Notes on Scenarios

I just finished reading the ARL 2030 Scenarios: A User’s Guide for Research Libraries. For lack of a better term, it’s an interesting read. It’s only 92 pages, so you might want to read it through and then come back to this post….

Okay, if you don’t have time to do that, you might read the article about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education
It would be easy to criticize the scenarios themselves, which posit very drastic changes to research universities by 2030, most of them involving the near-total corporatization of research and the demise of research universities as viable independent entities. And that’s just the good news. However, while the scenarios are provocative, the report continuously tells us that the long-term scenarios are designed only to spur short-term strategic planning, and much of the report details ways to integrate them into strategic planning workshops. Thus, I won’t be criticizing the scenarios themselves, though I do have some questions about this method. Since reading the report, I’ve done a bit more reading about scenario planning, but until this it was new to me. I’m less curious about the scenarios than what seems to be the ideology of scenario planning itself. 
A few of the passages left me with questions. For example:
The goal in using scenarios is not to pick one as more likely or more desirable but to accept that the future will  contain elements of all four scenarios. (8)
For a method designed to get people thinking about radical changes and how to deal with them, this seems remarkably passive to me. It’s not clear to me why I (or some group) can’t deliberate about which of these scenarios might be more likely. One in particularly seemed much more likely to me than the others, and I didn’t especially like any of them. I understand that the goal is to get people thinking outside their comfort zone, but why this “user guide” gets to speculate on possible futures and I don’t puzzles me. Combined with the second clause about acceptance, the sentence seems to imply that none of these scenarios are more likely than any others and yet they are all true. That the future will contain elements of all four scenarios is both vague and highly likely, because the present already contains elements of all four scenarios. Past that, I’m not sure what is really added here.
No single scenario ever captures the future with accuracy. Instead, the set of scenarios as a whole contain the  elements and conditions the organization will face in the future. (11)
This restatement of the premise of scenario planning doesn’t make things clearer for me. Obviously no single scenario accurately predicts the future. But if no single scenario captures the future with accuracy, then how can we say the set as a whole will accurately predict the future? Why this set of scenarios and not others? If one scenario is faulty, adding multiple scenarios will multiply the flaws as well as any accuracies. Even if this particular set contained all the elements and conditions organizations will face, we’re still left with the question, which elements are those? And once we choose which elements, we will be constructing a new scenario, which we also can’t trust to be accurate. This will create an infinite regression of never quite likely scenarios. We certainly can’t plan for every element in every scenario, and yet without speculating about likelihood that is what we’re challenged to do.
In order to fully engage with this material, you must a) avoid the desire to choose a scenario as a more likely or desirable future; and b) suspend disbelief concerning the possibilities that stretch beyond your level of comfort. (14)
This is too therapeutic for me. I’m not sure I have a desire to choose a scenario as more likely, but based on my own knowledge I have an inclination to do just that. I see that the authors are trying to get us to check our desires and blindnesses, but it’s possible to do that while still remaining critical about the scenarios themselves. My own scenario (perhaps the subject of another post) is rather different from most of these, and yet is far from the future I would desire for research universities and libraries. 
Scenario planning is not an analytic process. It is not about assigning probabilities to future events or choosing  a desired future. Scenario planning is based on the belief that the future is inherently uncertain and that an organization cannot choose the future environment in which it will operate. However, an organization can take a disciplined approach to understanding the critical uncertainties that it faces and develop a robust strategy that will  work across a wide range of possible futures. (41)
This partly gets at what makes me uncomfortable about the process as I understand it so far. We are told that scenario planning isn’t an analytic process, and yet without analysis of future possibilities and likelihoods I don’t see how we can do much planning. The future is inherently uncertain, I will grant, but that uncertainty rests within relatively narrow bounds. We might be colonized by aliens, but I don’t think we should consider that scenario when planning for research libraries. It’s less obvious that an organization can’t choose the future in which it will operate. Must we be so fatalistic? I’m probably overnalyzing this, but it seems to say that we can’t do anything about the future, so we have to do something about the future. 
Most of the “Common Themes Across the Scenarios” are make more sense to me than the reasoning behind the scenarios themselves. Here they are:
  • Developing Diverse and Novel Sources of Revenue and/or Funding 
  • Balancing Mission and Values with Sustaining the Enterprise 
  • Engaging Fully in Research Activities as Service Provider and Steward of Content 
  • Developing Focused, Specialized Capabilities and Scope 
  • Creating Research Library Cooperative Capacities 
I’m not sure they’re all reconcilable with some of the scenarios, though. If in the future all research is corporately funded and driven, and thus it’s also all STEM research, there really won’t be much need for research universities or research libraries. Research universities originated as places to systematically create and disseminate new knowledge about all subjects, and they have developed standards of investigation and evidence, especially in the STEM fields. If the future is one commercially driven research with no external standards, created by private enterprises and locked into proprietary corporate databases, there’s really no possibility of, for example, balancing the mission with sustaining the enterprise. There’ll be no mission or enterprise. There’ll also be no research library, and certainly no professional librarians in the sense we understand it today. Curating proprietary corporate data requires expertise, but not professionalism in the sense that one evaluates the information and maintains intellectual values as well as technological standards, not to mention the
mission of the research library to preserve knowledge as well as make it accessible.
To be clear, I’m not trying to project my desires onto the future. This might very well be the future, but it’s not a future we can plan for, unless we can somehow plan for our own obsolescence. But that’s not necessary, because if it comes to that, we won’t be doing the planning; someone else will, and we likely won’t have anything to say about it.
Because I was curious about its effectiveness, I tried to find scholarly evaluations of scenario planning, but couldn’t find much. There are lots of descriptions of when one might use it, but not much proving that it worked. That’s one problem with futuristic thinking. Only time will tell. For example, this article* (ScienceDirect, so there’s definitely a paywall there) claims that “realistic evaluations of scenario planning and correspondence measures leave us wanting,” and concludes:
Real-world evaluations lack measures of verification, are subject to biased sampling, rely on invalidated reports, do not explicitly define the reference goal or measure the reference goal inappropriately in terms of the method and are unable to distinguish between the effects of organisation, method and environment. Theoretical evaluations are constantly evolving rationales about which completeness and sufficiency are difficult to assess. 
But, you know, except for that everything’s fine! Though it’s popular, the method’s effectiveness seems to be like the claims that one must “accept” the scenarios without analysis. It’s an article of faith that is difficult to empirically verify.
Anyway, a few raw thoughts after a quick reading. Despite my quibbles about some of the rationale behind scenario planning, the scenarios themselves are worth reading, even if we refuse to suspend our judgments about likelihoods. No doubt they’ll lead to some provocative discussions during strategic planning.
*Harries, Clare. “Correspondence to what? Coherence to what? What is good scenario-based decision making?” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 70:8 (October 2003), 797-817.

One thought on “Notes on Scenarios

  1. Your post reminded me of a recent back-and-forth between the news networks over “scenario planning:”
    Ridiculous? Yes. In the least, it calls attention to some of the same contradictory statements of intent, purpose, use, etc.
    As always, thanks for sharing your (very thoughtful) thoughts.

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