Making Sense of Environmental Scanning

When people talk about environmental scanning, they can have rather different objectives, processes and outcomes in mind. Understanding those differences can help you get what your organization really needs.

This is Signature i’s working definition for associations and nonprofit:  a systematic and ongoing effort to identify significant trends, issues and developments that could affect the future of an organization’s mission, members and stakeholders.  The scan should consider both changes in the external environment that affect everyone and in your internal environment: your specific field, industry sector or business.

An environmental scan simply shows you how your world is changing and helps you think about how you might also want to change.  Signature i champions environmental scanning in associations and works to teach our methods whenever we can. 

Sometimes when associations explain their environmental scanning they are really just analyzing their organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, (SWOT). If only we could operate as if our organizations are the center of the universe. We prefer to call this type of analysis a current conditions analysis to distinguish it from scanning for the future context.

Sometimes organizations say their environmental scanning focuses on competitive intelligence. This strikes us as a distraction. It’s more useful to discover your own vision and what your members and customers will need in the future. Besides today’s competitors are just as likely to become valuable collaborators and partners in our complex and networked world.  Why bother spending a lot of time looking over your shoulder when you could be looking ahead to your next opportunity?  

Both SWOT and competitive intelligence are important analyses; however, they are focused on the present and tend to advantage existing and often self-limiting assumptions. We rely on environmental scanning to anticipate the future and challenge our assumptions.

The critical step in any environmental scan is not the searching and data collection; it is the sense making. My futurist colleagues watch the advances in automation and data analysis and occasionally fret that we may no longer be needed for environmental scanning. Maybe someday data analytics and artificial intelligence will be that good. Until then, we humans will have to continue to do the sifting, pattern analysis, and deep learning to grasp the strategic significance of these changes.

And for now, I will continue to meet association executives who know environmental scanning is essential to the success of their organizations and their members’ future. They just need a little extra help to make sense of the changes and turn them into future opportunities.