Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival: Part 2: Environmental Scanning
We recently discussed Pattern Recognition and the role it plays in understanding and decision making. The next topic in this 12 part series is pulled out of the Futures Thinking toolbox:
Traditionally, environmental scanning is explained within a business context as a strategic approach to acquiring information in order to stay current on events, emerging trends, and external factors that could influence or impact an organization. It basically means paying attention to what's going on within your industry, monitoring what your competitors are doing, what your customers are saying, and being sensitive to potential threats or opportunities along the way.
I recently came across an essay titled A new framework for environmental scanning, which presents a more holistic approach to this process. The author references the work of Ken Wilber, the developor of Integral Theory, who has created a framework for looking at 'ways of knowing' which he breaks down into four quadrants. The image above is a simplified sketch I made after looking at his version and another one I saw here.
The area usually professionally addressed is the lower right quadrant, which looks at trends in the large scale systems that are constantly in play. [The acronym 'STEEP' is used to remember the categories - Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political]. Many of us are active online scanners already, and there are a multitude of tools to aid the process. You can set up RSS feeds, Google Alerts, subscribe to listservs and newsletters, or visit sites which aggregate sites by topic, like Alltop, or use services where users do the aggregation, like Twine. Futurist John Mahaffie has already written a very thorough post about this, Environmental Scanning in the Digital Age, so I'll try not to do too much repeating.
The only tool I'll add, because he didn't mention it in his post, is Twitter. It's become my favorite online platform for shared discovery, not just because there's all that real-time information flowing, but because there's all those real life people talking! Though the format is very short-form (only 140 characters), quick opinions or insights around a topic can be exchanged, allowing you to consider a range of perspectives. This kind of interaction also shifts your scanning out of that purely objective quadrant and into the subjective and collective ones. Evaluating trends and statistics is valuable, but so is exploration of cultural values and assumptions that change as a result of new information or circumstances.
Moving offline, the scanning process is about being aware of your immediate environment and exposing yourself to situations where ideas can cross-pollinate and new connections can be formed. This can be anything from meetups to conferences or other networking events where you have a chance to share ideas with other thinkers in your field of interest.
By engaging with another skill covered later in the series, mindfulness, your entire life becomes a scanning process. Staying mindfully focused in the present keeps you in touch with your own thoughts and emotions, and aware of the interactions and relationships between yourself and other people. Understanding what makes people tick and why they think what they think is as important of a skill as understanding the larger forces operating within society.
Why is it important?
Well, if pattern recognition is a skill that leads to better decision making, environmental scanning is a process to help detect patterns. The world is becoming more fully interdependent, and it's not enough to only pay attention to one's own field or industry anymore. The more comprehensive an understanding you can get of the "big picture," the better position you'll be in to anticipate and adapt to change, keeping you or your organization competitive.