‘Modes’ of scanning

In the earlier posts in this series I have described various aspects of scanning practice. Here I want to describe the four main ‘modes’ of scanning that are generally recognised by theorists and practitioners, and how they differ from each other. It also then allows me to ‘frame’ the  retrospective to date and to explain the particular modes of scanning that were being used two decades ago to select and report on the hits that are being re-published here. It will also help to frame the change in character of the scanning hits once the initial set of 25 Snippets are done and we move into the more ‘serious’ scanning hits that were reported in the Foresight Bulletin, prospect.

In the monograph on scanning that I edited two decades ago – initially as a special issue of prospect (No. 9, Sep 2002), and then re-worked into one of the monographs in the Australian Foresight Institute’s monograph series (Voros 2003) – the opening chapter is a reprint of a journal article by Chun Wei Choo (1999) on what we considered at that time (in the Foresight and Planning Unit) to be best practice in conventional scanning. Essentially, it was an excellent introduction to (as he put it) “the art of scanning the environment”, which was adapted from a chapter in his more extensive book-length treatments of scanning (e.g., Choo 1998, 2002), and served as the foundation for conventional scanning best practice, before the two further chapters extended that practice in new ways.

As Choo (1999, p. 22) notes, “scanning includes both looking at information (viewing) as well as looking for information (searching)”, which Morrison, Renfro and Boucher (1984) characterised more simply as passive and active scanning, respectively. The four main categories of information collection modes are (cf. Aguilar 1967, Morrison c.1996?, Choo 1999, Bishop and Hines 2012):

    • Undirected Viewing – looking at information sources without any specific informational need in mind, simply the more general goal of scanning a wide variety of sources so as to detect signals of impending change early.
    • Conditioned Viewing – the information viewing is directed towards certain topics or types of information, with the broad goal of assessing the significance of the information for its impact, if any, on the organisation.
    • Informal Search – actively looking for more specific information in a relatively unstructured and/or limited way with the general goal of deepening understanding around a specific issue.
    • Formal Search – a deliberate, structured and/or planned effort to devise or to use specific methodologies or procedures in order to obtain specific information, or information about a specific issue, very often with the goal of informing a strategic decision.

The ‘funneling down’ (as it were) of the scanning modes, from very broad to very specific, should be fairly clear. Indeed, in the Introduction to the monograph, I referred to this sequence as an “attention funnel” – open and broadest at the top, gradually narrowing down to be highly directed and very specifically focused at the bottom. The observation made there was that if the initial Undirected Viewing was too narrow to begin with, then as scanners we could quite easily miss capturing the very signals that the scanning system is supposed to detect in the first place. One cannot assess the relevance or potential impact of signals one has not detected or captured. It is for this reason that a scanning frame needs to put into place that is as broad as it can possibly be. Our Undirected Viewing therefore needs to encompass, basically, everything, so a very broad framework indeed is needed. I therefore used Ken Wilber’s integral framework (e.g., 2000) as the starting point for a scanning frame owing to its explicitly-stated intention of being the broadest possible framework for understanding absolutely everything (as described in the second and third chapters of the monograph).

The scanning being reported in this retrospective should therefore be understood as having arisen primarily from the more broadly-oriented Viewing focus described above, mostly Undirected, but with a fair amount of the Conditioned orientation also mixed in. As noted in the footer text on every post, these items are

interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like.

Hence the many broader-interest items that are present in the posts so far, but also a certain number which clearly reflect the organisation’s major operating focus – tertiary education. Once the initial 25 Snippets posts are complete it will be time to dive more explicitly into the rather more targeted education-related items beyond simple Conditioned Viewing, nudging into the Informal Search mode, which were reported in prospect. The even more targeted Formal Search was the primary mode utilised during the year-long Swinburne Scenarios Project, but that is something (perhaps) for another day…


Aguilar FJ (1967) Scanning the business environment, Studies of the modern corporation, Macmillan, New York.

Bishop P C and Hines A (2012) Teaching about the future, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK. doi: 10.1057/9781137020703.

Choo CW (1998) Information management for the intelligent organization: The art of scanning the environment, 2nd edn, ASIST monograph series, Information Today, Medford, NJ, USA.

——— (1999) ‘The art of scanning the environment’, Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3):21–24. doi: 10.1002/bult.117.

——— (2002) Information management for the intelligent organization: The art of scanning the environment, 3rd edn, ASIST monograph series, Information Today, Medford, NJ, USA.

Morrison JL (c.1996?) Scanning, Horizon site. Available at: http://horizon.unc.edu/bios/Morrison/papers/6.html (Accessed: 16 July 2021).

———, Renfro WL and Boucher WI (1984) Futures research and the strategic planning process: Implications for higher education, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Research Reports, No. 9, Association for the Study of Higher Education, Washington, DC.

Voros J (ed.) (2003) Reframing environmental scanning: A reader on the art of scanning the environment, Australian Foresight Institute monograph series, No. 4, Swinburne University Press, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia. http://hdl.handle.net/1959.3/34346.

Wilber K (2000) A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality, Shambhala, Boston.


Image credit: Photo by Oskar Kadaksoo on Unsplash

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