‘Timing’ of scanning systems

The final major piece of the scanning puzzle is the issue of timing: how often, or according to what sort of timetable, is the scanning in your organisation to be carried out? That question depends on how aware you want to be about what is going on in the external environment, and what your tolerance is for the risk of being blindsided out of existence by events or emerging issues in that environment. (TL;DR: serious preparation requires serious resourcing of the scanning system; no shortcuts or excuses will cut it. Reality cannot be fooled.)

The quite extensive scanning literature deals somewhat less frequently with how scanning should be ‘timed’ – a great deal more emphasis has been placed upon how to segment the external environment, what sources to use, what modes of scanning to employ on those sources, and so on. Those are all important considerations, of course. But even the best segmentation with the best possible choice of sources and modal mixture will not be useful unless the scanning is actually done and also feeds into organisational strategic processes. And a key variable in that activity is the ‘timing’ of the scanning – namely, how often and how seriously it is carried out.

The types of scanning system

The best-known framework for scanning timing goes back to the work of Fahey, King and Narayanan carried out over the course of about a decade (Fahey and King 1977; Fahey, King, and Narayanan 1981; Fahey and Narayanan 1986). These researchers proposed an empirically-based three-fold classification of how environment analysis and scanning actually tends to be done, a classification which is still entirely relevant and useful even today:

  • Irregular – the scanning tends to be ad hoc and usually initiated due to some crisis or other precipitating event. The data gathering tends to be retrospective in character (i.e., historical as opposed to prospective) and geared towards an immediate or near-term (as noted, often crisis-based) decision. Furthermore, the analysis is generally not integrated into the mainstream continuing strategic planning activities of the organisation or entity, and there is basically no ongoing commitment of resources to scanning beyond dealing with the crisis or event.
  • Periodic – the scanning tends to be guided by information required for periodic decision-making (such as annual reviews and planning) or problem solving, and usually has a mixture of present, retrospective and even some prospective data for decisions that may be coming in the nearer-term future. The focus tends to be on the economic or market aspects of the organisational environment, often utilising external agencies for data gathering and analysis. The methods used tend to be statistical forecasting-oriented, the allocation of dedicated resources is relatively low level, and the scanning system is only partially integrated into ongoing strategic planning processes.
  • Continuous – the scanning is focused on not simply information required for current and future decision-making purposes but also for finding new potential opportunities and avoiding potential emerging problems in and into the future, both nearer-term and longer-term. The scope of scanning is wide and encompasses all aspects of the environment, not merely those that are economic or market-oriented, and the nature of the data gathered tends to be both contemporary and prospective. The scanning units usually have a relatively high level of resources allocated to them, the techniques and methodologies utilised are usually quite sophisticated, and the scanning system is generally fully integrated into continuous organisational strategic planning processes and frameworks.

Clearly, the more serious an organisation is about its preparedness to meet the future, the further down the list it will be in this typology.

How serious is your organisation about its survival?

In their survey of practitioners involved in organisational strategic planning, the above researchers found that very few organisations – including corporate, consulting and government – were employing the more advanced modes of scanning system described under Continuous, even though there was a wide recognition of the importance of doing so (Fahey et al. 1981).

It is much like contemporary medical advice concerning the need to eat more healthily, control weight and exercise more – things that are very well-known, yet still not at the top of most peoples’ list of priorities; and which often won’t get put there unless there is a crisis or other precipitating event (and maybe not even then!). In the case of organisational scanning – and indeed health advice – the very crisis event that might cause such a recognition to put continuous well-integrated scanning systems – and health and fitness regimes – at the top of the list could well be fatal to the organisation – or the individual. Thus, requiring documented or quantitative ‘proof’ of the need to employ the proactive systems necessary to ensure continued organisational (or individual) viability may well be an unutterably unwise stance to take. It generally does require an uncommonly proactive forward-thinker in an organisational decision-making role to lead to such systems being set up, systems which may well not persist beyond the eventual moving-on of that individual unless the need for scanning is solidly embedded as a key part of the organisational culture.

It is necessary for each organisation to determine how serious it really is about surviving in, and into, the future. This requires an assessment of the risks it is willing to tolerate arising from not paying careful attention to the environment – proximal and distal – and the dynamics of change that are occurring there which may lead to the emergence of entirely new threats to its viability.

The examples of organisations that were once market leaders but did not maintain the level of vigilance required – and therefore passively allowed themselves to be blindsided entirely out of existence – are legion. Kodak. Nokia. BlackBerry. The list goes on. Seriously intending to survive into the future requires the serious expenditure of serious resources in the present in order to be seriously prepared for any eventuality. There is no getting around that simple fact. It may be possible with a bit of luck to coast along for quite a while, but passively relying solely on continued good luck is just not a sensible strategy. Organisations are required to do due diligence in all of their dealings – this is not even in question in modern strategic management. But I claim that they also need to employ due vigilance, something that still seems very difficult for most organisations to get their heads around and seriously commit to.

Due vigilance as an organisational operating principle

I tend to think of organisational scanning systems along similar lines to radar systems, whether for civilian aviation or military defence. When you start flying again after the pandemic, do you want to rely upon – and possibly bet your life on – radar systems that are switched on only when the airport operators can be bothered (or remember) to? What about every now and then, or perhaps even ‘regularly’ every other Tuesday and Thursday? They would certainly be much cheaper to run that way. Should national defence systems be run similarly on such an irregular or periodic basis?

I doubt that anyone would seriously answer ‘yes’ to these questions. Yet, why do so many people believe that this sort of approach is acceptable for organisations? In the more than 20 years I’ve been doing foresight work, I have never really been able to fathom the disconnect between what people would never countenance if it were applied to themselves or their family, as opposed to what is considered perfectly fine for their organisation.

No, it is clear that serious organisational scanning systems need to be like the national defence radar systems employed by, e.g., the Australian Defence Force (and several others): doing well-resourced, dedicated, long-range, multi-directional, continuous, ‘over-the-horizon’ scanning – with never a gap or break in the coverage nor in the careful attention being paid to its properly-functioning operations (Sinnott 1988). Anything less than such a similarly fully-elaborated continuous panoramic scanning system clearly shows – in actual deed if not in stated words – that the organisation in question is not really serious about its survival in and into the future. And, furthermore, that it is almost certainly only a matter of time before it too will end up on the same lack-of-due-vigilance failure list as Kodak, Nokia and BlackBerry.

Due vigilance – for both emerging threats and potential opportunities – is one very powerful proactive principle for treating an organisation’s future survival, and indeed ‘thrival’, seriously. The question therefore is: Does any organisational leader really want to end up being forever remembered for not employing it, in another Harvard Business School case study such as those for Kodak, Nokia and BlackBerry? If so, then business-as-usual awaits. If not, then it should be quite clear what needs doing as a matter of some importance and urgency – not ‘eventually’, but right now.


Fahey L & King WR (1977) ‘Environmental scanning for corporate planning,’ Business Horizons, 20(4):61–71, doi:10.1016/0007-6813(77)90010-6.

Fahey L, King WR, & Narayanan VK (1981) ‘Environmental scanning and forecasting in strategic planning—The state of the art,’ Long Range Planning, 14(1):32–39, doi:10.1016/0024-6301(81)90148-5.

Fahey L & Narayanan VK (1986) Macroenvironmental analysis for strategic management, West, St. Paul [Minn.].

Sinnott DH (1988) The development of over-the-horizon radar in Australia, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Salisbury, South Australia.

Image credit: Photo by James Stapley from FreeImages

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