The Impact of the Organisational Mind-set on the Perception of the Future in the Armed Forces

Dr Bence Nemeth, DR Nicholas Dew, Dr Mie Augier

Armed forces have always been attempting to foresee threats and security challenges to figure out what kind of tasks they will likely encounter in the future. Thus, anticipating the future and having an idea about what might come helps to provide assumptions and starting points for strategic documents, defence plans and military exercises. Although thinking about the future might happen in different ways, the most common practice to do this in the armed forces is via intelligence methods, and armed forces are less keen or willing to use other methods, e.g. foresight. When they do, their intelligence-focused institutional mind-set does not necessarily allow the members of the organisation to ‘escape’ from intelligence routines and these other methods may become ‘intelligencized’.

Intelligence and foresight are two different approaches to anticipate the future, and in an ideal case, they supplement each other. Intelligence organisations concentrate on finding evidence, facts and information that are verified from multiple sources. As John Michael Schmidt explains “[I]ntelligence looks backward and at current events to describe and interpret them to policy and planning decision-makers, and forward to inform and prepare those decision-makers for what intelligence can predict to lie ahead. At its best, it applies analysis and synthesis techniques to factual information.” This way intelligence is deemed an information-gathering problem, where intelligence analysts would like to figure out exactly what will happen. Thus the future is singular for them.

On the other hand, foresight studies usually perceive the future in a plural sense and examine alternative futures with the purpose of widening the views of an organisation and questioning established beliefs and opinions. They are less concerned about facts and verified information; instead they put emphasis on critical thinking and taking into consideration less predictable and broader questions aimed at generating a better understanding about an imprecise future. Joseph Voros developed a widely cited generic foresight process framework, which argues that a foresight process should have an ‘input’, a ‘foresight’, an ‘output’ and a ‘strategy’ phase. During the ‘input’ phase, information has to be collected, in the ‘output’ phase we have to present our findings, during the ‘strategy’ phase we have to develop our strategies based on our findings. However, the second phase, the ‘foresight’ phase is the one, where the most important analytical processes are happening in three different steps.

  • The first is the ‘analysis’ step that tries to answer the question ‘What seems to be happening?’ with applying different methods to categorise information that was gathered in the input phase.
  • The second one is the ‘interpretation’ step, where analysts attempt to get a deeper understanding of ‘What is really happening?’ and may also “challenge the categories used to analyse data, by trying to identify and surface the worldview underpinning those categories.”
  • The third step is ‘prospection’ that is “the activity of purposefully looking forward to create forward views”, and generating alternative futures.

However, in many foresight studies, some of the steps (usually the interpretation and/or prospection) or even all of the steps of the ‘foresight’ phase are missing, therefore generating sub-optimal results.

In our recent article in the journal Futures we used the case of the foresight study of the Hungarian Ministry of Defence (HUN MoD) to demonstrate how the intelligence mind-set of an organisation can impede the application of all the steps of an ideal foresight process. The HUN MoD’s foresight study started in 2013 and successfully predicted that Russia was going to be more confrontative and probably would use military force in the future and also stated explicitly that mass migration posed a serious and present security risk to Hungary. However, these predictions were not precise enough, and informally the HUN MoD analysts did not believe in them despite the fact that they had come to the right conclusions. Thus, the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and the European migration crisis of 2015 surprised the HUN MoD, and it was unprepared to meet the related challenges quickly.

To understand why this happened we developed a framework that is applicable for evaluating any foresight processes.

  • First, we used Voros’ framework to analyse the foresight process, and we found that the HUN MoD’s foresight process missed the ‘interpretation’ and ‘prospection’ phases; thus the study focused only on the most probable future and did not intend to take into consideration alternative ones.
  • Second, we examined the analytical methods used during the foresight process, which showed that only evidence and expertise-based methods were applied, but no interaction or creativity-based methods were used that would significantly help critical thinking.
  • Third, based on the findings of the first two steps, we studied the organisational aspects of the foresight process, and concluded that the foresight process was ‘intelligencized’ by the institutional routines of the HUN MoD. Among other issues, the foresight study more resembled an open-source long-term intelligence report than a foresight study, as its methods were mostly evidence-based, it was not interested in alternative futures, and it did not challenge assumptions. Thus it could not broaden the view of the HUN MoD significantly about the future.

Although it is clear that no one is able to predict the future precisely, by applying a variety of approaches defence organisations might have a larger chance to ‘think about the unthinkable’ and make their institutional mind-set more flexible and adaptable for future challenges. Foresight studies can supplement intelligence work very well but – as the HUN MoD’s case highlights – organisational culture can hinder the application of other methods than the ones that are profoundly ingrained into the mind-set of the organisation. Accordingly, we argue that when we would like to have a better understanding of the future we have to focus on “the organizational characteristics that interact with foresight study methodologies to ‘pollute’ the process, and we also have to take into consideration the cultural factors that are useful and can be positively leveraged.”

Image: NATO Transformation Seminar 2017, March 21-23 2017, via NATO.

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