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5 Ways to Use Environmental Scanning

Published October 11, 2019
By The SCUP Learning Team: Sadie Wutka, Director of Content Strategy | Nicholas Santilli, SCUP Senior Director of Learning Strategy

The practice of environmental scanning is often a first step in the strategic planning process. Typically, planning teams engage in an exhaustive analysis of the internal and external forces acting on the institution to set the planning context. But should scanning the internal and external environment be limited to the early phases of strategic planning?

How I Used Environmental Scanning

By Nicholas Santilli, SCUP Senior Director of Learning Strategy

A regular practice of environmental scanning can help you in other ways—even if you’re not in the middle of a planning process. For example, during my time leading an office of institutional effectiveness, I routinely produced reports of internal trends of institutional performance covering retention, graduation rates, numbers of majors, and student and faculty characteristics. These data points found their ways into the institutional fact book and performance dashboards.

My work was not limited to focusing on our internal environment. I also spent a good deal of time scanning reports and data focused on the larger external forces impacting higher education, including custom Data Feedback Reports from IPEDS data, reports from higher education associations (such as ACE and NACUBO), and market trend analyses for academic programs. I routinely presented these data to our Board of Directors, strategic planning committee, and the President’s Senior Leadership Team.

Bottom line: environmental scanning is not just part of a strategic planning effort but is a routine component of a vibrant institutional effectiveness operation.

What is Environmental Scanning?

Environmental scanning is an exploration and analysis of the external and internal factors affecting a college or university. Internal scans often combine institutional data points with insights from stakeholder feedback.

There are multiple ways to do an external environmental scan. Trends in Higher Education, our bi-annual external environmental scan, uses STEEP to guide analysis of the external environment. STEEP identifies trends and forces in each of these 5 categories:

  • Social
  • Technological
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Political

No matter how you approach an external environmental scan, it’s important to 1) take a broad look at forces outside of higher education and 2) brainstorm how they might impact higher education and your college or university.

5 Ways to Use Environmental Scanning

1. Inform your unit planning
We use a strategic plan so our college or university can prepare for the future. But what about your unit, department, or program? Are they prepared for the future? Trends that may be insignificant to the institution as a whole can have a big impact on a department. Using an environmental scan for your unit can help you identify the forces that may impact your day-to-day work.

2. Make the case for planning
Have stakeholders with planning fatigue? Need to get more people on board with your planning effort? Use an environmental scan to illustrate the forces that could impact your institution. Stimulate conversation around trends to help stakeholders determine how ready (or not) your institution is for the future…and whether it’s time for a new college or university strategic plan.

3. Discuss the future of higher education
When it comes to change, you can either anticipate the future and make small course corrections now…or be blindsided and attempt large-scale change at the last minute. Use an environmental scan to organize regular discussions about the future of higher education—and the future of your institution—and you’re less likely to be caught flat-footed when big change hits.

4. Support your budget requests with data
You know why your requests for new funds are important…but the people holding the purse strings might not. Use articles and information from an environmental scan as evidence to support budget requests. You can help leadership understand how your request is preparing your institution to respond to coming changes.

5. Assist in program prioritization and help develop new curricula
The knowledge and skills students needed 10 years ago might not be relevant 10 years in the future. Use an environmental scan to understand the world your future graduates will live and work in. This will help you take an informed, big-picture look at how your academic programs nurture the potential in each student.