Scan for Change Like a Futurist

Futurist March 20, 2019 By: Jenny Nelson

Scanning is a common activity for association professionals. ASAE ForesightWorks provides guidance to make your efforts more deliberate and actionable.

Environmental scanning is a foundational element of the work of professional futurists, who connect what’s happening to what’s coming next. But you don’t have to be a futurist to scan on your own or practice foresight. Chances are, as an association professional, you’re already scanning as part of the daily work you do for your organization and for the industries and professions you serve.

Three factors make everyday scanning more foresight-focused: a systematic approach, a broad selection of sources, and ongoing tracking. For both the newbie and the experienced researcher, here are a few tips for better scanning from the ASAE ForesightWorks User’s Guide and Foresight Alliance futurist Terry Grim, a ForesightWorks research team member.

Be Systematic

The User’s Guide suggests using a scanning framework to chart the areas of change that may affect a given future. To scan in relation to the future of associations, ASAE ForesightWorks uses a framework that encompasses social, technological, economic, political, and business (or STEPB) issues and changes. Depending on the purpose, the framework can be customized to reflect a specific industry or area of concern.

If a trend is described in a major news outlet, it’s not emerging—it’s happening.
—Terry Grim, Foresight Alliance

A domain map captures those domains that you need to know more about—or proactively plan for—as you move into the future. The ASAE ForesightWorks domain map Includes common association functions—governance, events and networking, education and training, and member engagement—as well as more general concerns, such as money, outreach, and operations. A domain map might only have one or two domains if you are focused on a specific issue, like membership or operations.

Get Creative

Armed with a framework and domain map, you’re ready to focus your scanning, but you may want to expand your usual list of sources. Grim notes, “If a trend is described in a major news outlet, it’s not emerging—it’s happening.” He suggests monitoring blogs, specialty journals, or topic-focused magazines related to your framework and domains to get an earlier scoop on what is coming next.

One trick Grim suggests for getting out of your usual headspace: When you take your next flight, pick up a magazine you’ve never read before in the airport bookstore. Look for trends or issues that might be relevant to your work or industry.

A healthy amount of skepticism is valuable when scanning. Be wary of overly enthusiastic sources that don’t account for potential road blocks to change or anecdotal or single-sourced “trends” that don’t provide data to back up predictions. But don’t discount potential changes because they don’t align with your hopes or views. Instead, remain open to new possibilities, even if they seem unlikely to you.

Track Your Findings

Once you’ve started collecting information, the challenge is to track what you’ve found to identify the overarching issues. Tracking doesn’t have to be complicated—you can use an Excel sheet or a Word file of links. Rohit Bhargava, who spoke at ASAE’s 2018 Associations @ Work Conference, tracks trends with sticky notes and pages ripped from magazines. If you do a lot of your scanning and research online—Google is your friend for scanning purposes—Grim recommends bookmarking tools like Diigo, Pinboard, Pocket, or Evernote.

Whichever methods you choose to use, make sure you store your findings in a way that makes it easy for you to find them, organize them according to your interests and concerns, and share your conclusions with others.

Scanning can be time consuming, but the reward for diligence is being better prepared for the future. Getting into the mindset of a futurist makes your scanning more deliberate, broader, and action-oriented. But if this approach poses a challenge, ASAE ForesightWorks provides a shortcut—the program’s scanning efforts identified the most significant drivers of change to be aware of and respond to.


Jenny Nelson

Jenny Nelson is associate director, research content, at ASAE.