Imagining the Future of Business

Friday, October 28, 2022

Alvin Toffler’s best-selling 1970 book, Future Shock, famously had Americans thinking about a brave new world just over the horizon. But more than a few people in American business didn’t need Toffler to tell them that things were changing. Starting in the late 1960s and lasting throughout the following decade, “the future” and what it might mean for corporations, was a topic of intense interest. Indeed, attempting to understand the future brought several business journalists, consultants, and corporate planners together in a wide-ranging conversation with one another. Tracing this conversation’s contours in reports, conference proceedings, and company newsletters first brought me to the Hagley in 2019, and then again this past May. 

Several different documents—scattered across Hagley’s collections—suggest the various ways that futurism’s ideas found their way into management thinking, beginning in the late 1960s. For instance, in an early, wide-ranging attempt to grapple with these different issues, the Conference Board spearheaded an “experimental public affairs forecast” in 1968. This endeavor engaged a number of different futurists and employed futurist methodology. Finally issued in 1970, the report (which is part of Hagley’s collections) concluded that “the United States is in a period of major transition” from an “industrial to a post-industrial society.[1]”  The Conference Board’s report is not the only document at the Hagley that provides glimpses of these concerns. General Electric had also been relying on an in-house futurist in its effort to rethink strategy and decision-making.

Documents found in the James P. Baughman collection on strategy at G.E offer a testament to how corporate planners relied on futurist discourse and ideas in thinking through the 1970s, which, as a G.E. report put it, would be “a decade of questioning, uncertainty, potential turmoil, and confrontation.[2]”  At G.E., the futurist Ian Wilson was involved in the company’s Environmental Task Force, a wide-ranging effort to respond to this new uncertainty. While working on reports for G.E. during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wilson drew on the work of other futurists, citing reports published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Council on Trends and Perspectives, a group comprised of self-described futurists. These publications can also be found at the Hagley. 

Some of Wilson’s G.E. reports became foundational documents for subsequent corporate futurists. For instance, the Council on Trends and Perspectives cited at least one of Wilson’s reports in their publications. What’s more, during these same years, futurists began appearing at conferences organized by the Conference Board and the National Association of Manufacturers. 

This extended dialog about the future (much of which is contained in archival boxes at the Hagley), can offer insight into how some influential voices in American business were beginning to think about changes taking place in the world around them and what those changes might mean for the broader social role that corporations might have to assume.

[1] Tomorrow’s Problems Confronting Today’s Management, National Industrial Conference Board, 1970, p 5.
[2] “Environmental Highlights and Implications,” 1971.

Gavin Benke is Senior Lecturer at Boston University’s CAS Writing Program and the author of Risk and Ruin: Enron and the Culture of American Capitalism. His current book project is titled “Imagining the Future of Business: 1961-1994.”