Environmental Scanning that Makes Sense

As sifting and sorting trends and issues from our information-rich world becomes ever more automated and commoditized, professional futurists are questioning the value of environmental scanning expertise.  The real value has always come from sense-making—helping people and organizations anticipate what could happen, understand the implications and decide how to act.

From the first day I dared call myself a futurist I have always believed the value of these processes are sense-making, learning and leading change.  This month I will be presenting on environmental scanning like the pros at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference.  I genuinely want associations to continually scan their environment for important changes….without relying on someone like me. In order to make good on my promise to give away my trade secrets, I have been examining the state of the art in environmental scanning. 

Yes we do have more tricks of the trade now. My best trick is relying on my colleagues within the Association of Professional Futurists to generously share what they are spotting and learning through our member listserv, blogging and Twitter. This isn’t unique to futurists.  All associations can tap into social networking to crowdsource scanning for their specific field.

Another favorite shortcut is using the monitoring resources of other scanning organizations like the World Future Society, Shaping Tomorrow and a few others I am now putting to the test for their utility. Nothing beats finding a scan of scans because it offers a handy round-up of potentially relevant trends and issues. And when it is time to go deep into a subject, I go deep with foundations, think tanks and study commissions. 

What I really want to teach is not how to scan but how to make sense of what we are learning while we scan.  These are the real tricks of the trade and what I most want to share March 27 with association executives at Great Ideas in Colorado Springs.   When I am sifting and sorting trends and issues, I am searching for these five insights:   

  1. Patterns—weak signals in the system that seem to be gaining strength and suggesting major changes ahead
  2. Game changers—things that are going wrong or innovations that are going right
  3. Strategic issues—leadership opportunities that align with an organization’s perspective & priorities
  4. Rates of change—days (breakthroughs), years (adoption cycles) or decades (paradigm shifts)
  5. What’s not changing and why

As much as I read and love to learn, I know many people who are better scanners than I can ever hope to be.  They are vacuuming up a universe of information and knowledge in ways I find fascinating.

I am not even alarmed that new tools are making the job of getting to the good stuff easier.  I will keep experimenting with these tools to find the useful ones and encourage others to do the same.

What I am striving to be is really skilled at helping people make sense of how their world is changing and then make strategic and wise decisions about their future.  And the beauty of this aspiration is you never have to be the best read or smartest person in the room to do this job well.  Environmental scanning is just a great means to jumpstart this deeper learning and development in any group that wants to lead change.