Turning External Information into Actionable Intelligence – Part 1

In general, environmental scanning is conducted by analysts who scour the operating environment (STEEP as in the previous article) for information about the future—trends, events, changes, and so on. How do they categorize the scanning? Are they looking for information by regions of the world? Or by broad disciplines (social, technological, economic, political, other…)? Or by categories that are particularly meaningful to their clients’ nations or organizations? Generally, horizon scanning is conducted prior to an organization developing its strategic plan. Some of that can be very useful in thinking about the future environment in which the organization will be operating. However, if it is conducted at this stage – prior to the planning – then the directions given to the scanners will be based on the historical trends and current circumstances of the organization. We prefer to conduct the planning in a creative and imaginative way, especially using reframing techniques for the organization, and then conduct the scanning based on this new perspective of the organization. So, for instance, if we are thinking about a project to look at The HOUSE of the Future, then we would want to scan for developments in urban planning, building materials, construction techniques, infrastructure, power/energy, waste disposal, appliances, consumer electronics, furniture, furnishings…and so on. If we were to reframe it into the HOME of the Future, then it would include those areas and a whole lot more, such as trends in working from home—the need for office space that is appropriately designed to accommodate office equipment, office and communications technology, improved sound insulation…and more. If trends of working from home, more homes in rural areas to be closer to nature or to get away from urban sprawl, and homeschooling all converge, then the home will need facilities for homeschooling, for more entertainment, more need for fitness equipment, and perhaps for monitoring family members’ health situations. (The Internet of Things would be very useful here!) So you could ask yourself for what additional things should the horizon scanners be looking?

Then the organization and analysts need a means for pulling all this information into a coherent view of the future—often through the use of scenarios. Scenarios, as we use them, are postulated sequences of events put together into stories about the future of an organization. They are organization-specific, so we cannot provide an example. However, there are many publications of global scenarios that outline stories of the way the world may develop. For example, in 2013, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) produced a Global Trends 2030 report that described several global scenarios.

This is where the scanning turns into foresight. These scenarios may have quantitative and qualitative elements to them, and they may be developed through the use of discussion and narratives by expert analysts, or through complex computer models. But one of the key elements to remember in this activity is “the map is not the territory.” Another key element is that the people collecting the information and conducting the analyses tend to be from a single culture or related cultures, and therefore they perceive the information and its relevance from a particular perspective. What may be interpreted one way from the perspective of an analyst may be seen quite differently by a business executive or a commander on the ground.

To do environmental scanning properly and thoroughly is time-consuming and very expensive. For example, the Global Trends 2030 report mentioned above was an interesting and very well-presented glossy document that had been prepared by a team of excellent analysts within the IC working with a well-known consultancy. I am sure that there were still questions the analysts would have liked to have worked on further and questions they had to leave unanswered because of time constraints. Another difficulty is that world events do not stand still and, because such studies take time, some of the conclusions may be outdated before the study is finished.

Finally, all the analyses have to be condensed into a short, readable document. Most reports prepared this way don’t say anything new or revolutionary, and nor do they give many implications of findings.

So what are you to do with such a report? Clearly, you and your leadership team should read it, even though it may not contain all the details. Some people do read the whole report, but the majority only read the executive summary, which is even less detailed and more lackluster. This is a waste of time, money, effort, and valuable expertise.

For the next, exciting part of this cliff-hanger – solutions – read Part 2 next week!

Excerpted from Strategy with Passion: A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future by MacNulty & Woodall


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. Good points. I’ve found that despite the inputs, it’s best having people be able to see the end game and how they fit into it. Then they’re ready to take what they need and act on it. Story telling, sharing a joke, or even offering a candy bar are excellent approaches to establish readiness.