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Private sector horizon scanning (2)

August 2, 2013

Last week we looked at Horizon Scanning at

  • Arup – professional services in and around the built environment
  • Pepsico – convenience snacks, food and beverages.
  • Advisory Council For Aviation Research and Innovation in Europe

This posting describes the approaches at

  • Allen & Overy – global law partnership; and
  • Daimler  – automotive industry

and then maps all five onto the Horizon Scanning matrix described in a SESTI paper (Amanatidou et al 2012):

  • by the level of participation
  • by the extent to which automated processes are used

Interviewees were also asked about:

  • The nature and size of the team involved in HS and Foresight
  • How HS formed part of the wider Strategic Foresight process

Most interviewees saw Horizon Scanning as an integrated part of the overall Strategic Foresight process, rather than as a distinct activity, and it was generally conducted by the same team.


Allen & Overy, an international law firm, has a growing network of international offices that covers Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, the Americas and Africa – 5,000 staff, including over 500 partners worldwide, 42 offices in 29 countries.

Because Allen & Overy is a partnership, individual partners have a great deal of autonomy and independence. Any strategic planning exercise in such an environment has to engage with the partners to get their commitment to change.

Allen & Overy did a “Long-View” exercise in February 2012, involving partners in five regional panels in order to consider how the world might look in 2020 for the legal services world generally and Allen & Overy in particular. These panels each produced 10 “images of 2020” for discussion at a Global Partners Conference. Together with voting from the conference these themes were brought together and structured into a 2×2 matrix and four scenarios.

These scenarios then formed the basis for extensive discussions with a wide range of clients, experts and commentators to identify opportunities and threats in relation to the existing strategy. The scenarios themselves tended to be mainly useful for generating discussion rather than being stuck to strictly. Out of this a document was produced highlighting 10 major issues, the top 3 of which were then discussed with the management team.

The overall process was well-received and could be repeated in the future. As well as the substance of the output, the process meant that Allen & Overy were able to engage with senior level clients on strategic discussions and demonstrate long-term thinking. Engaging people in the process was the critical factor, and in future they would want to take even more care over this.


The core activity was run by 5 panels of 6-8 partners, supported by SAMI Consulting, a group of central staff, plus some professional support to organise meetings, agendas etc. The involvement of partners was crucial – eventually over 120 partners (about 25%) participated.

Links to Strategic Foresight Process

Allen & Overy see futures thinking as mainly about the process of actually doing it, and getting people to think differently.  Horizon Scanning is an input but not a major ongoing activity.  The aim is for “Long View” thinking to become absorbed into “business as usual”.  The intention is that a new exercise should be undertaken about every four years.

Positioning on HS Matrix

The main approach can be characterised as participatory and manual – engaging clients and experts in discussions.  There was a limited amount of expert input, and some factual research input from the library.

Strengths included being a way of engaging with clients, and of demonstrating capability to think longer-term.  The potential weakness is the continued challenge of engaging people and demonstrating relevance.

More technology could be introduced in the future, but “it is all about the people”.


Daimler established a ‘non-technical’ Society and Technology Research Group (STRG) as part of automotive research because they believed that long-term developments in the business environment, in markets and society should be taken into consideration in long-term plans. Before focusing on technology, a broader view of the market environment, including societal factors, is taken into account. The mission of STRG is social science-based futures and business environment research to support strategy and product innovation processes for Daimler and its business divisions.

The research group drew on the expertise of around 40 research scientists from diverse disciplinary and regional backgrounds.

Futures research supports the early identification and evaluation of opportunities and risks. The targeted global presence of the firm requires an analysis of future regional market developments in short-, medium- and long-term temporal horizons.  Changes in transport and in vehicle markets are shaped by social mega-currents on a macro level (e.g., by political, economic, infrastructural, social and cultural conditions) with high uncertainties.

Scanning and monitoring

The scanning and focused monitoring of relevant developments is a core task of foresight activity. In this context, a social science-based foresight unit focuses on ‘early’ and ‘weak’ signals in the political, economic and societal business environments.

The first steps are dedicated to scenario planning as well as trend research. Changes in the business environments like society, consumer behaviour and mobility are identified and described in their long-term trajectories.

Then the team seeks to identify:

• Which developments in the societal  environment carry opportunities and risks for the enterprise in the medium- to long-term future?

• Which discontinuities and ‘wild cards’ could pose strategic threats to the business portfolio?

• Which new topics that are not yet part of the strategic horizon of the enterprise today, could be relevant in the future?

Organisational implications

The team is multi-disciplinary and international, and seen as an “incubator” with job rotation, and intellectual and professional flexibility. Excellent communication is required, with a high density of interaction and a creativity-promoting work environment.

Daimler has in-house or closely affiliated units with a sizeable stable core team, a diversity of tasks, clear professional identity and continuity.

Links with Strategic Foresight Process

The analytical part of this task has to be supplemented by structured and networked communication and transfer processes within the enterprise, especially the R&D units and innovation management. This is managed using electronically distributed ‘trend reports’ and ‘futures newsletters’ to focused workshop formats (e.g. expert workshops, trend forums).

Positioning on HS matrix

Close relationships with internal customer and diverse networks in the business environment are crucial as are external networks, so there is a high degree of participative learning.

Some semi-automated scanning methodologies (e.g. bibliometric methods, SystemOne) have been tested but they have never extended the trials beyond the test periods. The reasons for this were:

  • The subscription of these scanning methodologies were expensive and they were underused by the team
  • The team has well-trained experts and did not find additional ground-breaking      “news” by automatic scanning.
  • In the mobility and automotive business environment most changes are slow, the coverage of these changes in regular sources is sufficient, so additional      scanning does not offer any value added.


 Mapping of approaches against dimensions

The companies interviewed primarily used traditional expert search for Horizon Scanning.  Arup and Allen & Overy adopted more participative approaches, both also using the activity of consultation as a means of engaging at senior, strategic level with key clients. 

Only Arup used technology to any great extent, though interestingly Daimler had explored options and rejected them.

Horizon Scanning per se does not appear to be a substantial element of the Foresight process overall. More emphasis is placed on developing scenarios, and exploring responses to them. 

 Comparisons with public sector approaches


The main similarity between the corporate and public sector approaches to Horizon Scanning is the recognition of the need for a diversity of views and inputs.  The degree to which this is achieved varies (in both corporate and public sector) from simply ensuring that a range of experts are involved, through engagement with clients and other stakeholders, to actively seeking input from the wider public.

In both sectors there is a recognition of the need for good communication of the output of HS to the rest of the Foresight process.

Both also are very prepared to share the output of the scanning and scenario development with the wider community. In the corporate sector this is seen as a way of increasing credibility and of engaging with more senior clients.


 Horizon Scanning in the corporate sector is not seen as a separate activity as much as it is in the public sector.  The emphasis is far more on the way in which alternative views of the future should be incorporated into strategy.

In some cases, Corporate Foresight activities are viewed as specific projects, rather than an on-going activity, as tends to be the case in the public sector. There can be a resistance within the organisation to thinking differently which takes a successful “one-off” project to overcome.

After a successful project, there is a desire to repeat or refresh the exercise, and in a number of cases over the years, the Foresight team has grown and developed, supporting a number of different parts of the organisation.

More of the public sector organisations interviewed used sophisticated proprietary technology to assist HS.  Corporate sector examples tended to use publicly available tools such as Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube.



A number of corporates (eg Arup, Allen & Overy) have a substantial volume of futures-oriented information which they make publicly available. 


Whilst the sophisticated text mining technologies identified in the public sector project (Metafore, Lexalytics) may have a valuable role to play, experience from the corporate sector suggests that there may be simpler approaches using publicly available tools which would be worthwhile exploring. Examples include Facebook, Twitter search, Pinterest, You Tube uploads, general company blogs.


Corporate Foresight activities required sponsorship from senior levels, and engagement with a wide range of executives/partners.   A small group of experts can provide valuable input, but it is this engagement that brings results.  Separating Horizon Scanning from the rest of the process is not common in the corporate sector. Good communication underpins the whole process.

(written by Huw Williams)

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