by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in George T. Kurian and Graham Molitor (Eds) Encyclopedia of the future.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 814-816. ]

Scanning is a futures research tool that allows us to integrate our understanding of various sectors of the external environment and their relationships with systematically collected macroenvironmental information to obtain early warning of change. Scanning provides strategic intelligence useful in determining strategic options. In the context of strategic planning, scanning is one analytic component. Analysis consists of scanning environments to identify changing trends and potential developments, monitoring them, forecasting their future patterns, and assessing their impacts. Combined with an internal analysis of an organization's vision, mission, strengths, and weaknesses, external analysis assists in planning.

Fahey and Narayanan (1986) describe three environmental levels. The task environment refers to a set of customers. The industry environment comprises all enterprises within a particular industry. At the broadest level is the macroenvironment, which includes the Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political (or STEEP) sectors. Changes in one sector at any level (local, national, or global) may lead to changes in another. A war in the Middle East may cause the price of oil to increase, thus stimulating a recession, in turn resulting in budget cuts. Technological developments in California that enable the conversion of wind power to low-cost energy may be introduced worldwide, thereby reducing the costs of fossil fuel energy, with concomitant economic ramifications. Thus, developments in the macroenvironment can affect developments in the task and industrial environments. This point underscores the necessity of scanning the macroenvironment, as well as the task and industrial environments, to pick up the early signals of change that may affect one's organization or activities.

Scanning can be conceptualized in a number of ways. Aguilar (1967) identified four collection modes:

* Undirected viewing consists of reading a variety of publications for no specific purpose other than to be informed.

* Conditioned viewing consists of responding to this information in terms of assessing its relevance to the organization.

* Informal searching consists of actively seeking specific information but in a relatively unstructured way.

* Formal searching is a more actively organized attempt to devise methodologies for obtaining information for specific purposes.

Morrison, Renfro, and Boucher (1984) describe two modes: passive and active scanning. Passive scanning is what most people do when they read journals and newspapers. For serious news coverage, many read the same kinds of materials: a local newspaper, perhaps a national newspaper like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, and an industry or trade newspaper. People are less inclined to read narrow-interest periodicals when passively scanning. The organizational consequences of passive scanning are that we do not systematically use the information as intelligence to benefit the organization, and, furthermore, we may miss ideas signaling changes in the macroenvironment that could affect the organization. Consequently, to broaden our perspectives and to fight inherent myopia, a more active scanning is required. Such active scanning focuses attention on information resources that span a broad area of concern, including the technological, economic, social, and political sectors, at the local, regional, national, and global level.

Fahey, King, and Narayanan (1981) have defined the typology of active scanning. Irregular scanning systems are used on an ad hoc basis and are often initiated by specific crises. This approach is used when planners need information for making assumptions, and is conducted for that purpose only. Periodic systems are invoked when periodically required to update previous scans, perhaps in preparation for a new planning cycle.  Continuous systems use the active scanning mode of data collection to systematically inform users. This mode limits potentially relevant "data" only in terms of one's conception of the relevant macroenvironment. Scanning data derived from a host of varied sources is inherently scattered, vague, and imprecise. Because early signals often show up in unexpected places, the scanning purview must be broad, ongoing, and sufficiently comprehensive to cover the environments important to users or to an organization.

The important criterion for literature selection is diversity. Information can be obtained from books, newspapers, magazines, journals, television and radio programs, computer bulletin boards and other on-line services, and from knowledgeable individuals. There is no lack of available information resources. Future Survey Annual 1988-1989 lists some 454 futures-relevant periodicals, including 46 publications in international economics and development, 45 in environment/resources/energy, and 31 in health and human services (Marien, 1991, p. 86).

Existing environmental scans provide readymade surveys. United Way of America publishes What Lies Ahead on a biennial basis. The World Future Society publishes Future Survey, a monthly abstract of books, articles, and reports containing forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future. The Global Network publishes John Naisbitt’s Trend Letter, and Kiplinger Washington Editors publish the Kiplinger Washington Letter.

Other general-interest sources are as follows:

  • Newspapers--New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and The Times (of London).

  • Magazines--Vital Speeches of the Day, Across the Board, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Atlantic, The Nation, Ms, The Futurist, and Whole Earth Review.

Adequate scanning of the macroenvironment requires identifying specific information resources for each STEEP category. Some information sources organized by category for the macroenvironment should include the following:  

1.     Social/demographic/values/lifestyles literature— American Demographics, Public Opinion and data from periodic publications or statistics from the Census Bureau, other federal, state, and local governmental agencies, and university sociology departments or population study centers. The Department of Labor and the National Technical and Information Services generate specific types of demographic analyses. The National Center for Health Statistics provides data on trends in areas such as fertility and life expectancy. The U.S. League of Savings Associations studies changes in home-buyer demographics, and the American Council of Life Insurance's Social Research Services conducts demographic studies. The UN and OECD publish periodic reports detailing international developments in these areas.

2.    Technological literature—Technology Review, Datamation, Byte, Computer World, Discover, Infoworld, Science, Scientific American, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Issues in Science and Technology.

3.    Economic literature—Business Week, The Economist, Fortune, Forbes, Money, Inc., and The Monthly Labor Review. Data may also be obtained from Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis monthly reports as well as reports from the Departments of Labor, Energy, and Treasury. State and local governmental agencies provide regional economic data.


4.    Environmental literature—Ecodecision (Royal Society of Canada) and Environment.  Several organizations publish future-oriented reports on the environment—the Global Tomorrow Coalition, the Worldwatch Institute, the World Resources Institute, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club.


5.    Political literature—New Republic, The National Review, The Nation, The National Journal, In These Times, Mother Jones, Federal Register, Congressional Quarterly, Weekly Report, and Digest of Public General Bills.  Other sources include public opinion leaders, social critics, futures-oriented research establishments (e.g., the Hudson Institute, the Institute for the Future), public policy research centers (e.g., Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute), governmental documents (e.g., public hearings, congressional hearings), proposed bills to the legislature, and statements or opinions by experts or activists.  State Legislatures (National Conference of State Legislatures) or provides a periodic summary of pertinent legislation being considered in state legislatures throughout the country.

Information resources for scanning the task environment include local, state, and regional newspapers, local and state government reports as well as experts in demography, sociology, and political science departments in local colleges and universities. Perhaps one of the most useful information resources consists of networks of friends and colleagues within the organization and in the industry.

Electronic databases containing up-to-date descriptions of articles (by title and, many times, by abstract) are available by subscription. Abstracted Business Information (ABI Inform) and Public Affairs Information Service (PAIS) are two such databases. Two database services, Dialogue and BRS, contain hundreds more databases specializing in many areas. Many libraries already subscribe to these databases and database services.   

In conclusion, most everyone does passive scanning. However, active scanning is required to enhance abilities to understand, anticipate, and respond to the threats and opportunities posed by changes in the external environment. Active scanning is a part of any level of scanning—irregular, periodic, or continuous. 

Environmental scanning is only one component of external analysis. However, it is the starting point for identifying critical trends and potential events, monitoring them, and forecasting where they are going. Comprehensive external analysis is not only an enriching development experience; more importantly, it provides a basis for discerning the strategic direction of your organization from which you may plan far more effectively. 



AGUILAR, FRANCIS. Scanning the Business Environment.  New York: Macmillan, 1967.

FAHEY, LIAM; KING, WILLIAM R.; and NARAYANAN, V. K.  "Environmental Scanning and Forecasting in Strategic     Planning: The State of the Art." Long Range Planning 14 (1981): 32-39.

FAHEY, LIAM, and NARAYANAN, V. K. Macroenvironmental Analysis for Strategic Management. New York: West Publishing Company, 1986.

MARIEN, MICHAEL. "Scanning: An Imperfect Activity in an Era of Fragmentation and Uncertainty." Futures Research Quarterly 7 (1991): 82-90.

MORRISON, JAMES L.; RENFRO, WILLIAM L.; and BOUCHER, WAYNE I. Futures Research and the Strategic Planning Process. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1984.

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