A favorable future for forecasting The prognostication business is booming, as more and more individuals and firms try to divine the future. The reasons: computers, the millennium and fear.

September 06, 1998|By Adam Pertman | Adam Pertman,boston globe

The future has always been a fascinating and frightening place. And so there has always been a market for those who gazed into crystal balls and then explained what they had seen to the dreamers, the eggheads, the kooks who were willing to listen.

Today, that picture is changing radically. There is, in short, a proliferation of prognosticators.

They receive tens of thousands of dollars per speech from trade groups that want to hear, for instance, about lightning-fast computers embedded in clothing to monitor their wearers' vital signs.

Their well-paid counsel about impending advances, like car engines that will get tuneups via software from personal computers, is in high demand by businesses trying to cope with technological changes that seem to threaten them - and present new opportunities - daily. Their books, with titles like "What Will Be" and "Visions" and "Clicking," are soaring onto the best-seller lists.

"Without question, it's becoming quite a phenomenon," said Jeffrey F. Rayport, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Rayport counts himself among the professional predictors, though he prefers the description "business consultant."

Indeed, few of those whose work involves forecasting call themselves prophets or visionaries, although they seldom blush when depicted as such; rather, they are business advisers or strategists, computer scientists tuned into cutting-edge developments, or social researchers who understand the evolution of such phenomena as buying habits.

Moreover, most members of this burgeoning field are quick to point out that there have always been people like them. That's principally because anticipating trends and planning for the future are essential components of successful business strategy and, to a large extent, of personal fulfillment.

The professional prognosticators agree, however, that a confluence of events has dramatically escalated the types and amount of guidance that individuals and companies want and need, or at least believe they do. The result of that heightened demand, inevitably, has been an increased supply.

"When your primary product might be obsolete in two years ... and people are being told they'll have to get job retraining every three to five years, everyone begins to feel they have to look into the future," said John J. Canepa, a partner in the Boston office of the Arthur Andersen consulting firm, which itself has been restructuring to make forecasting a more common client service.

When intriguing, incomprehensible or compelling technological breakthroughs are in the news almost daily, Canepa added, "all this prediction stuff begins to seem realistic to the average person instead of just the wireheads."

People's fascination with and appetite for the future has always been considerable, as clearly evidenced by the allure of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of machines-to-come, by the sustained popularity of science fiction, and by the huge sales of books like 1970's "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler.

But the convergence of two factors - the advent of a new century and the continuing revolution generated by computers - has captured imaginations as never before, even as it has fueled job insecurities and provoked fundamental questions about the role technology should play in society and individual lives.

At the same time, technological innovation has produced far more radical change, introspection, and even fear within the business world than is commonly understood.

Planning used to entail examinations of past sales trends,extrapolations of previous buying patterns, and then invention of items that could be incrementally introduced to regulate demand. Now, overnight in corporate time, companies find themselves catering to consumers who are more and more fickle - and selective - because new, improved and previously unheard-of products pop onto the market at blinding speed.

Meanwhile, historically entrenched notions of how workplaces operate are being outmoded by such concepts as "outsourcing," contract employees, and on-line design, manufacture and sales. And even the most basic day-to-day assumptions - say, that copiers and other office equipment should be purchased to last for as many years as possible - are being trampled by a seemingly ceaseless stampede of new technology.

"Just two years ago, [consultants] used to walk in and have to explain why you needed what they were selling," Shanda Bahles, managing general partner of a venture-capital firm in California, said of the prognosticators who advised companies to massively restructure for the future. "Now it's, 'We want this. Tell us what to do and how to do it.' "

That attitudinal reversal, in turn, reflects the enormity of the technological and biological breakthroughs that brought it about.

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