The first two posts in the Doing Environmental Scanning series were on focusing your scanning and who should be on the scanning team. This post is about starting to scan – taking those first steps to explore what’s ‘out there’. Remember that you are probably already scanning the environment in an undirected sense, particularly around your industry and your professional work. Environmental scanning in a strategic sense is similar but requires a broader and focused perspective, both in terms of where you look and what you look for. Set up your classification system

A preliminary step is to consider the categories you will use to classify and record what you are finding. You can use a STEEP framework – social, technological, economic, environmental, political – or a variation such as PESTLE or VERGE, plus some sub-categories.  Setting up a system means that there will be some consistency across the scanning team that will help similar hits be connected. When you are starting out though, it’s probably best not to worry too much about getting the categories right, as you will usually quickly work out the best system and tags/keywords to use.  The point of doing this is to enable you to retrieve your scanning hits easily in the future.

You should also have some sort of idea of what sort of outcome you want from your scanning – will you be doing a report for the Board, a snapshot report on some major trends, a monthly newsletter to staff?  There are different types of ‘products’ you can develop from your scanning, with varying levels of detail. Again, as you are starting out, don’t worry too much about this, as you will begin to work out how you can use your scanning hits to enhance your organisation’s strategy and planning processes.

So…you’ve got your focus, and an idea of what you need to look for. Your scanning team is in place and has been trained. How to take that first step?  Yes, go to google and search on some keywords and see what you get.  Thiswill be fun, but can quickly be overwhelming as you will have lots of information to deal with. You may also feel unsure about what is relevant and what is not, and feel just a tad overwhelmed.  This is normal, so keep going. You will start to see connections between the individual hits you are finding, and the relevance of what you are finding will become clearer.  Remember to use your focus as your anchor in all of this – if you are unsure of whether something is relevant, think about how it might help you better understand the issues you have identified.  If it’s not directly relevant, but you think it’s interesting, trust your instinct and record it anyway.  It’s the collision of  seemingly disparate data that often generates new strategic insights.

Where to Look?

Using google is one way to explore what’s ‘out there’, and the sites of futures consultants and futurists sometimes have trend reports. Meta scanning sites like Shaping Tomorrow use a crowdsourcing approach to gather scanning hits and make them available for free. Subscribe to RSS feeds of sites you find useful, and ones you find a bit weird or way out. The latter are often the home of the next big trend that you will need to deal with.  Do searches on Twitter as the quality of information being shared there is quite extraordinary.  You need to avoid, of course, the ‘what I ate for breakfast’ types posts and instead look for the tweets of people in the futures community and beyond who are sharing what they are finding in their scanning.  You can follow me on Twitter too, and check out my Paper.li scanning update.

Your Biggest Challenge?

Your biggest challenge will be finding the time to scan on a regular basis. Scanning all too quickly falls down the priority list in the face of busy days and overloaded email inboxes. I do my scanning first thing in the morning when I read overnight emails and feeds. After you have been scanning for a while, you’ll have become very proficient at identifying what’s important and pretty fast at entering the details on whatever scanning database/system you are using. Whatever schedule you set up to scan, make sure it’s regular, and make sure it’s time you treat as non-negotiable.