Given the strident advance of some trends, especially technological, the pressure to anticipate and react to change early on has grown considerably. Where do ICSOs stand in terms of future preparedness? Members of the civil society foresight community Scanning the Horizon requested a mapping of how ICSOs prepare for change. The assessment sought to provide an overview of what ICSOs do to identify and explore trends and potential disruption in the mid- to long-term, and how they plan to respond (see also the key findings).
Indeed, all organisations surveyed are undertaking steps to identify and assess trends and
disruptors. However, levels of intensity – as measured by the number of activities, diversity
of stakeholders involved and envisaged actions – vary greatly. Scanning is mostly carried out by senior management at the international headquarters, followed by those at the country or regional level, international and country-level senior leadership, and to a very limited degree by other groups in the organisation. Anecdotal evidence, e.g. from more participatory organisational restructuration processes, suggests that wider engagement helps organisations become more open to change.
Further, few organisations appear to have a clear-cut mandate or plan for their scanning work specifying a set timeline, goals and responsibilities and dedicated funds – a finding that corroborates an earlier review of ICSOs’ scanning approaches from 2016. Instead, much of the engagement tends to be ad-hoc, partly building on work on top of people’s daily jobs, in evolving, not clearly defined processes. That likely makes them more dependent on the motivation of a few champions and limits the leverage of such processes with internal stakeholders, including the executive management and Board. That being said, about a fourth have some regular – if at times embryonic – engagement with trends at the senior leadership or other levels in place, and a couple of organisations look to joining up hitherto distributed practices into a more coherent approach.
Respondents focus mostly on mega-trends and trends in their own sector, building on an analysis of existing trend reports for either. While this is an efficient approach, spotting disruption will inadvertently remain a weak spot. Little seems to be done in the sense of true horizon scanning, like an internal seismograph to spot emerging issues and potential disruptors. A look at the so-called S-curve is useful to understand the implications:
When drawing information on trends from sector reports or the mainstream media, these developments have typically reached the mainstream, what is called the “reactive zone”. Screening relevant scientific and fringe sources of information, including thought leaders, helps raise awareness of trends much earlier, giving the organisation more time to take strategic action and assume a pioneer role or watch the trend unfold for a while.
However, it also seems that a number of trends ICSOs mention as significant remain by and large unacted upon at the moment. These include continued closing of civic space in
countries of operation, urbanisation and climate change. Few seem to be taking concrete
action or to have developed a systematic response beyond spurring innovation and agility more broadly. By comparison, most developments relating to funding or modes of delivery of development and humanitarian aid seem to induce more, and more targeted responses.
A couple of interviewees mention that the scope of change organisations can assess and deal with is limited: “We are now more attuned to trends, but it can be distracting – after all, you have to actually do something in the present. …The big question is, of course, have we done enough to remain relevant to our target group as an INGO, have we changed radically”. This is a valid and critical issue.
Adaptation capacities are limited (and always will be), which requires two complementary approaches: for one, honing those capacities, and second, a sound mechanism to detect and scope new challenges and opportunities, so as to be able to prioritise quickly and not be caught out cold.
So where do ICSOs stand in terms of future preparedness? The picture is highly heterogeneous, but a number of organisations might benefit from a more conscious and systematic approach to spotting and assessing change. Some key questions are:
- How can we become more apt at spotting potential disruption and emerging issues?
- Can joint assessment of change beyond senior leadership help organisations become more agile, including in decentralised organisational structures?
- How can organisations ensure they act on critical challenges that are detached from their missions but influence their capacity to deliver on them?
We will carry these discussions forward in the Scanning the Horizon community.
 This was done via an online survey from December 2017 through February 2018 and a series of complementing interviews in February with select survey respondents, both targeting senior ICSO staff charged with strategy, trend analysis and organisational adaptation to change. We reached out to 31 ICSOs with an invitation to take the survey and shared the invitation via social media. We received 18 responses from ICSOs. A workshop co-hosted by ODI, Plan International and Scanning the Horizon on 6 March 2018 served to present and discuss the findings with members of ICSOs’ senior management, thereby complementing and corroborating the desk work.
 Internal questionnaire-based review of scanning approaches among Scanning the Horizon members, with 12 respondents.
 Such as the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends (2016) report, the UK Ministry of Defence Global Strategic Trends Out to 2045 report (2014) for mega-trends, and Bond’s Tomorrows’ World (2015) and Scanning the Horizon’s “Exploring the Future” (2016) reports for development sector trends.