The Continuous Environmental Scan: Where Do You Get All Your Ideas?

CostNotKnowing2The Idea: A nine-step process for setting up a Continuous Environmental Scan in your organization, or just for your own use.

In their book Jumping the Curve, Imperato & Harari introduce the concept of a Continuous Environmental Scan, which is about using modern technology’s ‘radar’ to harvest a lot of ideas about what is happening in the world in areas (geographical, intellectual, or commercial) that you care about. The best manifestation of this is the RSS Aggregator, which allows you to ‘subscribe’ to newsfeeds, weblogs, newsletters and additions to websites, and have all the content appear on a single, continuously updated, page. Alas, many of the sources people want to read are not available as RSS feeds. And while you can get either titles and headlines only, or complete articles, it is an extra step to then filter the resultant feeds for keywords.

Another approach to doing this is what are called Alerts or Profiles, which allow you to register keywords with a search engine and get daily e-mails sent to you of all news items and new articles containing those keywords. Or, if you use services like My Yahoo, you can have these keyword search results aggregated for you, on a latest-first basis, on one page you can call up when you want. These searches, though they cast a wider net, are not very discriminating, usually returning a lot of irrelevant stuff, and tedious promotional material. Even then, there are a lot of useful sources that aren’t online, or are only available for a fee, which your Alerts and Profiles will miss.

So if you want to set up a comprehensive Continuous Environmental Scan you need to put a bit more work into it, and you may have to be prepared to spend some money to access some material. And then you need to be patient and perseverant — it takes some trial-and-error to get the keywords right so you don’t get drowned in ‘false positives’ or more than you can read, and so you don’t miss crucial articles. Here’s the process I evolved to do this:

  1. Know How You Learn: Understand your ‘information behaviour’. Some people like information ‘pushed’ to them through e-mails. Others like to go out and ‘pull’ this information from an Aggregator page when they’re ready for it. Design your Continuous Environmental Scan for your preference. If you’re doing the scan for others in your organization, be prepared to offer the results in both push and pull ‘flavours’.
  2. Determine Your Information Universe: Spend some time (and brainstorm with others) to identify the universe of different sources you want your Scan ‘radar’ to capture. Note that Google News doesn’t capture all news sources, and most other news aggregators capture only a very few select media sources. Make a complete list of all the news sources that are of interest to you — the raw newswires, local, national and international newspapers and media websites, magazines and trade periodicals, newsletters, analyst reports, technology analysts, scientific and technology news, demographic and economic news sources. Some useful sources may not be available online, and others are only available for a fee. If you’re doing this for business, don’t forget to scan industries that could be developing new processes, technologies and innovations that could affect your industry. And don’t forget to track new books on the subjects you’re interested in. And don’t overlook multimedia sources (radio programs, TV documentaries, training materials etc.)
  3. Discover Infomediaries: Now consider how you can tap into others who are already aggegrating some of the content you care about. Trade and industry associations often prÈcis relevant news on their websites and newsletters. There are many specialized bloggers: Just Google the topic or industry you’re interested in and the word ‘blog’ and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find. There are some excellent cross-disciplinary e-newsletters out there as well, like Innovation Weekly which covers innovations in all sectors of the economy and society. Some of these ‘infomediaries’ include summaries, free of charge, of articles from other sources that they’ve paid for. Most of them offer RSS feeds.
  4. Tap Into the Stuff Inside Your Organization: Next, consider how to tap into sources sitting on the hard drives and bookshelves of the people in your organization and networks. The best stuff (like the results of customer surveys) isn’t always on the company Intranet, and even when it is it is probably not being read by those who could benefit from it. If you have tech-savvy staff with a lot of material on hard drives, consider setting up ‘public partitions’ on each employee’s hard drive that can be canvassed and archived by the Intranet and made available to others. Consider setting up, and tapping into, employee weblogs.
  5. Add Together, Stir and Sift: Now you have all the content for the top of the funnel. The next step is to filter it. How you do that will depend on the format it is in and the tools at your disposal. If there is an RSS feed of the source, use it to capture the whole feed, then use keyword searches to filter just the articles you want to read. Keyword filtering takes skill and practice: Learn to use phrases and boolean symbols to eliminate ‘false positives’. If you’re interested in Innovation and Differentiation, for example, you’ll want to filter out the many references to cell differentiation and mathematical differentiation and keep the rest. You need to consider synonyms and foreign terms which may catch important articles your primary keywords would miss. Try to avoid common English words, especially those with ambiguous meanings — check the thesaurus for synonyms that mean the same thing and are likely to occur elsewhere in the same articles. Brainstorm with others to come up with better phrases and boolean qualifiers. For hard copy sources you’ll have to divvy up the reading duties, learn to speed read and scan quickly, and have a process to digitize or copy (single copies for personal use are permitted even for copyrighted materials) the articles. Learn to write terse, one-sentence abstracts of articles, one-paragraph summaries of books, and put them at the front, to save re-reading to remember what it was about. Learn to write short three-page summaries of books for those who should, but won’t, read the whole thing.
  6. Add Value: Often your context-rich interpretation of ‘what it means’ or ‘what it could mean’, can be more valuable than the article itself. Putting down your analysis, interpretations and insights can not only make it more valuable for others, it can help ‘make sense’ of it in your own mind.
  7. Organize and Make Available What’s Left: Whatever has passed through your filters now needs to be put into a logical order, organized by topic and format, and indexed. If you’re doing the Scan for a lot of people, you may want to use the index as the basis for a newsletter, with hotlinks to the content, and to your synopses and abstracts. For those that want the results ‘pushed’ to them, you’ll need to further organize it into an e-mail or e-newsletter. For those that prefer to ‘come and get it’ you’ll need to organize it in a database or on a web page that is easy to navigate.
  8. Don’t Forget Serendipitous Reading: No matter how skilled you may get at using Alerts, keyword searches, RSS feeds and other techniques to distill everything down to Your Personal Newspaper, you’re going to miss something. Sometimes important ideas and disruptive innovations just come out of left field. That doesn’t mean you should read the daily paper cover to cover, unless you’re a glutton for punishment. You can scan the headlines of the local, national and business papers online in about 15 minutes. Use the rest of your daily news reading time to read selected magazines that cast a wide net, make you think, and focus on what’s next and what you can do about it, rather than just rehashing useless news. My favourites are The New Yorker, Fast Company and Wired, though I read sporadically a dozen other unorthodox publications like the Utne Reader as well. Stop reading matter, start reading what matters.
  9. Have conversations about ‘what it means’: Make yourself available, and encourage your organization to make time and space, for ‘water cooler’ discussions about ‘what it means’. Pick the articles (from the Scan or from serendipitous reading) that you found most thought-provoking and make a point of inviting people to talk about them with you. It may take some practice and exercise, but you may just find that people will start getting much more engaged about important things about your organization and about the world at large, and you may just become the centre of attention. If you work solo or at home, you can do the same thing in your neighbourhood (an extension of the old neighbourhood book club idea), or even virtually with Skype and your online networks. Bloggers, of course, already have such an outlet.

There’s no turnkey way to do this, and it takes a lot of practice. What’s amazing is how many large organizations are doing virtually nothing to make use of the immense amounts of interesting and useful information ‘out there’ in a disciplined and organized manner. It’s left up to the individual, and most individuals have neither the time nor the skill to do it. It’s a missed opportunity in many companies, and perhaps one of the reason for the dearth of innovation in our world today.

The chart above was explained in this earlier article.

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4 Responses to The Continuous Environmental Scan: Where Do You Get All Your Ideas?

  1. Eric Sohn says:

    Two things:1) When you mention scanning new books, you should consider the book summary services – AudioTech if you prefer audio, Soundview for print, or (my favorite) Why read a 300-page book if you can read a 5-page exegesis? The idea is to assimilate more, diverse content – you want breadth, not depth.2) Under “conversations about what it means,” consider structured sessions about particularly significant or interesting new ideas. I’m very fond of Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking exercises; they’re efficient and robust ways of investigating ideas.And while we’re speaking of de Bono, consider his Six Thinking Hats way of running meetings, in order to create more time in the corporate day for this strategic thinking work. In some cases, it has reduced meeting time by well over 50%.

  2. jim wilde says:

    Hi,I read and bookmark via your ideas all the time since they add value to much of the work that we do as well as our clients. Thank you! I developend a tool – Ideascape – for bussiness and orgainzations that pretty much does everything you have mentioned. What’s more, we have hooks into bookmarking services such as and Furl that help our clients discover new ideas and relevant information. Try it out.

  3. dave davison says:

    Another gem posting – I will investigate Ideascape to see how it fits into our collaborative requirements.

  4. mike jackson says:

    For anyone that’s interested has the most comprehensive environmental scan on the web.mike

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