning has become a key tool in my research kit. It has strengthened my analytical techniques by forcing me to look at the ‘unlikely’”.

Here, Prof Ramirez speaks to Eco-Business about the value of the Oxford Scenarios Programme, and how scenario planning can help professionals in the private, government and NGO sectors navigate the unpredictable landscape of Asia’s emerging economies.

Professor Rafael Ramirez is the Programme Director of the Oxford Scenarios Programme.

What is the purpose of the Oxford Scenarios Programme, and what unique value does it offer participants?

The Oxford Scenarios Programme shows participants how to build and use scenarios and progress purposeful and effective scenario planning within their organisations. We want to help our participants improve the way their organisations approach strategy and planning – to reveal and test the assumptions they and others bring in considering their future.

In the programme, participants will learn to design and facilitate processes that make their organisations less vulnerable, see and discuss critical changes in their wider context, and be more prepared to identify risks and seize new opportunities.  They will be better prepared to make fewer strategic mistakes, and learn more from those that will inevitably be made.

The programme is taught by recognised leaders in scenario planning, who between us, have over a century of hands-on scenario planning experience at a strategic level in government, business, and civil society organisations.

Participants who are accepted to this programme will gain first-hand experience of building and using scenarios for organisations, and will be entrusted with sensitive commercial information, enabling them to hone their skills and practise scenarios in a realistic, yet safe environment.

Professionals from a very diverse range of sectors and countries participate in the programme. What are the qualities of the programme that enable it to be relevant and useful to such a diverse audience?

The programme is accessible to a wide range of participants because we approach the topic from many different angles, enabling everyone to learn about and hone into what’s relevant to them. While everyone takes the ‘same’ course, and stays together the whole time, some modules might be immediately applicable to a student, while others might help to nurture another mindset that can accommodate multiple uncertainties. 

Participants also work on real cases that companies such as the Royal Mail Group, BMW Group, Meggit, and Titan, and a non-governmental organisation such as the National Health Service Trust, Oxfam, and the National Breast Cancer Coaliation bring to the Oxford Scenarios Programme. This diversity of contexts provides everyone a chance to practice the methods. 

In 2013, about 30 per cent of the programme’s participants came from Asia. Which countries do these participants come from?

Participation in the programme changes every year, but recent trends suggest that it is becoming more and more Asian. The last time we ran the programme, we had participants from Singapore, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, and Indonesia. The one country that is under represented is China, and we are actively working to correct this.

Why do you think participation from Asia is increasing? Why is scenario planning seen as an increasingly useful tool in the Asian context?

The growth patterns of emerging economies in Asia and beyond exhibit volatility, trend breaks, reversals, and jumps. Even if reliable data were available for ‘today’ and the ‘recent past’ (which in many cases is unavailable) in such settings, it would be no guide for tomorrow’s situation.

In such circumstances, scenario planning is of help, letting policy makers and strategists imagine what futures their current policy and strategy might inhabit, and thus helping them to make it more resilient.This may well be the most important reason why we see more and more participants from Asia attending the Scenarios Programme in Oxford.

Have any case studies focused on the sustainability sector?

The growth patterns of emerging economies in Asia and beyond exhibit volatility, trend breaks, reversals, and jumps. Even if reliable data were available for ‘today’ and the ‘recent past’, it would be no guide for tomorrow’s situation.

In such circumstances, scenario planning is of help, letting policy makers and strategists imagine what futures their current policy and strategy might inhabit, and thus helping them to make it more resilient.

Prof Rafael Ramirez, programme director, Oxford Scenarios Programme

In the sustainability space we worked with the Global Foot Print Network and Oxfam – the specific aspects our participants discussed with these organisations, however, remain confidential. 

We welcome organisations and companies to bring us live cases to Oxford, and look forward to working with them to develop cases for future programme participants to work on.

Many of the programme’s teaching staff have academic and research interests in sustainability. To what extent are sustainability concerns factored into programme?

A lot of work on sustainability now relies on scenario planning. Dr Cynthia Selin, who co-teaches in the programme conducts research into scenario planning in contexts of sustainable governance, cities, energy and health care.

Sustainability has an explicit orientation towards the future, and scenario planning is useful to rigorously and systematically study alternative trajectories. 

My own sense, with a Master’s in environmental studies, is that awareness of the environment helps to improve scenario planning, and my own writing in social ecology has certainly sharpened my attentiveness to issues relating to sustainability in many scenario endeavours.

What are some highlights in the Oxford Scenarios Programme for 2014?

We change the programme by approximately 10 to 15 per cent every year. About 2,400 peer-reviewed papers are published every year on scenario planning and we constantly keep the programme content up to date with what the field is finding. 

Find out more about the Oxford Scenarios Programme here.

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