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How companies can use social media to plan for the future

Many organisations use scenario planning to explore uncertainties in their future operating environments and develop new strategies. Scenario planning is a structured method for imagining possible futures based on the identification of key uncertainties in the external environment, and it may involve a variety of stakeholder groups from inside and outside the main organisation, including employees and potential clients or customers. Companies often run such projects using facilitated workshops. These workshops typically require people to be physically present in order to participate and engage with others. What to do today? How can we do strategy – or have a useful strategic conversation about the future of an organisation – when we cannot get together in the usual way, in a room with flipcharts, whiteboards, etc.? When will be able to hold face-to-face strategy workshops again? And, in the aftermath of the current pandemic, will the practice of strategy change, to place less emphasis on bringing people together in the same room?

In an era of widespread use of social media, scenario planning exercises should be adapted to allow people to interact with each other virtually. A good example of how this might be achieved is provided by the use of Twitter within a project to plan for the future of food systems around Birmingham, UK, in 2050. The project set out to describe some inspiring food futures that challenge current thinking about how people feed themselves, particularly when most of us live in cities, and was led by Kate Cooper, now executive director of the Birmingham Food Council.

The project began with a series of six face-to-face events, involving scientists and others with expertise in architecture, biochemistry, bio-energy, chemical engineering, computer science, entomology, food distribution, geography, horticulture, plant science, public health, and veterinary epidemiology. A specialist team supported each event by managing live social media reporting. Reporting took the form of live Twitter postings to promote the events and engage non-attendees.

Some of the social media activity was predictable. Team members tweeted just before each event, to promote it and stimulate interest. However, some of the findings were more surprising. The Twitter activity suggests, first, that the project’s approach to the use of social media was successful in bringing a diverse set of people with different perspectives and interests into the conversation – and this is surely a valuable attribute of a strategy exercise that is aiming to think broadly and consider a wide range of possible futures and strategies relating to an important issue. Second, the conversations that took place on Twitter did not develop around a single theme; instead many conversations developed, often around a number of hot topics. One such hot topic resulted in a series of Tweets around food deserts, urban areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Third, the conversations were not confined to the workshops themselves; they continued between the face-to-face events, perhaps leading to more thoughtful contributions from participants.

This project suggests that companies can use social media effectively as part of a scenario planning activity, to engage participants, encourage contributions to the project, and support ongoing conversations. The use of social media may even provide participants with the opportunity to reflect on the thorny issues under discussion, and make additional contributions at a moment when they have fully considered a range of possible arguments and different perspectives on the problem.

One successful way to promote engagement on social media to pose a series of questions in order to encourage Twitter followers to respond and express an opinion. Two examples of such questions were  “Could we use sea water/grey water for flushing toilets instead of expensive drinking quality water?” and  “Should we give up on educating the old and concentrate on the young to get the message through about food sustainability?”  Such questions, and participants’ responses, may be particularly valuable in the brainstorming stages of a scenario planning exercise, where the organisers are asking participants to think creatively to identify unpredictable factors that will help to shape the future, or suggest new strategies to deal with those uncertainties.

These potential developments are particularly important during the current global pandemic when organisations cannot always carry out meetings face-to-face; they have implications for changing scenario planning and other strategy development exercises. In such uncertain times, we surely need good approaches to the practice of strategy – now more than ever!

Feature Image Credit: by Sara Kurfeß via Unsplash so

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