There is one acronym that describes our current situation—VUCA. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
It is a word that came from the U.S. military, and that came into common usage after the end of the Cold War. Since then it has been used as the backdrop for managing and leading organizations.
VUCA is an apt description for the turnaround in situations we took for granted. At the end of the Cold War, in 1990, the wall dividing East from West Germany came down in a display that went viral. More than 200 free trade agreements were drawn after 1990, according to the World Trade Organization. Airlines in 1990 carried slightly more than 1 billion passengers; in 2015, they carried 3.5 billion.
Today, however, not even 30 years out, populist sentiments the world over are reversing these developments.
As individuals, vagueness and uncertainty are not what we like. We prefer certainty: Witness our desire for tenure.
But in our work, we can and do address the VUCA world.
By that, I do not mean that I accept the unfair charge that we in the academy make things unnecessarily complex. To say that is to misunderstand what science and research are about.
Good research does not make the world more complex and confusing; Good research makes the world more understandable. Take our models and theories. They shine a spotlight on some phenomena and “simplify” them so as to make the world a little less complex. Some of our models and theories have predictive possibilities and thereby reduce ambiguity.
In law and policy around the Internet, a common prescription is that laws should have wide consultation before being promulgated. Such consultation gives legitimacy to the rules and also pre-empts issues that may have been overlooked by the drafters. The wider consultation is messy and do slow things down. But in the longer run they make for a more certain world.
We should aim to reduce VUCA in our corner of the world. But we should not succumb to the temptation of aspiring to undue certainty. Just as we suspect something is wrong when our data throw up a correlation of 1.0, we should be suspicious of anyone who guarantees certainty. There are too many examples of those who have come to grief following those with apparent certainty. Like vitamins, just because having a little is good does not make having more better.
So what does the research say about how to address this VUCA world? Each of the four words contained in that acronym requires a different approach—but the overall response has to be strategic, planning and looking ahead with foresight and insight. What ICA’s Executive Committee and Board are doing in this respect I will elaborate upon in the next column.
As for what we as individuals can do, I think that our work, communicated powerfully, can make the world a little less volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I do not think we are entirely powerless. I will expand upon this in the Presidential address at the conference. See you then!