It’s essential for futurists to analyze their own forecasting work over time. We check to see how we can improve our skills and understanding by looking back at how we looked ahead.
It sounds obvious, and it is obvious within the futures community. As part of this backwards perspective, understanding errors is very useful. This is a professional axiom. For example, Phil Tetlock has built an interesting prediction methodology on this theme, teaching people to hone their predictive abilities by checking and rechecking what they got wrong.
People who have heard me speak and lead workshops know, in the spirit of honesty and transparency, I like to mention things I got seriously wrong. I’d like to share two of those blunders here, and add what I learned from them.
By the way, very few people do this publicly. Transparency – one of my core values – has its risks.
The blunders both took place between five and ten years ago.
The first one concerned college sports. From 2008-2011 or so I thought there was a chance that higher education might cut back on athletics. American readers can start laughing now, but I was thinking of a scandal cluster.
I had plenty of evidence for this at the time. There was the Penn State sexual assault nightmare. There was also the University of North Carolina cheating scandal and another one at Florida State. The University of Miami had a gifts debacle. Jim Duderstadt, then president of the University of Michigan (and home of leading football and basketball teams), told one audience that college sports were “a beast that must be tamed.”*
At the same time colleges and universities were dealing with the 2008 financial crash’s aftermath. Many faced financial problems, as I and others chronicled. Since the supermajority of college sports don’t make a profit, as Bowen and Schulman conclusively demonstrated, – indeed, a great many lose money – I thought campuses might cut back in order to save money for more mission-critical funding needs: faculty and support staff compensation, student life, and student aid.
Obviously this forecast was massively wrong. College sports did not get cut, and instead were funded quite well.
So what did I miss?
I didn’t recognize the true depths of support American college sports enjoy. That support goes beyond economics, although many boosters celebrate the (very rare) ability of teams to win money for their hosts. Many campus leaders and stakeholders love their athletes for reasons including institutional identity and enjoyment of sports in general. There’s a deep psychology around sports culture.
There were also institutional strategies in play. Some academic leaders will back sports to attract male applicants, as female students now constitute a majority, and those leaders seek what they see as a kind of gender parity. Others view athletic scholarships as a way to attract minority students.
I missed these points because, to be honest, I’ve never been a sports fan. Although I’ve been a weightlifter my entire adult life, I don’t follow professional or college sports. As a teenager I was bullied by athletes, and decided to ignore their world from then on. That led to a blind spot for me in 2008-2012. As a result of this bad forecast, I’ve been working hard to better understand the topic. Many FTTE supporters have been very helpful on this score.
Second, I thought that campuses would energetically increase collaborating with each other. My reasoning was that inter-institutional collaboration had all kinds of benefits, including financial ones (think scale and shared capacity), and that the economic havoc wrought by the 2008 crash would drive us to more sharing.
This hasn’t proven to be the case in subsequent years. Colleges and universities have a very, very hard time collaborating with each other. Most would, frankly, rather partner with businesses rather than each other (and people wonder about the connections between educational technology and the corporate sector).
There are all kinds of reasons, starting from the very competitive nature of higher education. As one president told me years ago, his board never asks him about their collaborative projects. Instead, they wanted to know about “crushing the competition.” The ongoing financial stresses hitting most of American higher ed, combined with the ongoing enrollment problem, further encourage us to view each other as the enemy, rather than as possible allies.
Collaboration faces other obstacles. Federal anti-trust pressure in the 1980s offers some discouragement. The bureaucratic and political complexity of setting up and maintaining partnerships is considerable. Individual offices and professionals can find themselves charged with devoting scant resources to help other campuses, rather than their own institutions. Collaboration can appear to be costly, and its benefits obscure.
I had experienced these problems repeatedly when working with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), a nonprofit that sought to help liberal arts campuses work with each other in the digital age. My error was, I think, in expecting the Great Recession to mitigate those problems. Instead, those problems persisted, and even deepened. It’s also possible that my unusual institutional position, being an independent working with hundreds of campuses and governments, led me to see more of collaboration’s virtues than its costs.
Duly noted. A lesson learned.
To be fair, inter-institutional collaboration does seem to be growing now. Several Future Trends Forum sessions have discussed new ways for schools to connect with each other. It may be that my forecast was correct, but took longer to come to pass than I’d expected. That is also very useful information.
Taken together, these sports and collaboration goofs showed me where to improve my futures work. I think I’m better at those issues now.
I hope this has been a useful post. It risks professional embarrassment, as who wants to openly admit to being wrong? But the practice of examining one’s futuring errors is vital, and maybe my sharing the process can help others.
How about you? Any forecasting misfires that you’d like to share?
*This is a frustrating citation. If you follow the link you’ll see a page copied and hosted by the Internet Archive. It’s a blog post I wrote for NITLE with links to several other posts. It’s on the Internet Archive because NITLE decided at some point to nuke the blog (without asking those of us who built it, or informing us). And the Internet Archive copies are incomplete… including the post where I recorded Duderstadt’s statement. So, ultimately, all you have to go on is my memory.