Strategic Planning and Environmental Scanning:

What is an Environmental Scan in Education

Table of Contents

Strategic Planning and Environmental Scanning

Higher education institutions must do a better job at strategic planning and environmental scanning.

Many colleges and universities get pulled off track easily in today’s highly charged and quickly changing world. While colleges and universities work to stay on the leading edge of knowledge, emerging technologies can quickly make these efforts antiquated.

As institutions face increasing funding challenges, higher education leaders can feel caught between the historical expectations placed on higher education and today’s demands. A fickle populace who questions higher education’s worth doesn’t help the cause.

Then add in the mercurial nature of social media – think of the havoc caused by just one of President Trump’s tweets – and the institutional focus can be diverted to fighting metaphorical brush fires instead of patiently tending the lamp of learning.

How do higher education leaders find a way through this minefield to improve their strategic planning and environmental scanning skills? We at The Change Leader suggest the time-honored use of creating a meaningful strategic plan.

A 2015 Rand Corporation report, “Getting the Most Out of University Strategic Planning: Essential Guidance for Success and Obstacles to Avoid,” points out that strategic planning helps guide senior management and empower middle managers while also aligning everyday activities to institutional goals. Furthermore, this type of planning encourages data-based decision-making and implementation of performance management that helps to monitor progress, correct deviations, and allocate resources based on clearly defined goals.

Strategic planning has deep roots in higher education. Universities began utilizing strategic planning methods in the 1950s, often focusing on budget and planning needs in relation to student recruitment, enrollment and resource growth, facilities, and academic programs. However, few of these efforts looked at long-range planning. Modern strategic planning started in the 1960s in the U.S. military. The for-profit sector began implementing this approach in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is an Environmental Scan in Education

One of the key elements of the strategic planning process is environmental scanning. In an article for K-12 schools, Dr. Molly Linda Poole suggests four reasons why environmental scanning need to be front and center in developing a strategic plan: for K-12 schools, Dr. Molly Linda Poole suggests four reasons why environmental scanning needs to be front and center in developing a strategic plan:

  • Environmental scanning focuses on anticipating the future instead of describing current conditions. Therefore, this type of scanning causes participants to think about forecasting in as many areas as possible.
  • Environmental scanning has a wider scope than traditional data collection. This analysis uses an assumption that unsuspected sources – such as social, economic, political, and technical indicators — may cause major impacts on an organization. Thus, planners are looking for signals instead of statistics.
  • Environmental scanning allows participants to analyze the interactions of events and trends.
  • Environmental scanning is a critical and ongoing part of the planning process in which information on external events and trends is continuously collected and considered throughout the planning process.

Taking the Right Environmental Scanning Options into Account

There are many environmental scanning options available. For instance, many individuals and organizations use a SWOT analysis, which looks at strengths (S), weaknesses (W), opportunities (O) and threats (T) as a means to examine the current state in which the organization operates. While doing a good job in analyzing the current state, we believe SWOT is not the best tool to use in analyzing the issues facing an organization as complex as a higher education institution over a 5-10-year period. 

Another commonly used tool is the PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental). This framework helps organizations analyze external trends but neglects to look at the organization’s operational capacity. Furthermore, some believe that this framework leads to paralysis by analysis due to the requirement to regularly collect data.

At The Change Leader, we use the SKEPTIC Environmental Scanning Model, initially developed by Stephen Haines. In their book “Reinventing Strategic Planning: The Systems Thinking Approach,” Haines and his coauthor Jim McKinlay stated, “More and different details about the future come out when you look at all the many key factors in the environment using the SKEPTIC framework.”

Here’s the breakdown of SKEPTIC’s components as well as how we see it being used for institutions of higher education:

  • S (Socio-demographics) – What demographic trends are institutions facing? These include the differences in educating members of different age groups (think Boomers vs. Millennials, for instance) as well as students from different socioeconomic groups. You can see this category’s importance when looking at the declining enrollments that many institutions are currently facing. Socio-demographics also show up in employee decisions, whether in hiring, policymaking, or training and development.
  • K (Competition) – Competition takes on many forms these days, such as higher education institutions in the area, as well as entities offering certificate programs. In some cases, corporations and businesses develop their own offerings through professional development, thus serving as potential competitors to higher education. And we can’t forget online competitors such as Smartly that are touting free MBA programs.
  • E (Environment and economics) – Environment and economics look at what’s happening locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. For example, the recent recession changed the composition of many institutions’ enrollments by bringing older individuals who had lost their jobs in the economic downturn back into the classroom.
  • P (Political and regulatory) – This category should come as no surprise, considering the animosity expressed about higher education by policymakers at the federal and state levels. Therefore, this category offers the opportunity to think critically about potential long-term ramifications concerning politics, funding, and regulatory decisions.
  • T (Technology) – Technology continues developing and evolving; therefore, taking these changes into account in developing a strategic plan is critical for higher education leaders.
  • I (Industry) – Reviewing the status and future needs of the industry will help determine the viability of current programs as well as identify emerging needs.
  • C (Customers) – This category provides an interesting conundrum for higher education leaders. Who are the institution’s customers? Does higher education’s customer base consist of students and their parents? Or are they the future employers of the institution’s graduates? Looking at customers from these different perspectives leads to important “a-ha’s” that can help higher education institutions develop a meaningful plan.

The Attunement Process of Strategic Planning and Environmental Scanning

A critical reason to take the time to do an environmental scan is the opportunity to engage stakeholders from across the institution’s areas. These should include key administrators, faculty, staff, students, graduates, industry leaders, and donors.
This attunement process serves as an educational process that informs participants of the many issues facing higher education. In addition, by pulling together stakeholder teams to examine the various areas from the SKEPTIC, we begin to build that shared vision that is so critical for Higher Ed institutions, especially with faculty. And, as the saying goes, “People support what they help create.”

Environmental scanning does take time and effort. While some would limit the time spent on this part of the strategic planning process, environmental scanning offers a chance to delve deeply into the issues facing an institution while also building a sense of community with stakeholders. Ultimately, this process – if done right — can provide a springboard to gain important momentum toward achieving the strategic plan’s goals.

Share This Post
Recent Posts and Podcasts:

Subscribe to The Change Leader

Get the latest higher ed news and expert insights from our articles, podcasts and newsletters.

Skip to content