Project Description


A new strategy had recently been implemented at this university when Thinking Futures was contracted to work with the university Strategy Office to develop a scanning framework. The aim  was to provide a way for the university to understand what their operating environment would be like beyond the life of its current strategy. A small and limited scanning and scenarios project had been run a couple of years previously by Thinking Futures, with the scanning part well received by staff and leaders at the university. There was a general understanding that, while their strategy was effective for the current environment, they needed to understand more about what was coming, and how they might need to adapt their strategy today as a result.

The specific aims of the project were:

  • to build a strategic context for the continuing implementation of the strategy, particularly in terms of clear connection  and strategic ‘fit’ with the strategies already defined, and
  • to monitor external trends over time to ensure continuing relevance of the strategy now and into the future, and to build a strong understanding of the competitive environment within which the strategy is being implemented. and

The project was supported by the Vice-Chancellor and the Head of the university Strategy Office.


At the outset, it was agreed to undertake environmental scanning to inform a scenario planning process. It was agreed that the output would be reports to the planning committee on the ‘strategic fit’ of the current strategy with what was likely to emerge over time, and a broader, snapshot environmental scanning report on the university’s external environment to inform the next planning cycle. It was agreed to spend around 6 months on the project.

A project manager was appointed, and a small scanning team was established within the Strategy Office. An initial overview workshop was held to introduce the team to futures work and to doing environmental scanning, and staff identified a number of key issues to scan around:

  • community – exploring demographic shifts and implications for work environment, skills requirements and well being in general,
  • a seamless education system across sectors,
  • implications for technology to deliver education,s tudents studying at home while they are working,
  • what’s emerging in the area of K-6 education? These are the tertiary students of 10 years from now – what are they learning and what do they expect?
  • Open Educational Resource Movement – implications for curriculum management, knowledge and expertise in general, copyright and IP, who will control knowledge?

A focal question was also identified, focused on how the learning experience will be defined in the future, and the likely impact on the current strategy.

Scanning commenced, and regular review meetings were held.  The following issues emerged from their scanning:

  • what does diversity really mean here?
  • if the paradigm of learning is shifting, how do we move from words to reality?
  • if co-created, user driven content is going to drive learning, what does that mean for us? Who gets left behind in such a future

Staff identified the purpose of their scanning as:

to understand, as best we can, the world now and into the future that we are preparing our students for.

The project was then halted, however, as a number of internal operational issues needed to be addressed, with team building and other training undertaken by staff.

The project recommenced, with a new project manager, who had been on the original scanning team. The timing for the project was re-established, and new outcomes agreed:

  • an environmental scanning database,
  • a report consisting of a short summary (one page) on trends being identified (as required), and
  • an annual summary report on trends identified and implications for VU, including assumptions underpinning discussion of implications.

It quickly became clear, however, that the impact of continuing uncertainty about the immediate future of the Strategy Office meant that staff were unable to spend enough time on scanning. It was agreed that the Project Manager would continue with scanning, and produce a snapshot report for the next planning cycle. At the same time, work started on building an internal scanning database on Sharepoint, funded as part of a broader project on linking research knowledge across the university. The scenario work was deferred until early the following year.

A decision to close the Strategy Office meant a complete re-thinking of the project, and it was agreed to focus on preparing the snapshot scanning report which was published about six months later.

Discussions were held with the university planning office about transferring the scanning function to that office, but this didn’t occur. The project came to an end at the same time the Strategy Office closed.


  • A high quality scanning report was produced by the project manager with the support of Thinking Futures, which has been used as a model by other universities and organisations.
  • The environmental scanning database was developed, but not implemented once the project was shut down.
  • Feedback from the project manager and staff indicated that the value of scanning was accepted by those people directly involved in the project, with the biggest challenge being achieving support and resourcing for the scanning system from senior managers.
  • In hindsight, demonstrating the relevance of scanning to these managers in an environment where the university’s focus was on responding to a rapidly changing external environment driven by changing government policy was a major factor in lack of support as perceived short term urgency dominated any discussion about where the university would be in 10-20 years time.


The challenges to embedding environmental scanning as a mainstream element of a planning system were identified.

  • ensuring staff have the time to do scanning,
  • integrating scanning as a core duty in position descriptions,
  • demonstrating the value of scanning to those people not immediately involved the project,
  • providing an agreed amount of time for the scanning project to be implemented fully, and
  • achieving support for scanning across the senior manager level – notwithstanding the Vice-Chancellor’s support – in order to facilitate resource allocation.