Environmental Scanning

Last week I suggested that two important aspects to trend spotting are (i) reading lots and (ii) reading widely. This week I would like to expand on these two points by discussing the concept of “environmental scanning”.

In my opinion, this is one of the key futures tools. The reason why I say this is that, if environmental scanning is done properly, it can provide insights from fields that you would not normally consider relevant to your particular industry. But it relies on two key components: breadth and context.

Also, remember the purpose (i.e. your “Why?”) of the task: you’re identifying probable, possible and preferable futures.

Again, like my other blog postings, I’m going to be providing you with some basic tools and ideas to enable you to do some futures work of your own. There are a number of organisations that provide commercial environmental scanning services to corporates. While it’s great to be able to use these types of solutions, there is always a certain element of fun to be had in doing your own trend spotting.

So let’s look at environmental scanning in a bit more detail.

1. Why Scan Your Environment?

So often our best-laid plans are derailed by things that hit us from left field. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it is the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” that tend to surprise us.

Like any trend spotting technique, environmental scanning will not reveal every single surprise that may affect your organisation or you personally. However, by keeping an eye on developments in other fields, in addition to your core field, you will be taking steps to reduce the number of surprises that could impact you. But, like with any futures work, you have to be prepared to live with a certain level of uncertainty.

This also raises an important point about environmental scanning: it’s all about the purpose for which you are using the tool. By this I mean:

  1. Are you doing a general environmental scan? Or
  2. Are you scanning the environment for a specific purpose or for a specific project?

The purpose for which you are using the tool will determine the outcomes and way that you present the results, but more on that below.

The world is a very big place and the amount of data we are generating is increasingly rapidly, so what areas should you be looking at when you scan your environment?

2. Read Widely

By reading widely, you’re providing yourself with breadth. But what areas should you be focusing on as part of your environmental scanning exercise? I would recommend focusing on the following:

  1. Economics
  2. Legal
  3. Politics / Institutional
  4. Resources
  5. Technological
  6. Social

These categories are broad enough to provide you with as comprehensive a view of your organisation’s environment as possible.

The Internet has opened up a range of possible data sources that have made environmental scanning much easier. I’ve found that it’s always good to have a collection of good websites that you can refer to as and when needed. For example, for tech type news I’ve found Slashdot to be a good news aggregation site that often refers to websites that wouldn’t normally be on my reading list.

3. Read Lots

Where and when relevant, it’s important to try provide yourself with some context. This means doing some deeper reading and analysis into concepts you’ve come across when you’ve been reading widely.

This may be necessary as some of these fields may be outside your area of expertise or there is no-one in your organisation to scan a particular aspect of your organisation’s environment for you.

For example, you may not be a trained lawyer, but that shouldn’t prevent you from scanning the legal environment to see if there is anything that may impact your organisation. However, if your organisation does have people with relevant backgrounds, such as law, it may be an idea to get them involved in your environmental scanning project.

Diversity (a key aspect of PurpleBeach) of perspectives can only add to the quality of your environmental scanning.

4. And Then?

Well, this final step depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

As I mentioned last week, for the past 9 years I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of interesting articles that I’ve come across. I’ve found this approach works well if you’re doing environmental scanning on a general basis. I’m not scanning my environment as part of a specific project, I’m simply looking for trends and developing a database of interesting articles that I can always refer to at a later stage, if needed.

If you’re scanning your environment as part of a specific project you may want to consider preparing a formal document that summarises the interesting articles you have come across.

5. That’s a Lot of Reading …

Environmental scanning can be time and labour intensive. However, I’ve found that it is a task that is easily scalable, if necessary. If you do need to scale-up, it’s then a question of making sure that you have the right team and processes in place to generate great content.

I’ve been talking a lot about reading the past two weeks. Next week I will be covering “talking” by returning, in a way, to ancient Greece. This is where PurpleBeach comes into its own.

Thought from the Lifeguard’s Hut

I’ve never know any trouble than an hour’s reading didn’t assuage

– Schopenhauer

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