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Today's World Calls for 'Issues Management'

August 04, 1996|JUDY R. ROSENER | Judy R. Rosener is a professor in the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine. She is the author of "America's Competitive Secret: Utilizing Women as a Management Strategy."

The share price of TWA stock, as well as public confidence in the airline, plummeted after the recent crash of Paris-bound Flight 800 and the bombing at the Olympic Games in Atlanta raised new concerns about public safety and terrorism. What do these two events have in common? The answer is "issues management," a process that involves forecasting, anticipating and analyzing issues and developing strategies to prevent, address and/or capitalize on them.

The book jacket on William L. Renfro's "Issues Management in Strategic Planning" reads, "Emerging issues in the external environment have more influence on the future of corporations than do their CEOs and strategic management teams." Increasingly, this rings true. Therefore, it is important to understand how to identify, anticipate and manage issues in new ways. Corporations and government agencies that are aware of this are reaping benefits.

Issues management is not just public relations, traditional planning, futures research, crisis management or strategic thinking. It is not any one of these--rather, it is all of them. It is a process that Christine V. Keen of the Domani Group (a consulting firm specializing in issues management) says reduces or eliminates unwanted surprises, improves the ability to take advantage of anticipated change, concentrates responses on key issues and opportunities and facilitates exerting more control over the future of an organization.

Attesting to the emergence of issues management as a valuable managerial tool is the popularity of trend letters; books such as "Megatrends" and "Popcorn Report"; the existence of consultants who specialize in issues management; 2,000 attendees at a recent World Future Society Conference where 200 sessions dealt with emerging political, economic and social issues; and the growing importance of the Washington-based Issue Management Council.

How does issues management work? One might say it is just a fancy name for strategic planning. However, although the processes may be similar, they are not the same. The issues management process takes place over a longer time span, across a broader horizon and uses different types of methodologies. Unlike traditional strategic planning, it is not limited to assessing change primarily in an economic context. Rather, it takes place in a political and social context as well.

Because emerging issues today are difficult to predict and interpret, the types of analytical tools needed to plan for them differ from those used in the past. Not only is it necessary to determine how, where and why a given issue might have an impact on a bottom line (negatively or positively), it is also necessary to decide which issues deserve attention. This is not an easy task.

The difference between issues management and strategic planning can be illustrated by the events involving TWA. If there had been an issues management process in place (the assumption is that there was not) before Flight 800, airline executives would have anticipated the reaction of the victims' families and immediately provided explanations for the delay in notifying them. TWA's chief executive would have met with the families and friends as soon as they had been assembled, knowing that a symbolic message of caring needed to be sent. Clearly, TWA had not thought through how to react before finding itself in the middle of a crisis.

Yet this kind of accident is not an unprecedented event. An issues management process would have involved the development of plane crash scenarios, their probability and an analysis of the costs and benefits of alternative corporate responses. This type of exercise is not normally part of conventional strategic planning.

The Olympic organizing committee and Atlanta officials no doubt used an issues management process while planning for the Games. Consequently, they were prepared to answer tough questions when the bomb exploded. The explanation for limited security in Centennial Park was that because of finite resources, officials decided to concentrate primarily on the sports venues. This made sense. Traditional strategic planners probably would have looked at public relations as an issue separate from that of safety. Using an issues management approach, safety and public relations were joined.


Issues management is a collaborative process. Those who do the monitoring are not the same as those who do the analysis. Those who calculate probabilities are not the same as those who evaluate them. When used effectively, issues management is a key component in overall strategic planning. However, as recent events have shown, traditional ways of planning no longer suffice. Decision makers need longer-range, broader-based thinking about emerging issues. As philosopher Eric Hoffer noted, "The only way to predict the future is to have power to shape the future."

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