The world is complex out there because there’s a lot happening, it’s hard to keep a handle on it all, and the pace of the emergence of the new seems to be accelerating all the time.
— Maree Conway, Thinking Futures

Input methods focus on the collection of high quality information about trends and drivers of change likely to affect your organisation into the future. My preferred method is environmental scanning, but I've also included some information on the more familiar Delphi approach. The question being asked here is 'what's going on out there?' or 'what's happening?'. More specifically, we can ask questions like:

  • 'what are the unexpected changes that will change the game'
  • 'how will you spot what you've missed in your scanning?' and
  • 'how do you recognise what you can't afford to miss?'
 

Delphi

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Delphi is a structured group communication process for gathering expert opinion about a complex problem about which there is incomplete knowledge. Typically this is a long-term problem or issue, and judgements of participants are therefore made in the face of uncertainty. Since the future of any topic is inherently uncertain, Delphi is an appropriate method for obtaining expert opinion from managers and academics on the topic of the future of university management (see For-Learn, 2006).

The key question to ask here, as with all methods, is what image of the future is generated in this scanning output?  And, whose voice is not being heard?

Japan has been using a Delphi approach for many years, and produces quarterly reviews on science and technology trends.  There are many websites and much literature on the Delphi method - for example, Linstone and Turoff provide a classic overview of the method. Wikipedia also provides a succinct summary of the method and its approach. Delphi is often used in forecasting, particularly in the technology area. And, if you are a member of Shaping Tomorrow, you can participate in an on-line, instant Delphi process with your staff.

Environmental Scanning

The best known input method is environmental scanning or horizon scanning.  Most organisations will be able to talk about their environmental scanning, although approaches vary between individuals and organisations. Even though it is a well known activity, it is doubtful whether there is a common definition of just what environmental scanning (or ES) is.  Many people think that reading the newspaper is ES, while others think that networking with colleagues at a conference is sufficient to say they have done an environmental scan.

And, indeed, while these approaches gather information about the environmental external to the organisation, they yield limited information that is not already in the mainstream. In particular,  people doing the scanning need to be aware of the ways in which their own worldviews condition their scanning, and that they are likely to miss critical or otherwise useful pieces of information, simply because their habitual ways of filtering information does not allow them to 'see' that information.

Choo (Information Management for the Intelligent Organization: The Art of Scanning the Environment, 2nd edn, Information Today, Medford, New Jersey, 1998, p76) provides a good model for thinking about environmental scanning.  Choo views scanning as one level in a more complex model of scanning activities that need to be undertaken by an organisation. In particular, he differentiates between:

  • competitor intelligence,
  • competitive intelligence,
  • business intelligence,
  • environmental scanning, and
  • social scanning.

These levels are 'nested', in that the 'lower' level informs the 'higher' level.  Each is useful for different purposes, and for different types of questions being asked.  It depends on how wide the future is that you are exploring, and how far into that future you want to go.

The UK Government's Foresight program has an horizon scanning section of its website which is worth a look.  They also have a detailed toolkit (powerpoint presentation) which is good value, and available to download.

You can also download my free Environmental Scanning Guide, and read more about how to integrate scanning into your strategy development in my book Foresight Infused Strategy: A How to Guide for Using Foresight in Practice.

Strategic Scanning

During his time as a Strategic Foresight Analyst at Swinburne, Joseph Voros edited a number of scanning publications.  This text below, reproduced with his permission, is extracted from an FAQ he prepared to explain the purposes of one particular publication, the Foresight Snippets (which are no longer published).

By definition, strategic scanning involves looking for what are known, in the foresight profession, as "weak signals." And because they are weaksignals, 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.

Metascanning

A metascanning approach is also useful when we are time poor and don't want to start scanning from scratch. There are many people and organisations whose job it is to scan the future. Some will let you have limited access to some of their findings for free, but most will ask you to sign up for a service. The value is that these folks have already done the initial work for you which will save you time - as long as you have investigated the metascanners and are satisfied with their approach and methods and their mindset.

O example is Strategic Business Insights, a US based group whose website offers a lot of information about their scanning process.  An online newsletter ScanMonthly is an indication of their output, and has archived issues going back some years. Z-Punkt is a commercial organisation so you will have to pay for access to their trend database, but their site has lots of other useful information and downloads. Arup does work in the foresight fields and publishes a Drivers of Change series.

Trendwatching identifies trends and puts them together in categories such as uberpremium, tryvertising and hygenia. Their focus is consumer trends but it's a useful site to tap into if you want to see how a commercial company does it. They have a free newsletter and a paid, premium option.  Springspotters is a site that will let you contribute to a global scanning endeavour, with the possibility of your trend being published in an online newsletter.  A more commercially oriented site, and very much in the here and now (in fact they say they don't want trends that have not yet entered the marketplace), but worth keeping on your radar.

Shaping Tomorrow is a UK based company whose website has a wealth of scanning information and analysis tools. I use Shaping Tomorrow for my scanning and I work with them sometimes. They provide trend updates (on their site and via a weekly newsletter), as well as more in depth analysis. This site gives you lots of raw material to explore, as well as some analysis and commentary by members of their network. If you are just starting out on a scanning project, I'd recommend you start here, and you can sign up for my scanning newsletter which I produce from this site.

The Arlington Institute has a strongly futures focused approach, and its newletter FutureEdition, is a must-read. As they say:

"At The Arlington Institute, we believe that to understand the future, you need to have an open mind and cast a very wide net. To that end, FUTUREdition explores a cross-disciplinary palette of issues, from the frontiers of science and technology to major developments in mass media, geopolitics, the environment, and social perspectives."

This quote encapsulates the approach you need when you are scanning.  You need to get out of your here and now, and scan in areas you would not normally consider.  Often, the more weird and whacky it sounds, the better! This is a must read scanning site.

All these organisations offer newsletters and/or RSS feeds, and most have facebook or twitter accounts. There are many more services out there, but these will get you started.