Navigating Change in the 21st Century: AAA Governance in the Union and Labor Movement 

In 2021 we were commissioned to do research on  AAA Governance in the Union and Labor rights movement. In 2023 ILO published the report “Trade Unions Navigating and Shaping Change” from the research.

The Need for Unions and Labour to Navigate Change  

Unions and the labor rights movement worldwide have been responsible for some of the most fundamental advances in human wellbeing and dignity over the past century. This has included the right to rest (the 40 hour work week), occupational health and safety standards that have saved countless lives and limbs, the right to fair dismissal, the right to organize, not to mention the struggle for fair wages that have lifted countless people out of poverty. The living standards of millions of people worldwide owe much to the work of unions and the union movement in challenging labour exploitation and pushing for better outcomes for workers. 

Over the past 40 years many of these gains have been eroded or even destroyed. Starting with neoliberal privatization in the 1980s, deregulation and deindustrialization, jobs were lost and strong unions suffered membership losses. This overlapped with the rise of the dotcom ICT industry boom which has historically been hostile to unionization. In addition to this trend, unprecedented challenges face a number of industries. Workers in the mining, mineral and manufacturing sectors face the pressures of climate change and the challenge of a just transition to a post carbon world. New technologies are allowing businesses to automate, putting the futures of work in a dozen sectors in question. The future for millions of workers is at a crossroads, and unions and labour rights organizations are at the intersection, confronting the challenge of navigating change in this new context of uncertainty and disruption. 

This is why The Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV) has taken a keen interest in the fields of foresight, innovation and experimentation. ACTRAV promotes the interest of workers and workers’ organizations within the International Labour Office. They are committed to the support, defence and promotion of workers’ rights, working in coordination with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Governing Body. Given the emerging body of theory and practice in foresight around the world, ACTRAV has developed an interest in how foresight and related approaches can support unions and the labour rights movement in navigating the turbulent and disruptive changes happening around us and into our futures.  

We were therefore commissioned by the ILO in late 2021 to do research on unions, labor rights organizations and other labour affiliated entities (e.g. networks, coalitions, platforms) that were using foresight and other approaches to navigate change. Working with Rafael Peels, Senior Specialist in Workers’ Activities at the Bureau for Workers’ Activities, we did a global scan of work being done or completed, and emerged with 20 short case studies / examples, which are detailed in the ILO report. The report was recently published in May 2023. This is a short explainer on the research and report process and contents. 

Part of the theme of the ACTRAV research focus in the ILO is on trade unions navigating change. “Navigation” is a rich metaphor and encompasses more than envisioning or forecasting change. It also includes sense-making and path-making, the ability for an organisation to make sense of a changing world / context and then to take and make new paths. To this end we used a novel research framework which we called “Triple A Governance” (Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive Governance).   

Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive Governance

Triple A Governance was an idea that emerged from work with UNDP Vietnam (Ramos, Uusikyla & Luong, 2020). UNDP has been on a sustained program to develop anticipatory governance capabilities. They had articulated the AAAs as a way to include responsiveness and experimentation with foresight. In this research project we further elaborated the triple As, as per the following distinctions.  

Anticipation is the capability to understand the dynamics of change that may have an impact in the foreseeable future. It allows organizations to be prepared for change by reducing “blind spots” in relation to issues that could have a major impact and by helping them to leverage change so as to take advantage of the opportunities that it creates.

Agility is the capability of an organization to change its mindsets in the light of new information about how the world is changing. Organizations, as everyone knows, are made up of people. Each of these people has a mental image of the future, of how the world is or ought to be. While in most organizations these images will be diverse, together they often make up a shared narrative or model.

Adaptation is the capability to translate shared notions of how the world is changing into actions that will promote the success and viability of the organization. These may be conventional actions, such as implementing strategic plans and human resources / workforce planning. They may also include pilot projects and experiments which allow new ideas for change to be tested and scaled up into working innovations, alongside other reorganization activities such as service (re)design.

The underlying principle within the Triple A Governance concept is that these three form an ecosystem of capabilities that are required to navigate change. There are often people within an organization that are aware of oncoming change, they may even be rigorously informed. Unfortunately many of these people unwittingly become “cassandras”. People who are aware, sensitive, even outspoken about future changes and challenges to an organization’s environment, but they are not listened to or taken seriously. This is why agility as a capability is so fundamental. Agility is the speed and adeptness by which an organization can shift its shared mindsets in the face of new knowledge and information about the future.   What is the point of foresight if new knowledge or vision isn’t translated into organizational learning and new mindsets? This was one of the central concerns of Senge (2006) in his book The Fifth Disciple. 

Equally, navigating change also requires that new organizational learning and mindsets are translated into new activities that allow the organization to adapt. Activity is defined broadly, this can be a social or technical innovation, a new work program, new workforce skills and knowledge, experimentation, campaigns, etc. Again, what is the point of new organizational learning (about the futures) and even new mindsets, if this does not lead to new actions that help the organization to be viable in the changing environment? We therefore consider the underlying principle in the Triple A concept to be the relational dynamics between the three As. This also echoes the work of Stafford Beer and others who have elaborated on the Viable Systems Model, in particular relation to where foresight fits in an organisation (Hayward 2004). 

Two archetypes of change

We also considered the dynamics of the operating environments for unions and labour rights organizations and came to the conclusion that there was a great variability in the conditions unions operate in. There are industries and sectors that are stable and experiencing continuity. Then there are industries and sectors experiencing turbulent and rapid change. We felt that these differences needed to be accounted for, mainly because trade unions use different strategies to navigate change depending on the dynamics of the operating environment. Drawing on the complex adaptive systems research of Gunderson and Holling (2002), we simplified their more complex model into a research framework that distinguished two archetypes:

  1. Growth, stability and conservation – for instance, the long-term stability in energy and mining sectors that are increasingly challenged by climate change and energy transition needs. Our examples show unions using anticipation capabilities and, in some cases, methods to anticipate change and avoid rigidity.
  1. Rapid reorganization and redesign – for instance, in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our examples show unions rapidly adopting technologies and new modes of engagement during the crisis.

These two archetypes try to capture the how the dynamics of the operating environments union exist in can be different, and which require different strategies to navigate. For example in the mobility / transport sector, new technologies disrupted the taxi industry, more often than not ushering in unwaged / commission based and underregulated workers. Any organization in this disruptive environment (archetype 2) is dealing with rapid changes that require unique strategies, especially if we are considering how they apply foresight or even Triple A Governance. 

Many other sectors and industries are in a conservation phase (archetype 1), but there may be a tsunami lurking on the horizon. The oil, coal, mineral and gas exploration sectors are well developed with a relatively stable business model. But the threat of climate change and challenge of decarbonization implies a radical energy transition. This has implications for millions of workers in these sectors and for how a Just Transition for union workers, not just a green transition, can be achieved. 

Snapshot of the Cases 

The 20 cases are divided into the three categories of anticipation, agility and adaptation. Examples that were explicitly and formally associated with strategic foresight methods were documented in the anticipation section. This includes cases on the South African Typographical Union, the Italian Confederation of Trade Unions, the International Federation of Professional Footballers Associations, and the European Trade Union Institute. 

The capability of agility, which focused on organizational learning and the ability to socialize foresight and shift mindsets may or may not use explicit foresight methods, but they are implicitly about translating knowledge about future change into a future ready culture and outlook. This section included cases on the Singapore National Trade Union Congress, Congress of South African Trade Unions, IndustriAll Global Union, the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and some related campaigns that aimed to shift public awareness. 

The capability of adaptation, again as defined in our report, is about translating organizational knowledge and learning about the future (new mindsets) into actions and activities that make the organization viable and successful into the future. Most of these don’t use formal foresight methods at all, but express creativity and innovation in bringing forth new capabilities for unions. This is often through the ability to experiment, employ new technologies, create innovations in governance, engage younger workers, and create new connections and networks. Cases in this section include UNI Global Union’s Young Workers Lab,, actionnetwork and, the Palestinian General Confederation of Trade Unions, Prospect Union, Building and Woodworkers International, Unidapp Colombia, and a number of tech prototyping and innovation initiatives. 

Together, the 20 cases provide a rich overview of how different unions are navigating change through anticipation, agility and adaptation. They provide examples that other unions and labour rights organizations can draw from and learn from. 

Insights from the Report 

Despite the dramatic changes and great challenges facing unions and the labour rights movement, there are only a handful of unions and other organizations employing foresight methods. In addition to this most of the organizations that did employ foresight methods reflected the first archetype of change, they existed in a relatively stable sector where changes are more gradual. They were therefore using foresight to disrupt and challenge themselves as a preparation for the future.

This makes sense from our experience in the field of organizational foresight, as organizations that are beset by disruption become too mired in reacting to change to think long-term. This again highlights the need for unions that consider themselves in stable environments to question how long that stability may last, and to use the opportunity of that stability to think long-term and prepare for the future. 

We also saw that as industries shift, trade unions are being challenged to reconsider their identities, and what kinds of new members might form that union. The skills of agility, being able to question the future and identity of an organization, the ability to rethink the story or narrative of an industry or organization, and the ability to dialogue and create meaning out of the complexity of a situation, these are essential capabilities in an era that is demanding greater flexibility and responsiveness. 

On the other hand, when beset by disruption after disruption, we witnessed how unions and labor rights organizations used the capability of experimentation, prototyping, service design, networking and the employment of new technologies to solve the practical dilemmas and challenges they faced. Sometimes we just need to be nimble and creative in the moment.

Concluding Thoughts

Our hope is that the Triple A Governance concept is useful in showing how there is a logical continuity between anticipating change, organizational learning and mindset shifting, and acting that generates new outcomes and future viability. We see this continuity as an important part of navigating change in the 21st century. The report and the cases do not necessarily show unions expressing all three of these capabilities at once. But in showing that all three are in effect in different circumstances and contexts and unions, there is an opportunity for unions and labor rights organizations to design more deliberately for future viability and success by bringing them together.

To this end, we conclude the report with an overview of methods in the three categories of anticipation, agility and adaptation, that organizations can review and combine to find the right mix that will support them to navigate change. We understand that trade unions, labor rights organizations and other types of organizations exist in very different circumstances, so this mix between anticipation, agility and adaptation will be different for every organization. But understanding the contextual conditions and dynamics of change, and putting in place the mix of capabilities to navigate these changes can make for a world that is better for workers and for all people. 


Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (Eds.). (2002). Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island press.

Hayward, P. (2004). Facilitating foresight: where the foresight function is placed in organisations. Foresight, 6(1), 19-30.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Broadway Business.

Ramos, J., Priday, G., Browne, R., Chimal, A. (2023). Trade Unions Navigating and Shaping Change, International Labour Organization and Bureau of Workers’ Activities (ILO/ACTRAV)—ed_dialogue/—actrav/documents/publication/wcms_872819.pdf

Ramos, J., Uusikyla, I., & Luong, N. T. (2020). Anticipatory Governance: A Primer. UNDP Viet Nam (blog), 18.