Foresight in Business and Society

We’re kicking off a new blog series today: Foresight Educators.  Teaching the future is unfamiliar to most teachers, but a few are leading the charge, and this series describes and celebrates their achievements.  If you have taught the future in your class, contact us. We’d love to feature you here. 

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Educator:  Sam Miller
Course: Foresight in Business and Society
Level: Undergraduate
Institution: Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
Teaching the future since: 2007
Email:  miller.549@nd.edu 

In 2007, Carolyn Woo, dean of the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame told Professor Tom Frecka “You cannot lead if you don’t know what is coming at you, and where the opportunities for growth are.” The accounting professor accepted her call to action, visited the University of Houston’s Foresight program, and launched a course.  Foresight in Business and Society is now required for all 700 juniors each year in the Mendoza College.  

About the Course

The course objectives address the 21st century skills that business leaders are looking for –
Develop an awareness of important issues and trends affecting society, including issues related to sustainability.

  • Develop an understanding of the methodologies and tools used by organizations to identify trends, to consider the implications of change, to plan for alternative futures, and to suggest solutions leading to preferred futures.
  • Develop various thinking and visionary skills, including critical/analytical thinking, systems thinking and creative thinking to effectively address complex problems.
  • Explore specific responses and interventions to these issues and trends by government, business, NGOs, think-tanks, and other organizations.
  • Produce well-reasoned research studies that address major societal issues, consider trends and future implications for society and business, and suggest appropriate solutions, in light of moral and ethical concerns.

Students work in teams of four.  They select a domain for their research, gather and analyze data on that domain, determine the baseline (expected) future based on trends and drivers, create plausible alternative futures, and discuss potential business and ethical implications.  See the abbreviated syllabus here.

Some of the chosen domains have been – The Future of Indonesia, Microfinance in Tanzania, Financial Inclusion in Brazil, Retail in South Africa, Honey Bees(!), Work, U.S. Medical Treatment, and Mobile Commerce in the U.S..  Each of these projects is described here.

Each team is also paired with a mentor in business and industry who serves “as a resource for the student teams, providing a real-world perspective as they advise them on their projects. Mentors provide context as to how their project would be approached in a real-world business setting, guidance on focusing the topic, feedback on the status and direction of the team, and possibly recommendations on information resources for the team to review.” (www.foresight.nd.edu/student-projects/mentor-a-student-team)  Tom Buccellato is the CFO of Ventures, Commercial and Communications at GE and a Mendoza College graduate.  He has been mentoring foresight teams for five years.  While he teaches the undergraduates a great deal about business, he said that he has found that the excellent students at the College actually inform his thinking about the future as well.

How they began teaching the future

The Mendoza College of Business is one of the leading undergraduate business schools in the country, being ranked either #1 or #2 by Bloomberg Businessweek over the last six years.  The College sees the course as a distinction that contributes to its excellent reputation. “This signature course, required for all business majors, provides junior-level students with the framework to identify global trends, and to analyze how these trends will impact business decisions in an increasingly complex marketplace.” (www.foresight.nd.edu)

Using what Professor Frecka found in Houston and at other schools, Jay MacIntosh, a consumer products and tax consultant from Ernst and Young, launched a pilot course in Fall 2008.  He and Suzanne Coshow, a sociologist at Notre Dame, scaled the course up for all students in Fall 2009.

The course won an IBM Smarter Planet Faculty Innovation Award in 2011.  “We need to focus on developing more advanced skills so that students around the world are equipped to tackle real-world issues when they enter the workforce,” said Jim Corgel, general manager of IBM Academic and Developer Relations.

Sam Miller took a leadership role in the foresight program in 2010 after coming to Notre Dame in 2009 from a career in manufacturing and marketing.  He was also the Director of the University’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship and a member of the Board of Directors for Teach the Future.  He has also introduced the course as an elective in the College’s MBA and Executive MBA programs.

Tim Balco has taught four sections of the course each semester since 2013.  A former legal researcher and teacher, he says that this course is different from any other course these students take.  The difference, to put it briefly, is that the course is not about “the future” as such, but more about the skills needed to think about and influence the future successfully.  There are no “right” answers for these outstanding students to memorize and give back on tests.  Rather the course requires a habit of mind that appreciates uncertainty and tradeoffs, one that uses creativity and imagination as much as data gathering and analysis.  Tim says that some students take to it right away.  Others struggle for a while, but all come to appreciate that they have been introduced to skills they will use throughout their careers.  And see what students and business leaders have to say about Foresight in Business and Society in their own words.

The vision of Teach the Future is that every undergraduate learns how to anticipate and influence the future as a general education requirement.  Every business school and indeed every college and university should imitate what this leading business school has done.  If they do, their students will be better prepared with the skills to be successful in the 21st century.