Michael Weatherburn is a historian, consultant and mentor. Here he considers how high-quality hindsight can enhance our understanding of the future of work. 

Hindsight and foresight

‘Foresight is said to be 90 per cent hindsight; and, short of the gift of prophecy, the only way to forecast the future is to consider what, in similar circumstances, happened in the past’.

This statement sounds like it could be from a recent TED talk, but in fact it’s from William Wallace’s Business Forecasting and its Practical Application of 1928. Wallace’s point is just as valid today – if not more valid. With so much of our daily workplace activity rooted in forecasting models (especially when compared to nine decades ago), it’s important to keep in mind the fact that we can, perhaps even should, use hindsight to enhance foresight. This article offers insights into how to do so.

News stories, literature, podcasts, and blogs like this one fizz with predictions for the future, mostly emphasising change. But our perceptions of change can often override how much change is actually happening on the ground. This in turn colours how we think about events leading up to the present and the trajectory of the future.

As our recent work with the Resolution Foundation showed, most predictions of future workplace change demonstrably overestimate the speed and scope of change.

Building on these findings, let's ask something heretical: what if the most shocking aspect of the future of work is that it won’t be so shocking after all? Or that some of our most useful lessons for the future can be found in the past?

A superb, albeit often-forgotten, example of using novel hindsight to develop useful future foresight is in a 1960s US Department of Defense military study. Commissioned alongside the Pentagon papers, the Department of Defense analysed massive quantities of research and development data from weapons systems development throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars. Its key finding – that technology development was a more effective use of government funding than basic research – turned a commonly-held, high-value assumption on its head.

Memory decay

Despite high-quality case studies such as this, we haven’t been getting better at incorporating hindsight into foresight. In some ways, we’ve gone the other way. A recent illustrative example is Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently admitted he’d over-extended factory automation and that it was actually slowing down vehicle production. As such, Tesla recruited more humans for production work. In effect, the firm increased the analogue, human element of production. Moreover, as specialists subsequently pointed out, this is a lesson which General Motors had learned in the 1980s, and which Musk and Tesla had either forgotten or never learned in the first place.

Our argument here is that we can’t blame Musk for this issue, as this inability to produce hindsight which can meaningfully inform future strategy is happening in all kinds of digitized organisations. Beneath all the hype about the future, a hidden workplace transformation over the past three decades or so is the decline in organisational memory.

Let’s call it memory decay. While important from the heritage and educational perspectives it is also one which powerfully affects the daily operations of large-scale projects.

Each sector has its own challenges. For example, we’ve worked on a number of defence projects such as this one, which developed UK policy for future aerospace-industrial strategy. As Nick Witney, first Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, recently put it

Defence ministries have little or no corporate memory. Defence ministers are usually birds of passage, staging through en route to more exciting portfolios, or gracefully declining towards retirement. Military ‘tours’ in staff jobs seldom exceed two or three years. So there is constant generational change and perhaps even long-established truths need to be regularly relearned.

So if employment fluidity remains a key issue in the future workplace, so too relearning past activity could well be one, as well.  

These challenges apply in different mixtures and blends to almost every sector, particularly those involving large, capital-intensive, long-term projects such as defence, energy, infrastructure, and healthcare: digital disruptiondata decay, mergers and acquisitions, an ageing workforce and employment fluidity leading to organisational amnesia.

Classifying memory decay

Let’s give this phenomenon some shape. While no classification system will ever be perfect, from our experience in the defence and legal sectors it's possible to break down memory decay into what social analyst Max Weber called 'ideal types'. In this instance, the ideal types include:

  • Etch A Sketch: an organisational memory of a few months or less. Few in the organisation have any idea where they might begin to recover it. Major crises even a few years ago, plus crisis management lessons learned, almost entirely forgotten.
  • Information overload: a saturation of complex data and sources. The organisation finds it hard to leverage the data available to meet the speed of new challenges.
  • The smoking gun: we need to rediscover information about one specific activity or event in the past, which is affecting us in the present. We have a problem to solve.
  • Gone digital native: a young staff, with few more experienced colleagues to inform them about the organisation’s past activity. Needs routine upskilling in long-term data sets and analogue skills, as well as enhanced cross-generational working.

Each scenario involves a mixture of people and data, analogue and digital. Each also requires finding, integrating and utilising older data and sources for current and future strategies.

Data archaeology

The recent, extensive debate on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will no doubt be known to every reader. And its impact on our personal privacy will hopefully be positive. We can also be grateful to the GDPR legislation for sparking a widespread resurgence in debate on the historical formulation of data, and its subsequent provenance, architecture, and use.

As the wide-ranging nature of GDPR indicates, data issues are now almost everywhere in Western-style economies, in every workplace: far more so than when the Data Protection Act was introduced two decades ago

While sectors are widely divergent, with different projects, language, and behaviours, the one workplace constant is they've been digitising over these past twenty years. In so doing, digital data and skills have been routinely promoted over analogue thinking and working.

As readers in the finance sector will attest, specific digital datasets have become so hard-wired into digital finance models that many firms seek alternative, often analogue, data to acquire competitive advantage. The issue here is that when we sit down to analyse, as these financial analysts do, the past twenty years’ worth of data from a given sector in order to develop future projects, the chances are that the uninitiated will have a difficult time in finding that unique data. Memory decay works on multiple levels.

Future-shock and future-proofing

So what does this trend mean for the future of work? If our work at Project Hindsight is anything to go by, it means a lot of confusion, frustration and delays. It means baffled twenty-somethings at the pensions company we visited attempting to leverage pensions modelling data from analogue equipment they had never used or seen before. It means civil servants trying to find the landline number of former civil servants who retired in 2003, in order to establish when a fully-operating government policy should have come to fruition. It means firms in court genuinely unable to tell their legal representatives at their side whether they're innocent or guilty of what is being alleged. It means giant, capital-intensive infrastructure projects which last decades operating on an organisational memory of five years.

The challenges created by memory decay are both people issues and data issues. What dovetails both together is that memory decay is really a skills issue, and leaders in management and education are well-placed to address, and solve, the growing organisational memory gap. Memory decay doesn’t need to be permanent.

As we’ll discuss when we soon publish the results of our recent defence sector study, it is also an intergenerational issue. As David DeLong, a specialist on aging workforces, put it:

Taking a strategic approach to knowledge retention can help you manage the risks of lost knowledge by reducing costly surprises. It will also help develop more of a future orientation, which will be essential to address the challenges of sustaining workforce capabilities in the years ahead.

DeLong’s book is full of case studies – interviews, knowledge management systems, storage solutions - which explore how companies seek to ameliorate the loss of knowledgeable, skilled workers due to retirement.

The twist here is that this quote dates from fourteen years ago. The interesting question for us to conclude with is: how much impact did his arguments make back then, and how can we use this hindsight to evaluate best practices which companies adopted between now and then? What would you and your team do to evaluate this statement’s impact on your organisation? These answers will certainly deliver useful insights into the future of work.  


By Michael Weatherburn, Field Leader, Imperial College and Director, Project Hindsight