Microsoft Higher Education - White papers

White papers

Exploring Microsoft Future of Work Scenarios:
Implications for Higher Education

Daniel W. Rasmus

On this page:

The scenarios
Scenario 1: The Proud Tower
Scenario 2: Continental Drift
Scenario 3: Frontier Friction
Scenario 4: Freelance Planet
What the scenarios mean for educators
Conclusion
References
Biography
Copyright and citation information

Synopsis

In 2004, Microsoft undertook the task of exploring the future of work using scenario planning. In this article, the follow-up to “Scenario Planning and the Future of Education,” which appeared in the June/July 2008 issue of Innovate, Daniel W. Rasmus describes what education looks like in the four scenarios that emerged from this process. Rasmus suggests that educators and policy makers can use these scenarios and the accompanying narratives to consider how large and small choices work toward or against a particular future.

In Scenario Planning and the Future of Education, published in the June/July 2008 issue of Innovate, I explored the process Microsoft Corporation used to create scenarios related to the future of work and how the company applied the technique of wind tunneling to explore how education might evolve in the different scenarios for the future of work. As I noted in that article, since at least one of the purposes of education is to prepare students for the world of work, the future of work will necessarily affect the future of education; economic and political forces will shape student and parent expectations and determine the resources available for education (Rasmus 2008).

This article makes no claim to deep external scholarship around scenario planning; that work has been done elsewhere (Exhibit 1). Rather, in this article, I focus on the scenarios themselves, describing education in the context of the four scenarios that emerged from the future of work project and exploring how work and education may be linked in the various futures.


Return to top

The scenarios

The scenarios emerging from the process were based on a list of key uncertainties likely to shape the future (Exhibit 2). Two key uncertainties drive the Microsoft Future of Work scenarios: the strength of globalization and the organizing principle of the world as either hierarchical or networked. These represent high-level, external concepts that expand each other. For instance, a retreat from globalization combined with a networked organizing structure creates a devolved economic world where local groups maintain external relationships because they recognize the limits of local resources but are wary in those choices and suspicious until they build trust through personal relationships.

The scenarios that follow explore different ways in which the forces of market expansion and organizational principles may play against each other. Given that education is a critical uncertainty, the role of education and educational institutions is a factor in each future, with more traditional schools in the upper quadrants and more community-based education in the lower quadrants. In Frontier Friction the focus is on community while Freelance Planet’s approach is holistic and global. The education scenarios were created by playing out additional uncertainties around education, identified in further research, against the four scenarios for the future of work.

To gather further insight and create a student perspective on the scenarios, Microsoft hosted 12 students from Eton College (King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor) in March of 2007. The students were presented with the Future of Work scenarios and then broke into teams to explore individual scenarios. Each team was given a series of questions about student life to consider (Exhibit 3). The teams were asked to speculate about the lives of students and their perceptions and attitudes within the confines of the given scenario. We used the answers provided by that exercise to create the various vignettes.

The result is a set of narratives that describe how education might evolve in the context of the various futures of work from the perspective of those students who participated in the exercise. The narratives focus on how education looks to students; a similar exercise with educators, administrators, or parents would yield different perspectives and different narrative details within the constraints of the particular scenarios.

The result is a set of narratives that describe how education might evolve in the context of the various futures of work from the perspective of those students who participated in the exercise. The narratives focus on how education looks to students; a similar exercise with educators, administrators, or parents would yield different perspectives and different narrative details within the constraints of the particular scenarios.

The narratives are meant to be illustrative of the types of exploration possible using persona-building techniques; these are not definitive or conclusive analyses. They provide examples of how scenario planning can create a compelling alternative reality against which to challenge our assumptions about the future and can provide impetus for explorations of innovative products, processes, and partnerships that may help shape the futures described by the scenarios. Within the limited space of this article, I can offer only brief extracts of the scenario narratives; these snippets of narrative may evoke more questions than answers. Formulating answers to those questions within a given future’s constraints will provide some understanding of the power that plausible alternative futures can provide for generating creative ideas or testing current assumptions.

Return to top

Scenario 1: The Proud Tower

Proud Tower describes a future where merger and acquisition activities have led to large, centralized, vertically integrated corporations that have subsumed many of the functions of governments, including education and the development of local infrastructure (Exhibit 4). In this future, workers make their careers by climbing the corporate ladder, building relationships within their organization, and shaping their personal lives to the culture and priorities of their employers. Most workers are highly educated through strong, corporation-funded K-12 programs and corporate universities. In Proud Tower, what students learn is linked to what companies need; in effect, students are educated to become workers. Growing up with the knowledge that they are likely to be employed by the corporation that funds their education, students tend to take a much more vocational view of education:

Company staff meet with the students every day. A sign of routine. There is always some kind of free thing, either a product or a marketing gift. Bobby is planning on starting in marketing as soon as he graduates. The college is just a company bus ride away. The company encourages students to start early and build their careers while they learn. It seems to make sense. So much of the old college approach that he has read about was just pointless. Taking a bunch of classes to get well-rounded? If you know what you want, then why take Shakespeare or chemistry if you aren’t going to use them? Nothing wrong with reading, but there is a lot of stuff to learn and the important thing, the productive thing, is to learn the right stuff really well.

As Bobby enters the classroom, he quickly sits down and logs in. Several company logos and the school’s logo pop up as the computer starts. His school is a joint venture, but he knows where he is going to work. And the company knows it too. His classes are arranged to prepare him for a career in marketing pharmaceuticals. Prior to graduation, his scholarship and his job will be properly presented to Bobby and his parents. The scholarship investment will take him through a master’s degree at the local university. It will be nearly impossible to refuse the offer and, with Bobby’s ambitions, well outside the realm of probability.

Today’s English lesson focuses on market messaging and the construction of messaging architectures. Bobby reads the assignment, which asks him to write a vision statement for the marketing plan, and starts typing.

Return to top

Scenario 2: Continental Drift

Continental Drift envisions a retrenchment from globalization, perhaps caused by catastrophic economic conditions, an epidemic, or geopolitical tensions, creating a world of competitive nation-states or regional blocs. Complicated relationships between various blocs and superpowers restricting access to manufacturing capabilities, raw materials, overseas markets, and immigrant labor (Exhibit 5). Workforce development and education are huge government priorities, especially in the context of labor shortages driven by demographic trends. Education in Continental Drift is controlled by isolationist governments that enforce a nationalistic world view. School is as much an indoctrination as an education, and even if students are not aware of this (younger students may have nothing to compare their education against), all students are attuned to the state’s perspectives:

Another year, another new set of books. Ever since the Great Divide put a halt to globalization, it seems that history has become less historical. If history is written by the winners, where does truth come from when everybody just makes it through? Parts of Asia were starting to open up, but that was a few years ago. Mi uses many tools just like those of her Western competitors: computers, the Internet, cell phones. She is a member of several social networking sites, including Youth for Bangkok, into which she was automatically enrolled. Her use of the Internet and her personal associations are all, she knows, closely monitored, which means many of her thoughts and ideas stay within her mind, the one place no one can look.

School today is about history and language, music and athletics. Everybody is expected to be really good at something. Mi wants to be a writer, but there isn’t much call for romantic poetry these days. Her phone rings to remind her it’s time to start tutoring some of the younger kids on traditional music.

Return to top

Scenario 3: Frontier Friction

Frontier Friction emerges following a severe shock to the global economic system, perhaps a data meltdown in the financial sector following a cyber-attack (Exhibit 6). With economic and educational infrastructure in disrepair, the quality of the knowledge workforce continues to degrade, requiring simpler tools and practical skills. In Frontier Friction, the world has become a much smaller place. With resources tight and mere survival still an important consideration, education has become simpler and more community focused and has returned to the basics. As a result, students, aware of the sacrifices made to get them in school, value education in itself:

Rachel’s mother tells her that school is very important. They are lucky to have so many good teachers and access to the kind of material available here. She moved to this part of the country because she heard they still valued education. The community is a good one. They watch out for each other, and the level of violence is pretty light, comparatively speaking. They even have some computers up and running. People are starting to rethink the whole anti-computer thing, which is probably not too bad if you don’t start depending on them for everything again.

In order to get Rachel into the school, Rebecca started volunteering as a playground supervisor and then as a part-time librarian. The school was self-funded and had bartered for much of their material a few years ago after a threat of disease caused another local community to relocate.

Rachel reads Tom Sawyer out loud; she is proud of the sound her voice makes against the makeshift school’s ceiling. An old factory is a good place to be moving forward from, Mr. Hodgkins tells the students. He always tells Rachel that he likes her reading, and he picks her to read aloud often. Rachel writes down the key points of the passage from the whiteboard so she can remember the plot development and characters better. Rachel looks around the old factory and realizes, like Mr. Hodgkins, that a factory is a good place to be moving on from. We are making people learn again and what better place to make things than in a factory. Rachel can’t wait for the next book. She hopes it’s a mystery.

Mr. Hodgkins looks out at his class and finds solace that they are finally starting to care about something other than survival.

Return to top

Scenario 4: Freelance Planet

Freelance Planet is a world transformed by bottom-up networks and mass collaboration on a global scale (Exhibit 7). The flexibility and speed of networked systems renders centralized command-and-control hierarchies obsolete at all levels. Workers move from employer to employer, working on a project basis. They manage their own savings and healthcare or join one of the many guilds or associations that attract people seeking a sense of physical community in the ever-more-fluid and impersonal world of business. Students in Freelance Planet direct their own education, reaching out across national boundaries to explore their own interests and develop the relationships that will bring them work after they leave school. As a result, students tend to develop a fluid, personalized vision of education:

Sometimes Maria is late for school because she spends too much time learning. That may seem like an oxymoron, but it isn’t, not anymore. Maria is up at 6:30 every morning and immediately starts scanning for the news of the day. The phone by her bed has been collecting news feeds all night. If there isn’t anything big happening, she makes time for entertainment news. Sometimes not thinking is the best thinking you can do, she thinks.

Maria has no idea what she wants to be when she graduates; that’s why she isn’t limiting her options. So many choices, so little time. Modeling and biochemistry; Shakespeare and an outside class on practical home repair. One never knows these days. Maria’s mom is a trained accountant but makes her money helping people invest money. “Better to make it than count it,” she always says.

Today Maria will be learning biochemistry from a retired professor in England. He is very old-fashioned about England. The kids always laugh when he corrects references to GB or Europe. I live in England, he says. That may be true, but Maria knows that names are malleable as is time and space. It’s easy to associate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. What Maria really wants to know today is about the chloroplasts they put into the mice in Dankook. She wants to know more from her learning colleagues in Korea about the skinny mice that don’t need to eat.

Return to top

What the scenarios mean for educators

Reading over these brief sketches reveals the differences between the scenarios and the richness of the internal narrative and logic associated with each one. The level of detail runs from global, geopolitical forces to the individual worker and consumer. Although these scenarios were not focused on education, their application to education was fairly straightforward given the broad reach of the scenarios and the inclusion of education as one of the uncertainties. The characteristics of education find a home in the broader narrative as the relationship between work and education is shaped by larger forces.

While certain trends may be evident, none of these futures is, at this point, any more or less probable than any other. A scan of current publications will yield evidence to support movement toward any of them (Exhibit 8). Every day, our team “listens to the future” by mapping current events against the scenarios, attempting to illuminate patterns that reveal a directional bias in world events. Most of the time, the research reveals, especially early in the scenario process, that uncertainties are developing simultaneously in different directions and at different speeds. As the late evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, says:

People are storytelling creatures. We like stories that go somewhere, and therefore we like trends—because trends are things that either get better or get worse, so we can either rejoice or lament. The point of my latest book, Full House, is to show that we mistakenly depict many things as trends moving in some direction. We take the “full house” of variation in a system and try to represent it as a single number, when in fact what we should be doing is studying the variation as it expands and contracts. If you look at the history of the variation in all its complexity, then you see there’s no trend. (Gould 1997, ¶10)

Thus, the direction, location, and pace of change all require diligent examination of the world around us so we can sense where change is occurring that is relevant to our business or our field.

Regardless of the directionality or pace of change, educators and education policy makers can influence these developments by making choices and creating policies mindfully with an eye toward what traits of any given future should be fostered and which avoided. The scenarios can help them generate ideas that might not be obvious if the social, economic, and political factors under consideration remained confined to those dominant in our present. Equally, ideas that look good in today’s context may unravel when examined against a differing set of assumptions. The education scenarios were created by wind tunneling education against the future of work narratives; in a similar fashion, policy decisions can be wind tunneled against scenarios with the goal of seeing how they impact current practice or perception. Using the scenarios, we can ask if policy choices or even day-to-day classroom decisions lead to the future that inspires or to the one that causes consternation. Does a particular policy or practice lead to a future of empowered learning or one that reinforces a particular ideology? Such exercises can be conducted by policy boards, at individual institutions, even by single educators. Scenarios can help ensure that outcomes are intentional rather than accidental, and that the future we experience is shaped by the best planning we can accomplish.

Return to top

Conclusion

The narratives that accompany the scenarios are meant to spark imagination and invoke a combination of logic and emotion, reason and intuition that can guide people and organizations as they make choices about their futures. These stories can help educational planners and policy makers, school administrators, and classroom educators examine the choices they make and provide a tool for better imagining the impact of those choices on students, institutions, and communities.

At the most practical level, scenarios exist to inform strategy; they should be incorporated into policy-level thinking to drive innovative thinking and to serve as signposts for policy outcomes. When applying scenarios, uncertainties should not be seen as independent variables. The interactions of the variables can create their own uncertainties. Demographics, for instance, often arrive in scenarios as a driving force, something that is known that does not change in the future. That is true here too, but the accounting for populations proves less important in the future of work and in education than does the interaction of generations and the kind of learning environments those interactions create.

Scenarios can be a passive intellectual exercise, but in that pursuit they lose their meaning too soon. They should be seen as living stories meant to challenge and entice, warn and test as the strategy forms and as it takes shape over time. Perhaps the most important application of the scenarios for educators comes from the reinforcing comfort that no predetermined future exists. In each moment, as the future unfolds, one that can transform passion and dedication into action that helps equip learners to lead, to engage, and to grow.

Return to top

References

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. Commentary: Stephen Jay Gould. Interview by Michael Krasny. Mother Jones (January-February): 60-63. http://www.motherjones.com/commentary/columns/1997/01/outspoken.html (accessed November 7, 2008). Archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5c9zJZjmY.

Rasmus, Daniel W. 2008. Scenario Planning and the Future of Education. Innovate 4 (5). http://www.microsoft.com/education/highered/whitepapers/scenario/ScenarioPlanning.aspx (accessed November 20, 2008). Archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5cV1zHiYw.

Return to top
Return to top

Biography

Daniel W. Rasmus
Director of Business Insights
Business Division, Microsoft

Daniel W. RasmusDaniel W. Rasmus guides the research process that helps Microsoft envision how people will work in the future, analyzing trends in technology, society, education, labor, and economics to devise scenarios used to develop products for tomorrow's work force. As part of these efforts, he represents Microsoft on the Board of the Directors for the Institute for Innovation and Information Productivity and serves as a national advisor to the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technology. Rasmus also coordinates the Microsoft Office Information Worker Board of the Future, an advisory panel composed of college-aged students who share ideas on how to serve the Millennial Generation as they join the workforce. Before joining Microsoft in 2003, Rasmus was an analyst with Forrester Research, Inc. His achievements included inventing conceptual frameworks for enabling the future of work, including adaptive workspaces and intelligent content services.

Rasmus is involved in a number of industry and public sector organizations, including The National Association of Workforce Boards, the National Educator's Workshop, and The Front End of Innovation. He was recognized as a Distinguished Speaker by the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center in 2007.

As a technology writer, Rasmus has worked on staff at PC AI Magazine and Manufacturing Systems Magazine and has been a columnist for several other publications. He has authored nearly 200 trade journal articles and four books, including Listening to the Future, which was published in 2008. His latest book, Management by Design, will be available from Wiley in 2009.

Rasmus attended the University of California at Santa Cruz and received a certificate in intelligent systems engineering from the University of California at Irvine.

Return to top

Copyright and citation information

This article may be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes if the following attribution is included in the document:

This article was originally published as a Microsoft-sponsored article in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as: Rasmus, D. 2009. Exploring Microsoft Future of Work Scenarios: Implications for Higher Education. Innovate 5 (3). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=656 (accessed January 19, 2009). The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University

Return to top