Tag Archives: reception

Revisiting Timeliness for Strategic Foresight and Warning

To exist, foresight products as well as warnings must be delivered to those who must act upon them, the customers, clients or users. Furthermore, they must be provided in a timely fashion. This criterion of timeliness is extremely important. It means that customers or users will have enough time to decide and then implement any necessary course of action as warranted by foresight.

Timeliness: enabling the coordination of response

Most often, the challenge of timeliness is thus understood as stemming from the need to conciliate on the one hand the dynamics which are specific to the issue, object of anticipation, and on the other the related decision and coordination of the response.

Let us take the example of Peak Oil, i.e. the date when “world oil production will reach a maximum – a peak – after which production will decline” (Hirsch, 2005, 11) which implies the end of a widespread availability of cheap (conventional crude) oil. The phenomenon is now well documented and relatively widely recognized, from scientists’ reports, associations, institutions and books (see, for example, the creation of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas in 2000 , Robert Hirsch report (2005), the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP), Thomas Homer Dixon, Michael Klare or Jeff Rubin), to web resources such as The Oil Drum or Energy Bulletin to finally the International Energy Agency (IEA – it recognised the peaking of Peak Oil in 2010, e.g. Staniford, 2010), despite still some resistance by a shrinking number of actors.

Notwithstanding other impacts, Hirsch estimates that 20 years of a “mitigation crash program before peaking” would have allowed avoiding “a world liquid fuels shortfall” (Hirsch, 2005). Assuming that oil peaked in 2006, as evaluated by the IEA, if we had wanted to have an energy mix of replacement for the now gone cheap oil, then we should have decided implementing and then coordinating a response… back in 1986. Thus SF&W on this issue should have been delivered some time before 1986.

Obviously, this did not happen, even if one starts finding rare articles regarding Peak Oil earlier (e.g. the 1974 miscalculated warning for a global Peak Oil happening in 1995 by M. King Hubbert (Wikipedia ‘Predicting the timing of Peak Oil’) and much later Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, “The end of cheap oil,” Scientific American, March 1998). Why?

Timeliness, credibility and biases

Jack Davis, writing on strategic warning in the case of US national security, hints at the importance of another criterion linked to timeliness, credibility:

“Analysts must issue a strategic warning far enough in advance of the feared event for US officials to have an opportunity to take protective action, yet with the credibility to motivate them to do so. No mean feat. Waiting for evidence the enemy is at the gate usually fails the timeliness test; prediction of potential crises without hard evidence can fail the credibility test. When analysts are too cautious in estimative judgments on threats, they brook blame for failure to warn. When too aggressive in issuing warnings, they brook criticism for “crying wolf.”

For Davis, credibility is the provision of “hard evidence” to back up foresight. Of course, as we deal with the future, hard evidence will consist in understanding of processes and their dynamics (the model used, preferably an explicit model) added to facts indicating that events are more or less likely to unfold according to this understanding.

Credibility is, however, also something more than hard evidence. To obtain credibility, people must believe you. Hence, biases of the customers, clients or users must be overcome. Thus, whatever the validity of the hard evidence in the eyes of the analyst, it must also be seen as such by others. The various biases that can be an obstacle to this credibility have started being largely documented (e.g. Heuer). Actually, explaining the model used and providing indications, or describing plausible scenarios are ways to overcome some of the biases, notably out-dated cognitive models. Yet, relying only on this scientific logic is insufficient, as shown by Craig Anderson, Mark Lepper, and Lee Ross in their paper “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information.” Thus, other ways to minimize biases must be imagined and included, that will most probably involve time. The possibility to deliver the SF&W product will be accordingly delayed.

Credibility and more broadly overcoming biases are so important that I would go further than Davis and incorporate them within the very idea of timeliness. This would be much closer to the definition of timely, according to which something is “done or occurring at a favourable or useful time; opportune” (Google dictionary result for timely). Indeed there cannot be timely SF&W if those who must act cannot hear it.

If the SF&W product is delivered at the wrong time, then it will be neither heard nor considered, decisions will not be taken nor actions implemented.

More difficult, biases also affect the very capability of analysts to think the world and thus to even start analysing issues. We are there faced with cases of partial or full collective blindness, when timeliness cannot be achieved because SF&W analysis cannot even start in the specific sectors of society where this analysis is meant to be done.

This is most probably what happened for our example of Peak Oil. If a model existed, created by M. King Hubbert, the initial miscalculation led to some loss of credibility as those denying peak oil underlined and still emphasize, even though King Hubbert model was not wrong. Analysts in SF&W in the early 1980s were more preoccupied with the Cold War than concerned by anything else. Afterwards, the system that had won against the Communist world could not even be thought not being perfect. Such highly disturbing threats that could question the prevalent worldview could not be envisioned. Had they been, they would most probably have been discarded first by policy makers then by political leaders. Furthermore, a host of actors had interest in a permanence of the ideological setting, which would have made the possibility to see a very early foresight work on peak oil develop very remote indeed (I am emphasizing here unconscious reactions and “deafness,” not hidden maneuvers).

Timeliness as the intersection of three dynamics

Thus, to summarize timeliness is best seen as the intersection of three dynamics:

  • The dynamics and time of the issue or problem at hand, knowing that, especially when they are about nature, those dynamics will tend to prevail (Elias, 1992)
  • The dynamics of the coordination of the response (including decision)
  • The dynamics of cognition (or evolution of beliefs and awareness) – at collective and individual level – of the actors involved.

To understand each dynamic is, in itself, a challenge. Even more difficult, each dynamic acts upon the others, making it impossible to truly hope to achieve timeliness if the impact of one dynamic on the others is ignored.

For example, if we continue with our initial case of Peak Oil, having been unable to even think the possibility of Peak oil in the early 1980s has dramatically changed the current possible dynamics of the response, while both the cognitive delay and the absence of previous decisions and actions have orientated the dynamics of the issue towards some paths, while others are definitely closed. Any SF&W delivered on this issue now is quite different from what would have been delivered 20 years ago, assuming it could have been heard.

To acknowledge the difficulty of finding the timely moment, and the impossibility to ever practice an ideal SF&W in an imagined world where everyone – at individual and collective level – would have perfect cognition is not to negate SF&W. Answering this challenge with a “what is the point to do it now as we did not do it when things were easy/easier” is childish. On the contrary, fully acknowledging hurdles is to have a more mature attitude regarding who we are as human beings, accepting our shortcomings but also trusting in our creativity and capacity to work to overcome the most difficult challenges. It is to open the door to the possibility to develop strategies and related tools to improve the timeliness of SF&W, thus making it more actionable and efficient:

  • Creating evolving products that will be adapted to the moment of delivery;
  • Using the appearance of groups, communities, even single scholarly or other work on new dangers, threats and opportunities as potential weak signals that are still unthinkable by the majority;
  • Developing and furthering our understanding of the dynamics of cognition and finding ways to act on them or, to the least, to accompany them;
  • Participating fully in the current effort, which has just started within societies, at re-designing decision systems and response capabilities.

1st edition of this article: 14 Sept 2011 – This is the 2d edition. [lastupdated]


Anderson, Craig A., Mark R. Lepper, and Lee Ross, “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1980, Vol. 39, No.6, 1037-1049.

Campbell, Colin J. and Jean H. Laherrere, “The end of cheap oil,” 
Scientific American, March 1998.

Davis, Jack, “Improving CIA Analytic Performance: Strategic Warning,” The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis Occasional Papers: Volume 1, Number 1, accessed September 12, 2011.

Dixon, Thomas Homer, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of civilization, (Knopf, 2006).

Elias, Norbert,  Time: An Essay, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)

Hirsch, Robert L., SAIC, Project Leader, Roger Bezdek, MISI, Robert Wendling, MISI Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management, For the U.S. DOE, February 2005.

International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2010.

Klare, Michael, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004; paperback, Owl Books, 2005).

Klare, Michael, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Henry Holt & Company, Incorporated, 2008).

Rubin, Jeff, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, Random House, 2009.

Staniford, Stuart, “IEA acknowledges peak oil,” Published Nov 10 2010, Energy Bulletin.

“Delivery” of Strategic Foresight and Warning “products:” learning from the social and mobile web?

As Cynthia Grabo underlines, a warning does not exist if it is not delivered. Similarly, a foresight product – or risk assessment or horizon scan – has to be delivered. Furthermore, if foresight and warning are to be actionable, then clients or customers – those to whom the product has been delivered – must pay heed to the foresight, or warning. What they decide to do with those is another story, but from the point of view of SF&W, they must receive them, know they have received them and as much as possible consider them.

by Philip Devere, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Strategic foresight and futures’ efforts, as well as related literature, with a few exceptions, have rarely focused explicitly on this specific part of the overall process. Yet, it is crucial. As a first step, it has much to learn from the warning part of the activity. Then, both strategic foresight and warning may also have much to learn from the mobile and social networking approach that is being constantly imagined and re-imagined.

Learning from warning

In a nutshell, the – ideal – approach that strategic actionable foresight must learn from warning underlines that:

War room, Gulf war, strategic foresight and warning, clients

  • Clients or customers must be identified – mapping is a must.
  • Warning officers – and thus strategic foresight practitioners too – must learn to know their customers and develop overtime a trusting relationship with them
  • Products can thence be adapted to customers
  • Products must be delivered to customers and related necessary channels of communication created if need be
  • Feedback on delivery and products must be asked customers, hoping the latter will have time to provide them.

If those steps are followed then we have improved the likelihood to see our customers paying heed to foresight and warning products. Many challenges, however, are lurking behind those apparently simple steps, potentially hindering the best completion of each of them. First and foremost, the various biases, as summarized by Heuer, that alter the understanding of any human being, will be at work. They will affect not only customer but also analyst and officer in their relationship to customers, as astutely pointed out by Woocher.

Learning from the social and mobile web: from Taylorism and consumerism to the 21st century

Without entering into the specifics of each bias and each challenge, which is more than a blog post can do, I would like here to suggest that the social and mobile web could help us with this specific phase of the SF&W process. It could not only by give us new capabilities but also, and primarily, a new philosophy.

Moving from customers to users

Usually, chains of command and hierarchical structures define who gets SF&W products. They have been established over time, exist and are necessary as such. Yet, as far as those traditional existing “customers” or “clients” are concerned, most usually policy-makers and decision-makers, could it be worthwhile to change our mind-set, not seeing them anymore as “customers,” but, instead, as is done by the mobile and social web, considering them as users? Customers are those to whom one sells products or services, if we pursue the analogy (with all the potential biases this imply, as for example studied by Nolan, MacEachin, and Tockman).

Meteorologist at work at the Storm Prediction Centre de Norman, Oklahoma Source: NOAA

Users refer to a different universe. It imply that we provide them with tools (concrete or immaterial), instruments that are first and foremost useful and of value to them; devices that are needed to construct, to act, that will be helpful in the accomplishment of their mission. The emphasis moves from something that can be useless, that can been thrown away or disregarded and that is separated from the person who must buy it, to a long-term relationship, to the consideration of the other and its needs first – or rather the needs of its mission. This would be somehow adopting the first core principle of Google’s philosophy.

If we adopt the user’s approach, then we can start our process of identification again, with a fresh mind:

  • Are we sure that all the necessary, actual and potential users have been identified?
  • Would other people benefit from using SF&W?
  • Would it be a useful tool for them? Would it be necessary that they used it?

Those questions are more difficult than it appears for polities as they also touch upon democracy on the one hand, and power on the other.

First, in a representative democracy, policy-makers are those who are elected, and decision to act (or not act) should remain in their hands. Thus, care will be taken when or if new users are outside the nexus of elected representatives to see the democratic process respected.

Second, SF&W is (or should be) an essential tool of power, of might (the German Macht – verb machen = do) in its meaning of doing something. Thus, identifying new users may potentially lead to power struggles and care should be taken in advance to mitigate such drawback.

Moving from product and delivery to tools and reception

Currently, once all the policy-makers and decision-makers are known, then the most advanced practitioners design specific format and delivery – seen as a unified process – for the product, according to clients. The form and the delivery must be adapted to customers and will achieve the aim to get their attention and raise their awareness.

By National Weather Service Aviation Weather Center (http://aviationweather.gov/products/swm/), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If we move to users, then product becomes tool, the emphasis on delivery can switch to reception, and then one should also think about the use of the tool.  An overall strategy, centered on the actionable use of SF&W can thus be imagined, designed and implemented.  One will have to ask questions such as

  • In which circumstances and how would the users use the tool?
  • Which form should this tool have to best be used by them?
  • What are the best channels that will give the best possible reception by the user? Considering the difficulty of changing mind-sets, which is one hurdle SF&W must always overcome, this question is particularly important as it will also lead us to try identifying how the users think, the dynamics behind cognition, including most opportune moments, what and who has influence on their thinking.

Once we switch to the users’ approach, then the capabilities of the social and mobile web can be fully integrated and adapted to SF&W. We shall examine specific ideas in future posts.


Grabo, Cynthia M., and Jan Goldman. Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning. [Washington, D.C.?]: Center for Strategic Intelligence Research, Joint Military Intelligence College, 2002.

Heuer, Richards J. Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999.

Nolan, Janne E., and MacEachin, Douglas, with Kristine Tockman, Discourse, Dissent and Strategic Surprise Formulating U.S. Security Policy in an Age of Uncertainty. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 2007.

Woocher, Lawrence, “The Effects of Cognitive Biases on Early Warning,” Presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention (2008).

Featured image: US President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House Situation Room. Original caption: The president and his national security team in the White House Situation Room during the Arab-Israeli crisis. By LBJ Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons