Environmental Scanning - Knowledge Industry of the 21st Century
The global environment is constantly emitting an infinite number of ‘signals’ about many, many processes. No individual, no organisation, can pay attention to more than a tiny fraction of them. In addition, the early signals of potentially influential phenomena are usually small, indistinct and hard to separate from the background ‘noise.’ Yet the earlier they can be detected, the longer is the lead-time available to respond. So the central task of environmental scanning (ES) is to reconcile sensitivity to new and significant information with careful, systematic selection criteria. Given the turbulence of the early 21st century environment, the dysfunctions embedded in social, economic and some technical systems, and the rapid pace of change, ES promises to be one of the most widespread industries of the near future. It is quintessentially an information, and knowledge-based activity. It will become ubiquitously necessary as organisations at all levels struggle to operate amidst the turbulence and create viable strategies for moving forward.
There is a human and a technical aspect to ES. The human side is primary because the skills involved demand high-order cognitive skills. Significantly, this is where futures work based on humanistic, critical and cultural sources comes into its own. From this perspective it is understood that all cultures contain non-rational elements, that values, institutions and traditions are socially-constructed, and that language and meaning are far more subtle and open-ended than earlier scientific and empiricist views allowed. So to carry out ES well requires an in-depth immersion in cultural understanding and the humanities. In this view, the most productive insights about the emerging future are less available through standard methodologies such as trend analysis and forecasting than from immersion in a high-quality futures discourse and the subsequent development of reflexivity, judgement and discrimination. (1)
That said, the technical side of ES is also important. One of the earliest tasks for an organisation setting up an ES system is to create its own particular ‘scanning frame.’ This is a device for paring away 99.99% of reality in order to focus on the signals, the processes, that have a direct bearing on the present and future functioning of the organisation. The scanning frame acts as a dynamic filter to screen out unwanted material. But, in so doing, it may also miss new and significant information. Hence the frame must be constantly re-assessed and revised to take account of the new, the novel, the ‘lone signal’ that may herald entirely novel phenomena. Entire books have been written on ‘how to set up an ES system’ within an organisation. (2) They contain all the basic knowledge needed: the key purposes, the operational requirements, the information systems needed and the uses to which the products of ES may be put by decision-makers. These technical and organisational issues must be resolved on a case-by-case basis. There is no one ‘right’ way to set up an effective ES system.
Overall, it seems to me that high-quality environmental scanning will necessarily become a core competence within a wide range of organisations. The informal, CEO-led, ES of the past which depended solely on a personal, idiosyncratic, reading of the external environment is now as useful as a paper hat in a hurricane. The torrent of change we are all immersed in will certainly overturn many industrial era assumptions and the organisations based upon them. We can already see this happening with schools, government departments and many, many businesses. In each case the imperatives operating within organisations are increasingly ‘out of sync’ with those of the wider world. So, like the human capacity for foresight in general, ES is a necessary innovation which serves to protect from anticipated dangers and also alert us to whole new areas of opportunity. Here are three brief examples.
Many people are aware of the uncomfortable fact that ‘old’ diseases such as malaria, typhoid and bubonic plague are re-emerging around the world. But fewer, I suspect, may be aware that the underlying character of the epidemiological environment is shifting. In brief, humans have penetrated to the heart of what once were unpopulated wildernesses. Organisms which once cycled endlessly in limited populations of animals and insects have been disturbed and are making their way out into the wider world. The story of the Ebola virus is well known. But it is by no means the only example. (3) Another factor is that humans have created an extensive battery of chemical weapons in the so-called ‘war’ against microbes. In so doing, and in the absence of wider systemic awareness, they have merely exerted selection pressure on those same populations. The result is the emergence of drug resistant species. The point is that the dynamics governing the epidemiological environment in which we live are changing. We need to be aware of this in order to deal with the problem at source, not merely through palliative measures that merely perpetuate our collective vulnerability.
Years ago I came across an academic paper with a title something like: ‘Up and Down With the Issue-Attention Cycle.’ It suggested that there was a cyclic process by which certain issues sprang to public notice and then seemed to vanish for long periods of time. This is exactly what has happened with what has been called the ‘life-extension revolution.’ Over the years I have noticed a stream of signals both about fundamental research into the mechanisms and control of aging, and also those speculating about the possible implications. It seems that the life-span of each species has been arbitrarily set by nature. Furthermore, once the process of aging has been fully understood, so a dramatic set of social and ethical choices and decisions arise. How long should we live? Who should choose? And so on. Such choices are hard enough, but there is another feedback loop that should concern us. With world population at over 7 billion and still growing, technologically-induced life extension will further exacerbate an already impossible situation. It’s a prime example of a proposed innovation for which we arguably do not have the values, ethics and wisdom to use well. The same is arguably true of the last example.
I first read about nanotechnology in a book by Stewart Brand (3). I then discovered that perhaps the first signal to indicate that‘something new was in the air was a paper delivered by US physicist Richard Feynman in 1959! The nanotech issue developed rapidly and has now become a multi-pronged R&D effort compete with conferences, organisations and numerous web sites. The perspective is stunning. Materials, machines, structures will no longer be created out of large lumps of matter; they will be constructed atom by atom from the basic building blocks by so-called ‘replicating assemblers,’ tiny machines capable of building anything from anything. (4) Nanotech is not yet a proven reality. But enough signals now exist to suggest that it will become one over the coming decades. Even a modest implementation of nanotech would overturn many industries, provide new shocks to social structures and economies, and yet again raise major questions about the purpose and viability of human life on this earth. This is a dramatic example of the need for social foresight.
1. See Richard Slaughter, The Foresight Principle, Adamantine Press, London, 1995.
2. Chun Wei Choo, Information Management for the Intelligent Organisation: the Art of Scanning the Environment, ASIS/Information Today, Toronto, 1995.
3. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, Penguin, New York, 1987.
4. Ed Regis, Nano, Bantam, New York, 1997.
Copyright © Richard Slaughter, 1998, all rights reserved.