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Ideas on effective environmental scanning in the digital age

Environmental scanning is a process for monitoring an organization's internal and external environments for clues to change that could mean new threats and opportunities. It is a different process than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The old approaches were often troublesome, narrow, weak, and too complex. They did little to foster a culture of foresight in the organization. They were usually limited to a small group of people and a periodic process—the strategic planning team and its every-few-year cycle.

We are lucky now to have a broad set of tools we can use to enable, enliven, and energize scanning. With Web 2.0, we can have Environmental Scanning 2.0. With the range of new information tools and services, we can transform scanning from a back-room procedure to a shared exploration, and from a paper-based, file-folder-generating bureaucratic process to a lively, efficient, multi-media team activity.

NascarI've put a NASCAR picture here (Image: PocketWiley, via Flickr) because it is a great example for me of reaching beyond my usual experience and interest. Millions of Americans follow NASCAR, and just because I am not all that interested in it, doesn't mean I shouldn't experience it a little, and know what it's about. We all have things like that that are not part of our lives, but are important enough to others that we should not ignore them, or willfully resist knowing what they are about.

So my advice in sum: go somewhere new, do something new, talk to someone new. And tell your colleagues what you learned.

That's the spirit of good environmental scanning and it's a habit you need for successful foresight. And now there are no excuses.

What is environmental scanning?

Environmental scanning is a task of discovery. Good scanners do all kinds of things to look for clues about how the world is changing: read news, blogs, and listservs, watch TV and YouTube, travel, talk to people, visit factories, go to stores, attend events, and so on. Scanners work to discover leads, ideas, thought triggers, data suggesting a trend, and so on. Then they join with colleagues to talk about what they have found and what it means.

Environmental scanning is a proven and powerful tool that you can use to study the full context in which your company will operate over the next years. Its purpose has always been there, but its potential, in my view, is much greater today.

And scanning is at the core of good foresight work. I urge you to make your scanning a continuous, habitual process. The key things to keep in mind about scanning are: exploring broadly and thoroughly, and sharing. The advice in my “27 Habits of Highly Successful Futurists” is centered on ways to do those things well.

Environmental scanning: Its past and its future

It has been: 

  • A formal, separate, cyclical process
  • An information and analytical process
  • Done by staff or a vendor
  • Fed into the strategic planning cycle
  • Often narrowly-focused

It can become: 

  • An ongoing, integrated activity
  • A shared, social, process
  • Done habitually across staff and members
  • Part of ongoing strategy-making
  • Exploratory and more broadly-focused
The old, more-formal processes for environmental scanning may still have some value, but the power is in moving scanning from a periodic to an ongoing activity. It is part of learning, part of monitoring the world you play in, and part of building knowledge and ideas in the organization.

What should scanning cover?

Environmental scanning by definition should be broader than the routine market research and monitoring done in an organization. It should involve a broader-than-normal look at the forces and developments shaping the organization’s interests.

In scanning, you should keep an open-minded view of what might be important, and collect ideas and information broadly. You’ll certainly need to decide some way of organizing that information, and I suggest some great tools for that below. One way or another, you’ll have some sense of the topics you are trying to learn more about. But because the scanning topics you choose to explore may dictate what you are looking for, it’s important to choose them carefully, and to also leave yourself open to discover things you didn't set out to find and were'nt expecting.

You have to stay open-minded about what clues and discoveries you’ll “let in”, and you can’t let your physical or electronic storage places narrow your range. For example, if you are looking for evidence of the emergence of photovoltaics, you’ll find it. You may ignore evidence to the contrary, along with clues to alternatives to photovoltaics. At the same time, a source on biodiesel might not have a home in your collection, and you’ll be tempted to have an “other” file. Most things in an “other” file get forgotten. Don’t let the categories—the “file folders” you build for scanning, tyrannize the process. This also says that you should be sure to include general, more wide-ranging sources of information in your scanning routine. If you were to monitor energy technology by reading photovoltaics sources, you might miss emerging news on other energy technologies.

The old tried and true mechanism for ranging across the landscape of forces and trends is to use a set of categories such as STEEP:

  • Social
  • Technological
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Political

STEEP and similar topic lists are good for being sure you are exploring a broad range of topics. However, you’ll quickly want to develop your own set, with categories important to you. STEEP categories have a stronger value in driving your research than in sorting and cataloguing what you find. Think of them as a checklist of the big topics you want to be sure you are exploring in your scanning.

You are certain to need your own, modified set of categories to make sure you are not neglecting to monitor things across a full spectrum of what could shape change in the world and change for your organization.

In scanning, keep your eyes open wide, and let new ideas and insights in from a broad range of sources. The goal is scanning and thinking about the full context you play in. You need to design that range into your choices of what you read, see, visit, and so on, in your scanning. You should make that range a habit.

And get out from behind the mouse! That is advice I first heard from a great futurist and a friend of mine, Wayne Pethrick of Pitney Bowes. Thanks Wayne!

Opening a new radar screen

The fruits of scanning can be the catalyst for new ideas and creativity, if you let them. What’s essential is to open up the process to the world. Assuming you have a habitual “radar screen” of the things you keep track of, I urge you to open up a second radar screen—the things beyond your normal sphere of activity, that you need to also pay attention to. Why? You need to avoid being blindsided by things not in your field of view. You also don’t want to miss out on things outside that view that offer opportunities for you and your organization.

A previous post, “Considering different environmental scanning approaches,” looks at a range of reasons for environmental scanning and the approaches you should consider for each of them.

The new tools for scanning

Web 2.0 logo collageWeb and computer technology are a superb adjunct to your work in scanning. There are great tools for environmental scanning, for finding, cataloging, and sharing information. There are constant innovations and often improvements in the tools available, so it makes sense to make yourself a student of the digital tools available. The logo collage here [Image: Mmmonica, via Flickr, cc license] makes the point that there are new web tools and services every day.

If you are particularly research-oriented, a great source for keeping up with the content, software, service, and technology side of this is Resource Shelf. Similarly, Mashable! tracks digital world businesses that are focused on social media and social networks, including those that are information services and information sharing offerings.

But you have to make sure you don’t let the technology become anything more than a helper. Don’t get sucked in by too many new gee whiz web 2.0 tools. Start with simple tools, and let the power of the information world yield results. That could mean things like Google Alerts, described below. Then, if you see the power and value of some of the more sophisticated offerings, go for it.

Make sure the tools fit your needs. Don’t end up serving the tools. It’s too easy to suddenly have an overwhelming workload, brought to you by an online information service.

Push tools

There are some great tools you and your colleagues can use to be sure that scanning doesn’t slip into disuse. You already have a number of things “pushed” at you, such as emails, and memos. Let your scanning do some push too. You can use Google Alerts, e-newsletters, and listservs to be sure you see a range of insightful things regularly. Construct a diet of these things that you can sustain, or else you won’t look at them.

Some push tools:

  • RSS feeds — see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_syndication
  • Google Alerts — repeat your search as it happens, daily, or weekly, and search the web, news, blogs, etc.
  • iGoogle–a highly customizeable web interface (there are others, too) you can set it as your home or default screen, ensuring that you'll see key information regularly. You configure it by adding widgets: displays of news from key sources, plus things like weather, daily jokes and puzzles, and so on.
  • e-newsletters — trusted and essential sources are worth subscribing to, and if you get them by email, you are automatically reminded of new content. It's best not to take on too many daily sources, but weekly and monthly ones are a good dose of insights from particular sectors, industries, and so on.
  • listservs — similar to getting an e-newsletter, getting a regular email digest of important listservs can keep you connected to particular topics or communities. You have likely been urged to join ones specific to your community and professional life, but there are thousands of public ones. You can find them via searches at http://groups.yahoo.com and http://groups.google.com, along with other group hosting services.

I also urge you to find non-traditional ways to regularly dip into some new thinking. Some ideas:

  • Plan a “third Thursday” meet-up with an interesting friend that has a fresh perspective on the world.
  • Assign yourself to make an exploratory journey each week or month, e.g. if you work in consumer markets, go to a retail store, during work time, and see what’s really going on.
  • Review what cable channels you get. Should you watch news from Asia at some regular interval? How about Prime Minister’s questions from the UK?
  • Set a day a week, and go to a newsstand and buy a different publication each time, and read it.

A great danger in harnessing technology to push your scanning is that it wastes your time. You have to be brutal about not letting that happen. If a source, a listserv, an e-newsletter has no payoff for you, ditch it immediately. Five or ten items in a newsfeed from a source is great. Four hundred items is unworkable.

If you use an RSS feed-reader, you should regularly purge it of sources that have become repetitive or un-useful. You also have to allow yourself to dump the entire contents of your feeds if it backs up too much.

None of these techniques should be a burden on you. When you return from leave, or get swamped, just dump the contents of your feedreader, or delete the email alerts you haven’t gotten to. No one piece of information is likely to be critical, and if it is hidden among a thousand, you probably won’t find and benefit from it anyway,

Get out from behind the mouse

There are lots of ways to be sure you are keeping your senses and your mind open to new information and ideas:

  • Read outside the box–be sure to read and see things you would normally not choose to
  • Talk to the frog–don't miss the chance to look outside your experience, preferences, and social circles for new ideas

    • Don’t just read your sector/profession/trade’sinformation sources
    • Globalize your scanning
    • Make new friends and new kinds of friends
    • Talk to strangers
  • Use multi-media, including online videos, to experience more
  • Be sure your collection categories/folders don’t dictate what you find
  • Communicate about what you find–Pay it forward–e.g. through blogs, social networks, etc.
  • Create shared collecting places; online or physical, to inspire others to share too
  • Get the insights flowing on what you find, and share that too. People will react with their own thoughts
  • Get your stakeholders: customers, members and staff comments and insights too

Let others do your work for you

One of the best things about the web today is that lots of people are toiling at identifying interesting things. They are doing the work so you don’t have to. Embrace that, and find the best blogs that track things of interest to you. With any luck, someone’s doing good work in areas you need to keep up with.

It’s particularly powerful to find blogs written by experts in areas you want to keep up with. They tend to troll the Internet for anything and everything of interest to a topic. They are true subject matter experts and they keep up. You can use their hard work to leverage your time.

Also, smart, diligent folks also work hard collecting links they often save on del.icio.us, a web-based link saving and sharing tool. You can follow an expert or friend or colleague’s link collection on del.icio.us to be sure you see news and insights on critical subjects.

Managing and sharing  

For managing what you find, you should consider tagging things electronically. "Tags" are keywords you use to identify electronic content that you want to refer back to. The advantage to using tags—assigned through online services such as del.icio.us (http://delicious.com), or on your computer or server, is that you can put an item in several or many “folders”. For example, an article on a village-scale green energy technology being tried out in India might be tagged: India, sustainability, energy, technology, appropriatetechnology, rural, emergingmarkets, stratplan08, or even blogabout or "tellEric".

You can add or change tags later, and they help you find information again by putting it under multiple tags. Microsoft Office 2007 and other computer-based programs also allow you to tag content you've saved in the same ways, for later searching. Tagging can be shared. Using del.icio.us, you can have your team jointly collect information resources and tag them using an agreed scheme, specific to your organization’s interests and needs.

People can use your collection from anywhere, since it’s web-based. This process, called social bookmarking, is an ever-changing one, with new web-based services emerging regularly. Search online for "Social Bookmarking" to learn about new services. Plenty of them are completely free to use.

Keep it interesting. Include some odd bits and unusual sources: Talk to the frog!

Blogs are good, but….

Among the people hungrily gathering information and making discoveries are bloggers. They are a great source for you in finding others to do scanning work for you. You should sample what bloggers are offering, and when you discover a blog that seems like a good source of information, add it to your scanning routine.

You can find blogs through online blog directories, but I have found that a slow process. It seems better to do some direct and specific google searching of topics important to you, and keep an eye out for quality ideas and information in blogs. If you find one, read it for a little while, and be sure it's worth your time. Nearly any blog can be monitored with an RSS reader, so you don't have to keep going to the blog site itself. Some offer email alerts when there is a new posting.

But beware of the Paris Hilton effect. As you look at sources of information, and see certain things repeated all over the place, remember, you may be seeing traditional and online media repeating something because it is getting a lot of buzz. Paris Hilton is only famous, it would seem, because she's famous. Things online sometimes get a lot of clicks because they are getting a lot of clicks–are they really something new and important?

Sharing discoveries with your insights added

In addition to the tools for sharing what you find in environmental scanning, you’ll do your colleagues and your organization a lot more good if you interpret what you find, even if only briefly. It’s much more powerful to add a note about an article or website that suggests what you think the item means, than to just forward the link.

Most people are awfully busy, and you can break through to their thinking much better if they don’t have to read and figure out for themselves what the article or website is about. Challenge their thinking with an interpretation. Give them something to agree with/disagree with, add to, or share with others themselves.

Here is an example, my colleague, Jennifer Jarratt shared with me a link to an article titled: “TerraCycle Fashions a New Life For Old Wrappers Company Turns Trash Into Totes, Backpacks And Other Products” Her cover email note said: “what to do with stuff. Not exactly zero waste, of course.” That comment connected the piece to conversations we’ve been having about zero waste, carbon footprints, and so on.

Are you ready?

Here are some things to think about, whether you are doing environmental scanning by old or new methods:Have you prepared the ground? You may or may not want to tell your colleagues about your new efforts.Is your team and your organization ready for a new scanning effort?

You need to consider whether to have an officially sanctioned process, or to simply up your and your colleagues efforts a little. There are advantages in getting others (including bosses) buy in to what you are doing.

On the negative side, it might otherwise look like a waste of time. On the positive, your efforts and the new habits could spread virally through the organization, with the result that more people are part of the culture of scanning and culture of foresight you are helping to foster.

Is open-ended thinking okay? You may be doing something new that doesn’t fit well with your organization’s expectations. You need to understand to what extent exploration and open-ended thinking are accepted in the organization, and hopefully you can find ways to make them more acceptable.

Do you have a channel to strategy? All the great scanning you might do is of limited value if you can’t leverage your insights in the organization’s strategy making processes. Who will listen to your views? Who can you share your insights and discoveries with?

Do you know how to make it work for you? This piece is meant to offer ideas anyone can use, but every situation is different. Consider carefully how you can structure your environmental scanning efforts, and shape the expectations about them to fit your circumstances.

You are not done until you:

  • Put it somewhere—find a “home” in your work for the new information and insights, such as in a briefing to colleagues, a report, a message to customers
  • Add meaning—don’t just report findings as sets of information. Interpret what you have discovered for people.
  • Blog, email, podcast—look for new media and viral ways to spread the word. Some people are visual, so create visuals. Some are auditory, so consider a podcast, some like to read, and some don’t—so consider how you write-up and package information. Shop around for ways of doing this you like, and copy the best practices you find without remorse.
  • Publish more formally, as needed. You may still need formal, business reports, using the formats common in your organization.
  • Cycle back with more scanning—Scanning is best done all the time, so there may never be last words on anything. Make sure your colleagues know that, and tell them you’ll be sharing an every evolving array of insights on the forces and trends that are shaping the organization and its interests.

Why bother?

Good scanning takes time, so you need to believe in it, and know its value. So why should we spend that kind of time and effort? The key benefits of the kind of environmental scanning described here are:

  • You will get your thinking outside the four walls of your company
  • You can detect change that will affect you earlier
  • Technology can help you leverage the value ofyour time and effort:

    • Using information and networking tools
    • Looking for short cuts
    • Making it an ongoing conversation
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