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Associations Now

The Basics of Environmental Scanning

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, August 2011, Feature

By: James G. Dalton

Summary: No crystal ball? No problem. Environmental scanning can help you identify the trends that are most likely to directly affect your association and its members. Then you can craft a strategy that will help you take advantage of inevitable changes down the road. (Titled "Turn on Your Trend Monitor" in the print edition.)

In rapidly changing environments, one rule of thumb applies: If you don't adapt, you don't endure. That's the core idea behind environmental scanning. Definitions of the term abound, but in essence it refers to the means by which organizations gather information on changing conditions and incorporate those observations into a process where necessary changes are made. The right information, combined with the right adaptations, can determine an organization's future viability.

A body of knowledge on environmental scanning is developing, but unfortunately much of it is oriented toward for-profit companies and doesn't fully recognize the unique conditions of membership organizations. (See sidebar below for more information on resources ASAE is developing on environmental scanning for nonprofits.) But environmental scanning needn't be complicated or intimidating for association executives. Here are five steps to help begin that effort.

1. Consider Your Scanning Type

Your first order of business is to set some parameters on the type of scanning you will be doing. There are two fundamental scanning types: "social intuitive" and "formal analytical." If you run a scanning process in which people investigate a wide range of sources and then produce a report by a given date, you are in formal-analytical mode. "Social intuitive" is a less rigorous type of scanning: The term acknowledges the fact that everyone scans their environment for useful information about what's coming down the pike.

Some people are much better at social-intuitive scanning than others; research indicates that founders of successful startup ventures are adept at social-intuitive scanning. They do a lot of networking and are naturally inclined to ask questions and generate opinions on what the future holds. Similarly, people who use social media are trafficking in the kind of information that lends itself to social-intuitive scanning. Think of formal-analytical scanning as a means of bringing discipline, range, and conclusions to a social-intuitive inclination.

The second consideration has to do with the scanner's perspective and intent. One approach is to conduct an unrestricted search of the entire environment. In this "viewing" mode, the scanner is open to anything that could be relevant to the organization, though the scanner is especially attentive to broad subject categories that are thought to offer the best opportunities. One such viewing scheme goes by the acronym STEEP, referring to trends in the social, technological, economic, environmental (i.e., ecological), and political spheres.

Another approach, the "directed" mode, relates to specific trends an organization is already aware of. Here the goal is to learn more about how a trend will affect its industry or profession. For example, in directed mode the scanner drills down to discover the implications of a trend for suppliers, competitors, customers, and downstream beneficiaries.

It's important to remember that no organization operates exclusively in viewing or directing mode: A formal scanning process engages in both simultaneously, at once identifying newly relevant trends and performing in-depth research on those already believed to be the most significant.

How long should your scanning process last? A formal, periodic scan might occur at a set interval, like every year or every three years, last a few weeks or months, and culminate with a report that informs the planning process. But organizations that make scanning a continuous activity recognize the importance of regularly developing, monitoring, and adjusting strategies. They also recognize that everybody in the organization needs to be thinking about the future and sharing thoughts about the implications of specific trends in an organized manner. An ongoing scan is better than a periodic one, but a periodic scan is the place to start if no formal-analytical scanning is happening at all.

2. Select Your Scanning Team

There are two factors to consider as you establish a scanning team: the number of people involved and the profile of the participants. A staff-only group is easier; including both staff and members can become complicated in terms of size and logistics. Regardless, a group of six to 10 people constitutes a good size for a scanning team. As for the type of people you include, attributes that seem to correlate with scanning proficiency include

  • Imagination. Participants need an ability to create mental images of things that have not actually happened.
  • Fluency. An ability to speak or write easily and coherently is essential. Scanning is about exploring concepts using language.
  • Networking. The best scanners are inclined to develop contacts with a diverse spectrum of people and to stay in touch with them over time, giving and gathering information.

In addition, it's a good idea to have at least one representative from each program department that scans as a matter of course. These might be your association's journalists, lobbyists, and education professionals.

3. Identify Your Primary Information Sources

Primary information sources are media that offer productive and reliable insights over time. But it's important to always be exploring other sources that might offer a single but important piece of information or secondary sources that are worth checking periodically. Never assume you've arrived at a stable set of sources.

Every association will develop its own list of primary sources that includes print and electronic news, live events where members gather, and social media outlets where member-related information is transferred. Your mix of sources might include

  • Credible print or online news media, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. These sources, which make huge investments in journalism and the information they deliver, offer starting points for your explorations.
  • There are plenty of resources specific to the STEEP categories mentioned in step one, though you'll want to sort through them to find the ones most appropriate for your association. For example, MIT Sloan Management Review addresses technology with an IT bias that might be appropriate for an engineering association, while Technology Review, also published by MIT, takes a broader perspective on the topic that is friendlier to a nontechnical association.
  • The "American Demographics" section of Advertising Age magazine is one of several important sources of information regarding population shifts. Tracking this dynamic is critical regardless of your particular constituency profile.

4. Design Your Scanning Method

Your appropriate scanning method will depend on factors such as available resources and leadership commitment. It will also depend on your constituent complexity. A more stratified and diverse membership will require more complex scanning. Environmental uncertainty plays a role as well; not all industries and professions experience change at the same rate. But every good scanning method shares some common responsibilities. These include the following:

  • Identifying possible trends. Each person on the scanning team is given an assigned "beat" or list of sources he or she is to track over time. Each team member looks for possible trends and captures them in a standard format that everyone on the team is trained to use.
  • Refining possibilities. At some regular interval, the scanning team meets to discuss the findings from each individual. Exercises should be in place to brainstorm the possible implications of a trend for each affected constituency. In such discussions, it's important not just to identify implications that an association will likely confront; you'll need to project how much impact those implications will have as well. You're looking for probable implications with any significant level of impact, or implications with slight probability but high levels of impact if they were to occur.
  • Continuously scanning. The scanning team is looking for new possibilities from the open universe of information ("viewing" mode) and for more information on those that passed the initial screening ("directed" mode).
  • Finding a larger forum to test implications. On a modest scale, the team might present initial findings at an all-staff meeting to get a fresh assessment of the implications and to prompt some shared learning. On a larger scale, this could happen in an environment where members can provide feedback, such as an annual meeting session or online forum. Your purpose here is twofold. First, you need to get more thoughts and build consensus on what may warrant strategic attention. Second, it's important that your scanning experience generates new knowledge that many can learn from, not just the strategy makers.

5. Deliver "Ready-to-Use" Scanning Information

The viability of a scanning process is assessed at two points. The first time is when the report is put into the hands of the association's strategy makers. The second comes years later, when everybody involved has enough hindsight to determine the accuracy and significance of their predictions.

So how do you know if your scanning process makes sense without waiting a few years? Quality is said to reside in a product or service's "fitness for use"; in other words, quality is there if it does what it is supposed to do in a manner that is efficient and effective. The fitness for use of scanned information is determined by the value it offers to the strategy-making process. If that process is poorly defined, generating a useful scanning report will be difficult.

In the hopes of defining the process, a scanner may be tempted to ask strategy makers what they need. Unfortunately, if they have a poorly defined process—many do—they'll ramble about what they want instead. It's far more productive for the scanner to ask how the strategy-making process works. Who does what and in what order? If the strategy maker isn't sure, keep probing, diplomatically but persistently.

While pages of prose may go into explaining an implication drawn from a trend, each strategic issue your team identifies should be distilled into a single sentence. The objective is to describe a cause-and-effect scenario that you had better do something about. Whatever you do about it is contained in a strategy; the reason to do something at all is a strategic issue.

For example, several years ago many physicians were talking about the effect the internet was having on patient expectations. Everyone agreed it was transforming the doctor-patient relationship: Doctors had less influence over what their patients think, and they had to work harder to respond to the torrent of information patients now had at their command. A trend of this type certainly needs some detailed text to describe it sufficiently. But in the end, a straightforward cause-and-effect sentence did the job:

"Patient use of the internet to find and track clinical trials regarding their particular form of disease [the cause] is changing the traditional doctor-patient relationship with respect to patient involvement in diagnostic and treatment considerations [the effect]."

Note that the statement does not recommend an action the association should take in response to this issue. That's the job of the strategy makers, which they will get to if they agree that the issue warrants a response. The issue itself could have been framed several different ways; the process invites people to read the extended text and propose framing it differently. What's important is that there's a firewall between the stimulus (the issue) and the response (the strategy). The number-one failure point in problem solving comes when nobody can agree on the motive to act before launching an action. In this particular case, the association expanded access to its previously physicians-only website to patients, and it now counsels them on using the internet effectively and structuring a productive dialogue with their doctors.

When developing a response to a strategic issue, the team should consider three—and only three—response options but explore each in depth:

  1. Make the cause go away so you don't have to worry about the consequences.
  2. Acknowledge that the cause is not apt to go away, but find ways to dodge the consequences.
  3. Acknowledge that the cause and the consequences are inevitably coming, so become different in ways that avoid the negative consequences and strengthen the organization in the long run.

For example, when the Clinton administration initiated discussions about healthcare reform in 1993, coalitions that opposed reform proposals successfully terminated the cause (option one). When the Obama administration took up the cause again in 2009, the same coalitions tried the same strategy but failed to appreciate that something had changed since 1993: Now, both chambers of Congress were politically aligned with the White House. Many still fought the cause to the bitter end, while others saw the writing on the wall and began working their own deals to reduce the consequences (option two). But most began work on significant adaptations in the way they do business (option three).

The value of the three-option framework is itself threefold. It forces people to agree on the need to act before they consider possible actions; if they don't agree on the motive, they're not likely to agree on a strategy. Second, it provides an analytical format to explore a full spectrum of strategic options. Finally, it helps ensure that the scanning team's findings are useful for strategy makers.

As more and more association members are exposed to environmental scanning systems in their own work, they'll expect their associations to pursue environmental scanning as well. But what may be more important is the fact that a good environmental scanning system in the association should provide a valued information source for members' own scanning efforts. This will make scanning both an administrative tool for the association and a service to its members.

James G. Dalton is president of Strategic Counsel, a nonprofit consulting firm in Derwood, Maryland, and the former CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He will discuss the ASAE Foundation's online environmental scanning tool in a Learning Lab on Sunday, August 7, 1:30-2:45 p.m., at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. Email: jgdalton@aol.com

Sidebar: An Online Tool for Environmental Scanning

At the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo, the ASAE Foundation will debut a new series of online scanning resources that association professionals can use with their planning committees. The tool creates an online exercise that lets users identify the critical trends in their industries or professions and drive an analytical discussion of likely consequences.

The new service involves three online elements:

  • A graphically oriented mosaic view of the body of knowledge on environmental scanning as it relates to associations, including encapsulated descriptions of the concepts involved and links to more detailed information. The mosaic display allows users to easily find the parts of the body of knowledge that are of greatest interest to them, confirm their basic understandings, and find a convenient pathway to the hands-on information they need.
  • ASAE's complete database of identified "future trends" considered by peers to be of continuing significance to association scanners.
  • An interactive service that allows group access to the trends database, engaging users in an analytical procedure that allows the association planning committee to reach consensus on the trends most likely to affect its industry or profession.

For more information on the online tool, visit www.asaefoundation.org.

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