Competing for the Future Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, Harvard Business School, Boston, 1994, xv + 327
In very many contexts the view ahead is profoundly conditioned by the past. Taken-for-granted presuppositions provide the foundations for arguments, projects, books etc which then proceed to their completion without any questioning of their own starting points. Thus, in futures enquiry, it has become essential to look at those starting points in some detail: whose interests are involved; what worldviews are represented; what basic epistemological assumptions are being made? When such questions are not asked, the resulting work runs ahead in its pre-set channels and reaches predictable conclusions. Business is as susceptible to this habit as others. The usual practice is to look for profit, growth, market opportunities within a largely business-as-usual framework, and not to question underlying assumptions about the nature of business in a profoundly compromised world.
This is what Hamil and Prahalad have done in Competing for the Future. This handbook for industry and business outlines a detailed strategy for creating ‘future competitive space’ through the strategic use of foresight. Companies need to ‘unlearn’ much of the past, develop foresight into tomorrow’s markets and develop a ‘strategic architecture that provides a blueprint for building the competencies needed to dominate future markets’. To this end, the authors advocate that businesses engage in a ‘race to the future’ via three phases: ‘competition for industry foresight and intellectual leadership, competition to foreshorten migration paths, and competition for market position and market share’. Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of the detailed strategies recommended to achieve these goals. However, for me this is an unsatisfactory work.
It is essentially a step-by-step guide as to how the already powerful can secure more of the future economic cake by applying foresight methods to their own particular needs. One could therefore call it ‘useful’ only if one was concerned with corporate wealth and corporate growth. However, there are two serious flaws with this approach. First, the ethics presumed here are the standard competitive, growth-oriented ones of the industrial era. While the authors advocate ‘unlearning’, they do not advocate the reconceptualisation of an industrial modus operandi for a very different era. Second, the book contains no recognition of the wider historical or ecological context. Hence ‘the future’ is seen as an infinitely extendable abstraction, removed from any questions of historical appropriateness or ecological viability. As such, the book compounds the serious dilemmas we already have with old-style business and industry. It suggests that the authors and their clientele are either unaware of, or dismissive of, some of the very major critiques of conventional business and economics (as advanced by, eg., Hazel Henderson)2 as well as the promising reconceptualisations of business now available (see below).
Hence, Competing for the Future, will have regressive effects if it permits business and industry to adapt foresight strategies for their own, limited purposes. The many useful strategies it recommends will only be useful in a wider sense if the assumptions upon which they are predicated are profoundly and thoroughly revised. However, this seems unlikely to occur from within the economic establishment.
Published in Futures 28, 1, 1996, p. 92.