I have been doing some work lately with a university here in Australia, to help them do some environmental scanning around major global trends and drivers of change that underpin the university's new strategy. They want to try and be 'ahead of the game' as their strategy rolls out. I've done this sort of work a few times with different institutions, but this one has been more successful than most. The difference, at least what I can identify from some initial musings, is all do to with the way the people involved are approaching the exercise, particularly:

(i)  being open to sources beyond the education industry, and beyond mainstream, and (ii) recognising their own worldviews and how that affects what they see, and don't see, when they scan.

To be open to sources beyond the industry is critical, because you get a kind of 'group think' effect happening if you stay within your industry. And, the things that are having an impact today in your industry started 'out there' in the global space where trends collide. If you want to be ahead of the game, you have to be 'out there'.

But, when you turn your attention 'out there', you need to look sideways as well as straight ahead. Scanning in the mainstream will get you useful information, but it also likely to be the same information that everyone else gets hold of. If you turn sideways, and look for emerging issues - those signals that are just starting to appear on the horizon, you are likely to see something that may be critical for your organisation into the future. And, you may see them before anyone else does.

As will all scanning activities, it is what you do with your scanning hits after you have identified them that is critical. You can engage in trend 'spotting' with great enthusiasm, and many people make lots of money being trend spotters. Understanding the impact of those trends on your organisation and the way you operate - now, and into the future - is a different matter.

Worldview will influence what you choose to scan and what you choose to ignore. It also determines what you don't see at all. And, when you are interpreting scanning hits, worldview will influence what you think is important, and what assumptions you hold that you are willing to challenge.

If your worldview is closed, then you won't be willing to challenge many assumptions about how you make sense of the world. If you have an open mind, then you are more open to seeing multiple perspectives about what creates meaning in the world.  If you don't challenge assumptions, you'll get business as usual in your strategy.

If you do challenge assumptions, you will be able to test what will and won't work into the future - you will be thinking long term. The strategy you build after this sort of thinking will be stronger than the business as usual variety.

Back to that institution - the people there are very open to challenging assumptions and to spending the time to work through what it means for them, in their context. They are looking broadly, beyond the education industry, and trying to work out the implications of what they are finding are for them. They are deep in this process and are finding it fun, but confronting and confusing. By lifting their sights above the short term to see the long term, however, they can see the value of changing the way they think about the future.

More on environmental scanning here.

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