Environmental scanning is the art of systematically exploring the external environment for potential opportunities, challenges and drivers of change likely to have an impact of your organisation’s future. Environmental scanning explores both new, strange and weird ideas, as well as persistent challenges and trends today.

Most organisations would say that they scan the environment, and indeed, nearly all of us are doing some form of scanning on a day-to-day basis. For strategy purposes, however, environmental scanning needs to be formal and systematic, and focused around a particular interest or critical decision being faced by the organisation.

Environmental scanning can take place at four levels of understanding: the knowledge held by staff, the organisation’s competitive environment or market, the industry environment, and the broader social or macro environment. It is undertaken in four main ways (after Choo, 1998):

  • undirected viewing – reading a variety of publications/resources for no specific purpose other than to be informed,
  • conditional viewing – responding to information in terms of assessing its relevance to the organisation,
  • informal searching – actively seeking specific information but doing it in a relatively unstructured way, and
  • formal searching – using formal methodologies for obtaining information for a specific purpose.

Environmental scanning is formal searching, using formal methodologies for obtaining information for a specific purpose. It is much more than reading newspapers or industry journals, or checking the latest statistics about your market. It is about exploring both present certainty and future uncertainty, and moving beyond what we accept as valid today.

Environmental scanning is used to enhance the depth and breadth of information available during initial strategy development, as well as to identify early warning signals that may need to be monitored in existing strategic planning processes. It identifies the new and emerging, as well as the known trends that are likely to affect an organisation’s development into the future.

Choo, C.W. (1998) Information Management for the Intelligent Organisation: The Art of Scanning the Environment, ASIS Monograph Series, Medford New Jersey.

Scanning Strategically

By definition, strategic scanning involves looking for what are known, in the foresight profession, as “weak signals.” And because they are weak signals, they may seem to have little or no bearing on “here and now” and may therefore not seem useful (when seen from within the context of the hurly-burly of our day-to-day rush to do our daily work).

The judgement of “usefulness” arises as a result of the (mostly unconscious) filtering of the world which we all undertake most of the time we are awake. This filtering process is certainly very important - it stops us from becoming overwhelmed by detail and data. But this filtering process also creates what are known as “blind spots” in our view of the world. We each have different filters operating and therefore we each have different blind spots. In an organisational setting this collection of blind spots can have disastrous implications for strategic thinking and strategy-making - just read some of the optimistic business plans for companies which were making slide rules in the late 1950s, for example!

In essence, the job of strategic scanning is to interrupt our daily thinking, break us out of routine views of the world and how it may be changing, and, frankly, to smack up against some of the blind spots which we all possess.

(Text published with permission of author, Dr Joseph Voros.)