Corporate foresight: an emerging field with a rich tradition

In our introductory article for our special issue in TFSC on corporate foresight we provide an overview of historic development, propose a new definition, present the articles in our special issue, and discuss development trajectories for future research.

In this blog post we summarize the key elements of the article.

Historical background of Corporate Foresight

Historically we can distinguish four main phases.

1950s: birth of the field

Corporate foresight emerged as a research stream in the 1950s. The new field had two main roots. The first was the French ‘prospective’ school, founded by the philosopher and high-level public servant Gaston Berger. The second was the ‘foresight’ school, based in the work of Herman Kahn at the RAND Corporation in the US. Both schools differ in their fundamental philosophy. While the ‘foresight’ school proposed sophisticated methods and was based in the idea that expert analysts would engage in foresight work, the ‘prospective school’ favored lean methods, that could be applied collaboratively directly by the decision makers.

History of Corporate Foresight

1960s and 1970s: the age of scenarios

In the 1960s the field of corporate foresight saw a variety of successful applications of its methodological and processual repertoire. In particular the application of the scenario method by Royal Dutch/Shell triggered broad interest in corporate foresight methods. The planning team of Shell used the systematic approaches of foresight to identify two key change drivers. The depleting oil resources in the US and the deteriorating relations of the West to the OPEC countries. This resulted in Shell being the only major oil company that was prepared for the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War. This success triggered application of the scenario technique by a growing number of firms including Motorola, General Electric and United Parcel Service.

1980 and 1990s: professionalization of methods and processes

In the 1980s markets became increasingly saturated. In consequence firms that were seeking superior positions in their markets needed to upgrade their business and corporate planning tools and new corporate foresight methods emerged. Methods such as (technology) roadmapping and continuous environmental scanning approaches emerged and were adopted by an increasing number of firms.

2000 and beyond: organizational integration

The implementation of corporate foresight processes has in many firms led to the creation of organizational routines that facilitate the development of future insights. However, many firms still report challenges in translating these insights into organizational responses.

The fundamental dilemma seems to be twofold: on the one hand, a large variety of data sources have to be tapped into and the resulting collections of quantitative and qualitative data require human interpretation by top managers to be effective. On the other hand, the limited time and attention span of top management prohibits sufficient exposure to the raw data.

In recent years, corporate foresight research and practice have focussed increasingly on ways to integrate processes. Such an integrated practice would leverage distributed organizational sensing, interpretation and planning capabilities. Corporate foresight contributes through an orchestration role as well as by filling the gaps left by existing functions, such as research & development, innovation management, strategic management, risk management, and corporate development.

Definition of Corporate Foresight

Since the birth of the field there has been a number of popular definitions. The early definitions would conceptualize corporate foresight typically as a process, while the later definitions emphasize the organizational integration and some conceptualize corporate foresight as an organizational ability.

In our definition we emphasize the nature of corporate foresight as an integrated practice that permits an organization to steer towards and shape its desired future:

Corporate foresight permits an organization to lay the foundation for future competitive advantage. Corporate Foresight is identifying, observing and interpreting factors that induce change, determining possible organization-specific implications, and triggering appropriate organizational responses. Corporate foresight involves relevant stakeholders and creates value through providing access to critical resources ahead of competition, preparing the organization for change, and permitting the organization to steer proactively towards a desired future.

Articles in our special issue

On organizing

On individual and collective cognition

In networked organizations

On quantitative evidence of value contribution

Future development trajectories of Corporate Foresight

When looking forward we see three promising theoretical launching platform for future research

  • Managerial cognition, which emphasizes the role of the individual and group cognition in shaping perception and influencing decision-making (see for example Narayanan et al., 2011).
  • Forward-looking search, which is based on the behavioural theory of the firm, emphasizes that individuals are bounded-rational, and therefore firm decision-making cannot be conceptualized as purely rational or analytic reasoning (see for example Gavetti et al., 2012).
  • Prospective sensemaking considers organizing as a process in which individuals build on their past experiences, retrospectively and collectively reflect on these episodes, and through sustained interaction build converging cause maps that permit them to converge behind common objectives and lines of action (see for example (see for example Gephart et al., 2011).

We hope that the ideas expressed in this introductory article will contribute to forming a research stream on corporate foresight (i.e. strategic foresight in organizations), raising interest from general management scholars, and realizing further progress in the emerging and fascinating area of corporate foresight.

Read the full article on research gate or science direct.


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