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Scanning the landscape for challenges, issues, trends, and opportunities

Environmental scanning is the ongoing review of information sources that is integral to identifying trends and monitoring for leading-edge change. To some people who don’t do environmental scanning, it looks like a lot of web surfing and magazine reading—a distraction or waste of time.

How can it be a good use of time? It’s open-ended. Yet futurists urge people in organizations to do more of it. Can business executives really afford to spend that time? What does it yield?

Environmental scanning is a perfectly good fun, and continually interesting, especially since a big portion of it is often driven by one’s interests. But the scanner is left with a little angst—what to do with the stuff? Should I print it out and file it? Should I blog about it? Should I tell someone? Is there some way to collect the good stuff and make it useful?

In fact, the act of scanning can be as loose as it often is, without being ineffective or inefficient. Scanning builds context for one’s thinking about the future. The more accumulated clues, cues, and knowledge you have, the better the chance that analysis and decisions will be properly thought through, tested against existing and emerging realities, and informed by a broad range of contextual forces and factors.

But yes, you should make something of your discoveries. Environmental scanning helps ensure that you get earlier notice of emerging change—issues, trends, and new challenges that may come from beyond your current view, especially from outside your field or sector. It may prevent you from finding out about something critical from a customer, a vendor, or even from a crisis.

A scanning discovery is not of any use until you put it to use so consider these ideas:

  • Drawing a conclusion about what you find for your work. Write it down. You are converting a raw observation into something that may lead to action, a change of direction, a decision to monitor something further, etc.
  • Keeping a “commonplace book”—a note taking place for your discoveries and observations. If you are a good trend spotter, you can log the trends you are observing or discovering. A list of leading edge trends is a powerful tool to draw out for a team discussion, to test ideas, ensure you are thinking comprehensively about a problem or opportunity. Maybe for you this would work as a daily or weekly blog, so colleagues can share your discoveries.
  • Telling your colleagues—one or more people who really should know about what you found. We are glad to share funny YouTube videos, but seem less practiced at sharing a discovered trends, a thought-provoking blog, a story that shapes our understanding of the marketplace.
  • Sharing your discoveries by email/listserve/blog and ask for comment. You might be the right person to “report” on trends and issues this way. If the messages are provocative and suitably well-labeled, you might get ongoing interest. Does your organization have a trend person? Could you take up that role? It might only require a few minutes a week to do that.
  • Using scanning discoveries to provoke dialogue—send a note, for example, that says: “I am seeing a lot of things suggesting a backlash against bottle water—do you think this will come to a head and affect our closures business?”

Update: Please see also this special page on environmental scanning.

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