Environmental scanning: no excuses

by John Mahaffie on January 29, 2008

Environmental scanning is a grand name for a simple, routine process. It just means regularly monitoring what’s going on across a broad landscape, to better understand the trends at play and the forces of change you face. Most people do some of this naturally, but they can come up short in getting enough of it done, and done well.

Environmental scanning is a regular topic on this blog [see here and here]. Here we’d like to focus on how you can do it effectively and easily–the tools are close at hand, the habit is straightforward to adopt–there are no excuses! It used to take more time, more impetus, and greater expense to do broad environmental scanning, but it has gotten easier. A decade or more ago, you had to subscribe to and and read a range of newspapers, magazines, and newsletters to do scanning. The focus usually was print media. The work of processing, filing, or commenting on an environmental scanning discovery involved typing or handwriting something, and physically handling the paper.

We at Leading Futurists were practitioners in those days and have no nostalgia for that paper-driven rigamarole. Much more importantly, environmental scanning used to be constrained–by sources available, by depending largely on print media, and by time. Now we can range with our scanning nearly anywhere, and have tools close at hand to smooth the way. You can get newspaper stories daily from the Hindustan Times, a daily photo from Accra or Kiev, a range of newsletters on cutting edge technology, or diaries and blogs from people young and old around the world.

Here are some ways to leverage the Internet to empower your environmental scanning:

  • Use a feed reader (rss-aggregator) such as Bloglines or Google Reader. There are web-based readers and ones that are resident on your computer. Based on news sources and blogs you want to monitor, they gather new content each time there are updates and new postings, and present them to you in an easy to read, keep and delete, and file system. Nearly any online newsource or blog makes its feeds available to these programs.
  • Use email newsletter subscriptions. Since your email program has filing, forward, and other capabilities, you can use it to get, process, and keep track of information and ideas in your scanning. There are thousands of electronic newsletters available, and you can find things of specific interest or more general exploration of ideas, lifestyles, etc.
  • Use email alerts–Google’s is called Google Alert. They let you establish a regular, automated search and get an daily or weekly email when there is new online content under that search. You can search the whole web, or just blogs, news sites, and other categories.

For any of these approaches, make sure you open up a wide view. Include visual sources such as photoblogs in your regular scanning [see here]. Be sure you are including information sources outside your industry, sector, professional specialty, and so on. The “inside” stuff–your routine radar screen–is not where you need to know more. Surprises good and bad are likely to come from off that radar screen. Open up a bigger one, or another. Don’t get caught unaware. Scanning is not hard to do–there are no excuses!

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

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