Environmental Scanning
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1993, 2(1), 3-4. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Recently Jim Hearn, Richard Clugston and Rick Heydinger, pioneers in environmental scanning techniques at the University of Minnesota (UM), published a five-year follow-up to the UM scanning effort (Hearn, Clugston, & Heydinger, 1993) originally described by Hearn and Heydinger (1985). I commend both articles to you. They contain a comprehensive review of literature describing theoretical and prescriptive environmental scanning models, the model the authors and their colleagues attempted to implement at UM, and a review of the implementation over the 1983-88 time period.

The model they sought to implement was a theory-based, voluntary effort directed by staff of the academic vice president's office. The model was comprehensive and systematic (i.e., they scanned the social, technological, economic and political sectors using a variety of information resources). Scanners published abstracts containing a summary of information they thought would be of value to total organizational planning. In the 1985 article Hearn and Heydinger noted that research universities may ignore systematic environmental scanning because such efforts raise organizational tensions (e.g., questions of whether scanners will include value-neutral items for information only or provide interpretation and recommendations for action; whether focus will be on process or on product; whether small issues and trends will be considered along with large ones; whether scanning responsibilities will be assigned to volunteers or staff; whether work will be done individually or collectively; whether a centralized strategy will be pursued or only centralized coordination sought). Hearn and Heydinger concluded that without full support from the top, no scanning effort would be successful.

The purpose of the 1993 article was to examine the results of the scanning effort at UM. To do so, they interviewed eight top UM administrators, including a vice president, five deans or associate deans, and two planning officers. Hearn, Clugston and Heydinger concluded that scanning had not become institutionalized at UM, even though several aspects of scanning were continued. Although scanning was no longer being pursued at the central level (e.g., the faculty senate), it was at several academic and nonacademic units, primarily in the professional schools. Scanning products tended to be unstructured (unwritten and vague) and value-laden (prone to active interpretation). In those units incorporating scanning in their planning activities, scanning had taken the leap from voluntary to mandatory: a part of regular job responsibilities.

Why didn't scanning become institutionalized? Hearn, Clugston and Heydinger (1993) suggested several possible reasons. A barrier was automatically present in UM's organizational structure as a large, complex, loosely coupled, highly differentiated research university, characterized by slowness and uncertainty vis--vis external threats or opportunities. No champions in positions of power argued that the process should be central to the planning process. A "policy vacuum" existed at UM (i.e., no constituency of policy makers eagerly awaited the results of the scanning effort). Trend analyses and issue briefs were often seen as having little relevance. Policy makers felt that if the effort were expanded, it would burden leaders with additional staff. Scanning was seen as placing time and energy demands on participants, thereby raising cost-effectiveness concerns. University administrators saw adapting to external trends and markets as conflicting with the pursuit of academic quality. Top administrators expressed suspicions concerning the logic and usefulness of scanning activities. Scanning seemed insufficiently connected to the mission of the institution.

Nevertheless, Hearn et al. (1993) foresee an increasing need for attention to the external environment at UM, because we are entering "a time in which historic alignments with external, traditionally serviced constituencies are being changed fundamentally. Such realignments may call forth a period of organizational 're-creation,' with special needs for monitoring and responding to environmental developments (p. 33)." For scanning to succeed, it will need to be integrated into decision making activities; legitimized as a priority for administrators; oriented toward output; opened to the dynamic aspects of anarchic organizations rather than rationalized into discrete categories; treated as an art to be developed, not a magic bullet of instant utility; and to be strategically focused, rather than focused on general, all-purpose reconnaissance.

I appreciate the scholarly care and insight with which Hearn, Clugston, and Heydinger have prepared this case study. The article is instructive, and adds to our developing knowledge of the use of this important tool in effective planning. As a long-time advocate of environmental scanning, I concur with their argument that senior leaders must attend more carefully to the external environment in these turbulent times. The time and effort senior leaders expend in scanning and interpreting the implications of changes in the external environment for their institution not only expands their personal and collective knowledge, but also facilitates a common, proactive view of their institution's future.

However, as Hearn et al. point out, even introducing a scanning system at an institution is difficult; actually establishing a scanning system organizationally requires much time and effort. Consequently, most institutions do not have a comprehensive, on-going scanning process.

We hope that On the Horizon can fill this void by providing information that can facilitate planning at institutions that cannot afford to establish their own process. Our notion of the site licenses was that the CEO, or the director of institutional research and planning, with limited staff and resources, could keep campus leaders informed of potential developments by regularly giving them On the Horizon, buttressed, perhaps, with his or her own commentary about the implications for that particular campus. Please let us know how we are doing.


Hearn, J.C., Clugston, R.M., & Heydinger, R. B. (1993, Fall). Five years of strategic environmental assessment efforts at a research university: A case study of an organizational innovation. Innovative Higher Education, 18(1), pp. 7-36.

Hearn, J. C. & Heydinger, R. B. (1985). Scanning the external environment of a university: Objectives, constraints, and possibilities. Journal of Higher Education, 56(4), 419-445.

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