Strategic Planning for Issues Management: The Communicator as Environmental Analyst

Sherry Devereaux Ferguson (University of Ottawa)

Abstract: To cope with an uncertain external environment, organizations are planning strategically for issues management. At the founda- tion of strategic planning is environmental analysis, an increasingly common function of the organizational communicator. This article examines the type of systems and activities that characterize environmental analysis practices in Canadian government communication directorates.

Résumé: Obligées de composer avec un environnement externe incertain, les organisations doivent tenir compte des grands enjeux dans leur planification stratégique. À la base de cette planification stratégique, se trouve l'analyse environnementale, une fonction qui tend à relever de plus en plus du rôle des responsables des communications organisationnelles. Cet article présente les caractéristiques et les activités liées aux pratiques d'analyse environnementale dans les directions des communications au sein du gouvernement canadien.

Strategic planning is the buzzword of the 1990s, and organizations engaging in strategic planning range from universities asked to restructure and rewrite their mission statements to publishing houses to major industrial organizations faced with the possibility of extinction. Warren Bennis complained a number of years ago (1976) that the typical twentieth-century policy-maker staggers from one crisis to the next. Strategic planning was a response to the felt need for organizations to move away from such a reactive stance. At the heart of strategic planning is a sound understanding of the organization's publics, or stakeholders. This understanding results from research into and analysis of the public opinion environment. Systems theory, with its focus on the external environment, was influential in establishing the importance of environmental analysis in corporate planning; and the role of the communicator is becoming increasingly central to the organization's ability to carry out these functions. Traditionally, policy analysts and corporate planners have carried out the tasks typically classified as environmental analysis activities--including scanning, monitoring, and forecasting. In recent years, however, a number of organizations have merged the environmental analysis function of policy and planning units with the issues management function of public affairs departments; and they have passed responsibility for the environmental analysis function to communicators. In 1988, the Canadian government adopted a new Communications Policy that defined environmental analysis as one of the four functions of a government communicator. It is the intent of this paper to examine (1) the changed role of the organizational communicator under the 1988 Canadian Government Communication Policy and (2) the dominant features of environmental analysis systems currently in place within Canadian government communication directorates. The new roles have implications for those who are involved in the education and training of communicators. First, however, I would like to review the characteristics of typical environmental analysis systems, as described in the corporate planning literature (where environmental analysis concerns originated).

What Does Environmental Analysis Imply?

The term environmental analysis refers to the process of picking up signals (sometimes "weak" signals) from the larger environment, analyzing their significance for the organization, and tracking the most relevant of these signals (Ansoff, 1975, pp. 21-23). The term typically implies three different types of activities: (1) scanning to identify emerging issues, (2) monitoring high priority issues, and (3) forecasting trends.

Scanning to Identify Emerging Issues

Few changes in the environment occur spontaneously; they start as ideas. These ideas eventually obtain public expression in the press, radio, television, university conferences, and scientific journals. Scanning involves a process of picking up early hints of change through reference to these various media or to other sources (Aguilar, 1967, p. 18). According to Preble (1978, p. 14), the purpose of environmental scanning is "not to foretell accurately the future but to plot the issues which are likely to have an impact on the company and be prepared to cope with them when they arise." For example, many single issue groups are forming now that will be influential several years down the line. Divorced fathers, the elderly, euthanasia groups, and societies against reproductive technology have relatively little influence in 1991. By 1999, these groups may be powerful lobbies. If these groups persist, as is likely, and continue to garner support, their issues may well become national priority items at some future date. Scanning systems centre on identifying these issues at an early stage in their development.

Studies suggest that it often takes as much as eight to fifteen years for a need or an idea to become law. Five steps intervene between the seeding of the idea and the passing of legislation--including developing membership support, seeking media attention, gaining prominent endorsements, obtaining a government study or investigation, and introducing the idea to the legislative process (Warner, 1980, p. 35). Scanning and monitoring teams aid in tracking ideas from their seeding to their final development.

One of the most well-known scanning systems is that set up by Weiner, Edrich, and Brown in New York City. Scanners at Weiner, Edrich, and Brown provide monthly reports based on information gleaned from a core list of 50 publications; scanners within the client firm read additional publications, some of which are specific to the needs of the organization. This Trend Analysis Program (TAP) was designed for the insurance industry; another similar program is called TEAM. Both systems depend upon establishing a network of scanners in the organization (Brown, 1979, pp. 22-28; Moore, 1979, p. 45). These volunteer scanners assume responsibility for reading, on a regular basis, one or more publications. Because of the relative ease of using print media sources, scanning typically relies most heavily on print media sources. In reading the publications--which may range from the Wall Street Journal to Omni or the Futurist--the scanners look for articles that meet certain predetermined criteria; the criteria vary from organization to organization. Sometimes the scanners will include conference proceedings, academic papers, books, television shows, films, plays, trade magazines, and specialized magazines in their selection of materials. Typically, the publications are drawn from four different areas: science and technology, social sciences, business and economics, and politics and government. An organization may scan as many as l00 or more sources.

The scanners prepare abstracts of the articles, conference, proceedings, books or other events examined. They may also add their personal comments to the summaries. They submit these abstracts to an abstracts analysis committee, headed by a program administrator. This committee, often composed of middle managers, meets monthly or bimonthly to review the abstracts. The committee seeks to integrate the information into a whole, dropping irrelevant points and retaining the most germane. The committee examines the information in the light of future decisions that will need to be made by the organization. The abstracts analysis committee prepares and distributes summaries of its findings, in the form of trend analysis reports, to the scanners, to other relevant organization members, and to a steering committee of senior managers or executives. These upper-level managers are generally in a position to decide future actions of the organization in regard to specific programs. They are also in a position to make decisions to initiate tracking procedures with some issues, to put others on the back burner, or to request in-depth analysis of specific issues. Some consultancy firms provide comprehensive scanning reports to client organizations that choose not to set up their own internal program.

Scanning processes often tend to centre on one or another aspect of an organization's environment: typically, financial, competitive, or stakeholder interests. At Rexnord Corporation of the U.S., for example, research and analysis specialists consider issues from three different perspectives: public attitudes, political and regulatory concerns, and impact on the company (Heath & Nelson, 1986, p. 149). Other corporations study the economic and regulatory environments but fail to broaden their scope to include technological and social systems (Kast, 1980, p. 24). Governments often tend to concentrate on stakeholder interests but ignore the technological dimension of issues. There is a danger in unidimensional approaches because it is said that the "more strongly a company basically identifies itself with a single dimension, the greater the risk of being "blind-sided" over time by the emergence of important issues from other dimensions" (Stoffels, 1982, p. 7). More sophisticated scanning systems take many different social forces into account: e.g., social indicators--non-economic measures related to the social state of the nation and to its institutions, governmental and non-governmental (Kast, 1980, p. 25; Parr-Johnston, 1984, p. 44).

Dividing up the environment for purposes of scanning can increase the likelihood that an organization will pick up and decode signals in the environment. Where issues have more than one dimension, specialists from different parts of an organization interact to identify the dominant dimensions. In such cases, members of scanning teams will typically come from all areas of influence and responsibility in the organization. Stoffels (1982, p. 12) discussed the opportunity that scanning creates for people to see issues from a broader organizational perspective:

The involvement in an environmental scanning task force allows a person to look around freely beyond the confines of his or her authority, customarily quite limited. The scanner has a momentary entry into the otherwise closed policy circles of the firm, and the opportunity to experience a breadth of perspective denied to all but a few peers. It is this broad perspective that can motivate scanning participants away from the territorial bias of their present jobs and toward the future opportunities that can be captured.

Energy, flexibility, and openness to change are said to be requirements for effective functioning as a team member. While scanning teams may be staffed by junior managers, they typically have the support of senior management.

Monitoring High Priority Issues

A distinction is often made between scanning and monitoring activities. Whereas the term scanning refers to the picking up of new signals from the environment--identifying emerging issues and trends--monitoring refers to tracking previously identified issues and trends. Scanning techniques attempt only to mark the issue as a subject of potential interest to the organization, one worth monitoring; monitoring involves tracking an issue over time, using tools and techniques such as public opinion surveys, media analysis, and focus group testing. The analogy of radar is often used to explain this distinction (Wilson, 1983, pp. 9-9 and 9-10). Scanning involves broad sweeps of the early warning radar; monitoring, on the other hand, involves a telescopic examination of what has been spotted on radar. More organizations have well-developed monitoring capacities than have well-articulated scanning systems.

Different skills are said to be involved in scanning and monitoring operations. Whereas scanning stresses intuition and pattern recognition, monitoring requires attention to detail and the ability to synthesize large amounts of material (Wilson, pp. 9-10). The latter implies the need to give in-depth consideration to what is being said on the issue, by whom, and with what frequency. Engaging in these two types of activities --scanning and monitoring--calls for a reliance on informal observation, conditioned observation, informal search, or formal search techniques. Stoffels (1982, pp. 6-7) regards these steps as progressive ones. At the informal observation stage (a scanning stage), the organization commits relatively few resources to the environmental surveillance activity: e.g., covering the cost of personal journal subscriptions and association memberships for scanners. As a result of these informal observation activities, scanners may identify an emerging issue that warrants closer observation. At the next stage, the individual researcher narrows the focus, using what Stoffels calls conditioned observation (also a scanning activity). He/she begins to recognize the sources from which the information on the issue is likely to come and the types of data that appear relevant; however, the researcher does not, at this stage, actively seek additional information. If conditioned observation provides sufficient signals to make an issue or opportunity "real," the organization may choose to make an incremental commitment of resources to an informal search (a monitoring activity). The analyst seeks information sufficiently specific to formulate a strategy for dealing with the issue in a proactive way. Still the pursuit is relatively unstructured. Sometimes informal search procedures are applied to tracking known issues and trends in order to assess the potential need to change strategies or tactics. At this third stage, there is a shift from what typically would be regarded as scanning activities to monitoring activities. Sometimes, a formal search (a monitoring activity) becomes necessary with issues of emerging priority. At this last stage, additional resources will be required. If the organization fails to make the necessary investment at this stage, the issue may reach crisis dimensions later. The high stakes or potential payback justify the investment of these resources.

Forecasting Trends

According to Gollner (1983, p. 128), forecasting is "an exercise by which the corporationprojects a scenario of the terrain that lies beyond its monitoring and scanning capacities." This projection, however, is usually based on scanning and monitoring data, which has identified and analyzed trends. These trends will have been determined on the basis of changes in demographics, social conditions, regulations, and economic activity.

Some say that before an analyst can anticipate the future environment, he/she must look at the past and/or current situation (Bates, 1985, p. 105). Naisbitt (1984), author of Megatrends and publisher of The Trend Report, found five bellwether states that are predictive of shifts in public attitudes: California, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut, and Florida. Analysis of the content of 200 U.S. daily newspapers provided the data for Naisbitt's study (cited in Ewing, 1980, p. 15). Other studies also have identified countries considered as trendsetters (see Thomas, 1980, p. 24, for studies by firms such as General Mills). Based on 100 years of historical data, Graham Molitor (1979), president of Public Policy Forecasting, Inc., identified seven U.S. jurisdictions that he labeled as early innovators and harbingers of sociopolitical change. Included in these seven jurisdictions are two cities (New York City and Boston), one county (Dade County, Florida), and three states (New York, Massachusetts, and California).

Early innovators such as New York City, Boston, and New York State are typically about four years ahead of the next category, early adopters. Early adopters include Dade County, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Jurisdiction characteristics include the fact that the areas are highly urban, densely populated, super affluent, highly educated, youthful, and progressive. Early and late majorities include a number of state and local jurisdictions; these jurisdictions follow the early adopters by some four to eight years. Deep south states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama and rural areas such as Wyoming typically trail by another two to six years. Characteristics of these jurisdictions include the fact that they are rural, tradition-bound, and nonaffluent (Molitor, 1979).

Molitor's (1979) research also identified certain countries that lead the way in terms of sociopolitical change. Early innovators are Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Countries such as West Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada follow. Sweden is typically about 10 years ahead of countries such as the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Canada; and these second cycle nations are often several decades ahead of certain other Third World countries. Evidence suggests that Canadian family law typically follows Sweden and the Netherlands; while constitutional law precedents are typically set by Britain, Germany, and France. Advances in criminal law most often come from the United States. These are leading jurisdictions--three, five, or even seven years ahead of Canada (Nicholson-O'Brien, 1989). By studying what is happening in these trend-setting countries, Canada can predict options it is likely to be considering a few years from now.

The analyst uses this trend data to forecast the timing of future events. It is perhaps important, in this context, to note the distinction between events, trends, and issues. Whereas an issue is a fundamental policy question facing an organization (Bryson, 1988, p. 76), an event is a social, political, or technological "happening." Events influence the development of issues. Examples of issue-activating events include the impending takeover of Hong Kong by the People's Republic of China, the signing of an agreement related to acid rain, or a technological or scientific breakthrough such as a cure for cancer. Trends, on the other hand, are the "general tendency or course of events" (Preble, 1978, p. 14).

As a consequence of certain events or trends, the policy issues that an organization confronts may shift. For example, Zimbabwe's major problem yesterday was educating as many members of the population as possible; its problem today is finding work for an overeducated population in an underdeveloped country. Dealing effectively with Canada's refugee problem in 1991 may mean limiting the numbers of immigrants in order not to overload the country's social and economic systems. The problem in year 2000 may be the need to increase the numbers of immigrants to alleviate the financial burden of providing social benefits to growing numbers of aging North Americans.

A 1928 statement by William F. Ogburn, reported in Social Trends, argued the value of forecasting events and issue developments, saying that there is a "continuity in cultural change," with one event growing out of another: "Miracles do not occur, and revolutions are few. The greater our knowledge, the rarer are unheralded changes. Indeed, sudden, dramatic, and complete changes are decidedly the exception.... The measured trend of events and phenomena is the best guide that we have for the prediction of the future" (cited by Duncan, 1969, p. 97).

There are many methods used to forecast the timing of events. According to Stoffels (1982, p. 9), two of the most subjective of these processes involve intuition and extrapolation. Intuitive insights are often described as "gut feel," with the analyst relying on his/her collective experience and judgment. Extrapolation assumes that you can use the past as a valid guide to the future. Enzer (1989) of the Center for Futures Research adds techniques such as reasoned opinions and speculations.

More objective methods--e.g., the quantitative forecasting models--try to reduce the impact of personal judgment and bias. Such models are, however, difficult to apply, especially in areas involving values, human behaviour, and new technologies (Enzer, cited in Gollner, 1983, p. 132). Enzer says we have sufficient qualitative understanding to permit some "insightful commentary," but not enough to create an "explicit model," forcing a reliance on reasoned judgment and speculation. Gollner (1983, p. 133) agrees that "sound judgment, rather than mathematical formulae, should be the first rule of response to these challenges." Not all concur on this point, however; some believe that reliance on multiple techniques, whenever possible, is the best approach, drawing both qualitative and quantitative input into the forecasting process.

Types of Systems

Fahey & King (1977, pp. 62-63; Fahey, King, & Narayanan, 198l, pp. 32- 38) proposed that three kinds of environmental scanning and monitoring systems can be found in most organizations: irregular, periodic, and continuous. Irregular systems are reactive; these systems respond to environmentally-created crises. Focusing on specific short-term problems, they pay little attention to identifying and evaluating future environmental trends and events. Environmental analyses carried out in irregular systems are often of an ad hoc nature, responding to some immediate situation. These analyses are often retrospective in nature, making them most useful for tactical rather than strategic planning. Organizations using these systems tend to lack strategic planning cultures. Periodic (or regular) systems differ in degree, rather than in kind, from irregular systems. They tend to focus on the current situation and to draw on the past. Participants in these scanning and monitoring systems carry out annual or regular reviews of the environment. They attempt to identify current issues and to delineate alternative choices of action. In this sense, periodic systems do have a proactive element: they anticipate the near future. Continuous systems differ in kind from irregular and periodic systems. Their focus is broad. They may shift from identifying possible problem areas in the environment to locating opportunities. Continuous systems draw on experts with eclectic backgrounds. Analysts monitor many different environments, including political, regulatory, and competitive; they do not restrict themselves to monitoring specific events. The approach is systems-oriented, and the time span brought into consideration may vary from long to futuristic. Whereas issue management teams often restrict themselves to issues likely to mature in the next 18 to 36 months, those working in continuous systems may extend the focus to five or more years (Ewing, 1980, p. 14).

Increasing Emphasis on Environmental Analysis

Organizations are spending an increasingly large percentage of their time analyzing and relating to their external environments. A 1976 Conference Board Survey, for example, reported that 72 of the 185 CEOs surveyed were spending at least 50% of their time on external matters; another 103 spend as much as 25% of their time on such affairs. Ninety-two percent said the amount of time spent on external relations had increased in the five-year period preceding the study (McGrath, 1976, p. 49). Other studies showed similar findings. A 1979 study by Buchholz (cited in Buchholz, Evans, & Wagley, 1985, p. 17) found CEOs spend an average of 40% of their time on environmental matters. A similar statistic is reported by Kast (1980, p. 22). Steiner (1983) found the CEOs he interviewed in 1980 spend 25% to 50% of their time on external environmental concerns. The more open the organization, the more uncertain its environment and the greater the need to be alert to change. Environmental surveillance is the means by which the organization keeps abreast of changes in the environment that may require contingency planning. Through environmental surveillance and monitoring, organizations learn to cope with uncertainties.

Within Canada, federal governments have, for some time, recognized the need to become more proactive in their management of organizational issues. Through focus groups, surveys, and media tracking, compiling interest group profiles, interviewing elite opinion leaders, and other means, governments in power gather information that will help them to understand the needs of their many publics. There is, however, often a high level of cynicism that is expressed when governments engage in such scanning and monitoring activities. The Trudeau government, for example, was accused of "leadership by Goldfarb" (Simpson, 1984, p. 11), and the Mulroney government has been similarly accused of leadership by polls (although one is hard pressed to find convincing evidence of the government's following public opinion on policies such as the GST, free trade, and sometimes constitutional concerns). It was likewise said that Trudeau used polls more as a means of gaining useful information than as a tool for deciding policy. The fact nonetheless remains that both the Trudeau and Mulroney governments have relied heavily on surveys as a means of collecting environmental data. The former Liberal government conducted many of its surveys under the umbrella of the Canadian Unity Information Office (dismantled once the Conservatives came to power). Under a restructured government, the Conservatives commissioned almost 800 polls in their first term in office (Taras, 1990, p. 182). Governments of all political persuasions appear to be recognizing the need to acquire information from as many sources as possible.

New Roles for Federal Government Communicators

In January 1987 the Government of Canada launched a management review of federal communications. As part of this management review, the Canadian government undertook an occupational analysis of the communications community, designed to ascertain the functions being performed by government communicators (Government of Canada, 1987). This review is significant in terms of the contribution that it makes to understanding the day-to-day functions performed by a bureaucratic communicator operating in a public relations function. It is also significant because the follow-up to this occupational analysis was a new national communication policy that redefined the functions of the government communicator. The policy specifically changed the functions from being service-oriented to being management-oriented.

Occupational Analysis

The 754 members of the communication community who participated in the occupational survey (65% of the community's membership) represented 30 departments across all levels and functions of government. Participants in the survey identified the tasks they perform and the knowledge and skills that they consider to be necessary to competent performance of the tasks. Results showed the communications community to be involved in the following job functions: writing, editing, publications, audio-visual, exhibits and displays, promotion and publicity, advertising, communications liaison, community relations, enquiries, and media relations.

Grouping these tasks into broader headings, they found that 37% of the survey participants were performing generalist jobs that consisted of as many as 11 different job functions. Sixteen percent fell into a management and administration group, predominantly concerned with planning and deciding the direction of the communications function. The publishing group, representing 33% of the communications community, were engaged in 10 different job functions. A group of specialists, consisting of 14% of the communications community, performed single communication functions: e.g., exhibits and displays or advertising. Some were somewhat involved with one or two related functions.

The researchers conducting the study concluded that few communication specialists had the time, organizational linkages, or depth of expertise to provide advice to management regarding the specific functions they were providing. Communications planning appeared to be a job function associated only with management and advisory positions, and people entering these positions for the first time were ill equipped to perform these tasks. The study concluded that few of the people operating in generalist positions had the time to carry out the research and analysis functions necessary to providing a sound base for planning and advising. It was speculated that those working for prolonged periods in publishing positions would find it difficult to move into the mainstream of organizational communications. They also concluded that specialists without prior experience or training would find it difficult to move into generalist positions. The national management review of communications examined not only communication functions, but also expenditures, policy, and human resources. This exercise received major support and participation from central agencies of the government and senior communicators in government. The Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council Office chaired the steering committee in charge of the management review.

1988 Government Communications Policy

From this process came the first comprehensive Government of Canada policy on the role of the communicator in government. This policy, which appeared in June 1988, represented a serious effort to rethink the traditional role of the government communicator. The objective of the policy was to enhance the effectiveness of federal government communica tions. An introductory statement appearing in the 1988 policy observed that it is the obligation of any representative government to provide adequate and timely information to the public about its policies, programs, and services; to consider the concerns and views of the public in establishing priorities, developing policies, and implementing programs; and to ensure the government is visible, accessible, and answerable to the public. The policy assumes that the public should be able to understand, respond to, and influence the development and implementation of government policies and programs; that a regular dialogue should take place, through both formal and informal exchanges; and that effective communication planning, coordination, and execution are necessities in meeting the government's obligation to the public.

For these reasons, the Government Communications Policy states, "Communications is a management function which ensures that the public receives information about government policies, programs and services; and that the concerns and interests of the public are taken into account in the formulation and implementation of government policies and programs" (emphasis mine). The new mandate dictated that communications was to be formally integrated into the corporate planning process. The communication function had been, in corporate terms, upgraded from a service-oriented function to a management function. Under the new policy, senior managers in communications joined policy makers and program specialists at the management table. In many government departments, senior communication managers now report directly to Deputy Ministers, the highest level of the bureaucracy. The policy set out four components of communication as a management function: research and analysis, planning, advising, and managing communications. Evaluating is a fifth function associated with managing communications, not specifically mentioned in the policy.

Environmental Analysis Systems in Government
Communication Directorates

The discussion that follows is based on the results of a survey conducted in the Spring of 1991; it is also based on interviews and discussions with more than 300 federal government communications officers, senior managers, and executives. The intent of the survey was to determine the nature of environmental analysis systems currently operating in government communication branches and to determine the responsibilities of individuals undertaking these functions. No previous survey of this type has been undertaken in Canada.

The survey was distributed to directors general and directors in 43 government departments and agencies. The list of names was obtained from the Privy Council Office. Fifteen departments, or 35% of those who received questionnaires, responded. Respondents included one director general, eight directors or acting directors, three chiefs, one acting assistant secretary of communications, one communications officer, and one undetermined position. The following results were obtained.

Scanning Practices

Seventy-three percent of survey respondents claimed that their department has scanning as a regular organization function. Sixty percent reported that these scanning activities take place in communication directorates or public affairs units. Many also recognized, however, that other parts of the organization contribute to scanning. Almost half mentioned policy units; executive and legal areas also received frequent mention. Whereas traditionally scanning and monitoring functions were carried out by policy and planning units in government, implementation of the 1988 policy has meant that responsibilities in many departments have passed (either wholly or in part) to communication officers. This point was confirmed in numerous interviews with government communication specialists.

Forty percent of respondents reported that they employ outside firms to examine a standardized core list of publications. Within the government, the function tends to reside at middle-management and senior-management levels. Approximately two thirds said that middle managers act as scanners; close to half said senior managers and executives act as scanners. Other scanners come from lower levels of the organization. Reporting the results of scanning to analysis committees is less common than reporting results to senior management, an immediate supervisor, or an executive committee with a more general mandate. Seventy-three percent of respondents said they transmit scanning results through formal written reports. Few scanners present their results in the type of abstract form suggested by the U.S. Weiner, Edrich, & Brown scanning system.

For at least a limited time in 1988, however, the Department of Justice Canada set up systematic scanning activities not unlike the TEAM and TAP systems, with a group of eight to ten people selected to represent all areas of the department. Each individual was assigned three to four sources, including futurist publications, to scan on a monthly basis. The scanners reported the results of their research to an executive committee composed of assistant and associate deputy ministers (Nicholson-O'Brien, 1989).

Respondents reported going to many different sources in scanning the environment. Particularly popular were newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and focus groups. Not surprisingly, government respondents also reported a tendency to scan House and Senate proceedings, records of Cabinet decisions, and public opinion surveys. A large percentage also said they examine records of telephone inquiries, opinion leader reports, trend monitoring reports, newsletters, correspondence, court cases, public consultation reports, think tank reports, and conference proceedings. Less commonly reported, but still popular, sources included interest group profiles, records of complaints, and demographic statistics. Sources scanned reported less frequently were business and financial reports, academic journals, films and theatre, books, futurist journals, and lobbyist reports. The relatively low ranking of books, films, and theatre is ironic, as the people in our society most likely to be ahead of their time in perceiving future directions are artists. By definition, an artist is someone who invents new ways of looking at the world. Films, theatre, and books are media used by the artist. Academic conferences and journals are other predictors of technological, scientific, and social change in society. Although these sources give valuable trend data, a relatively few communication directorates reported scanning academic journals. The areas that Canadian government departments most often reported scanning (in descending order of frequency reported) were politics and government, areas specific to the department's mandate, business and economics, science and technology, and the social sciences. A large number of respondents reported scanning more than one dimension of the environment.

Monitoring Practices

Seventy-three percent of government communication directorates reported having an in-house monitoring function. A number of different kinds of situations can activate these monitoring systems. Respondents reported that they are often called upon to analyze the historical development of an issue, positioning it in the present issue climate; at other times, they are asked to analyze the issue climate prior to some planned event, policy or program announcement, or tabling of legislation. Sometimes, organizations will leak information as a trial balloon and then monitor public reaction. Many said they are asked to analyze reaction to these and other events, including response to policy and program announcements, introduction of legislation, etc. In many departments, issue monitoring reports take the form of a monthly trend report that is sometimes widely distributed throughout the organization. Relatively few departments (less than 20%) reported analyzing reactions to general performance of the department or to individual officers acting on behalf of the organization.

In terms of monitoring, respondents reported a heavy reliance on print media, including newspapers and magazines. Individuals interviewed said that the ease and economy of using print media make it a favourite environmental information source. Despite the fact that interviewees claim systematic monitoring of television is impractical for many government departments, two thirds of survey respondents included radio and television in their list of sources. Even when systematic monitoring is not feasible, government communicators say that they often scan radio and television for incipient issues. Focus group testing is also regarded as a relatively fast, easy, and economical way of acquiring environmental data. Similarly, respondents attached much importance to tracking House and Senate proceedings referring to records of Cabinet decisions, telephone inquiries, correspondence, opinion leader reports, trend monitoring reports, survey results, court cases, conference proceedings, and newsletters. Each of the following categories were reported by one third of the respondents: public consultation reports, think tank reports, interest group profiles, records of complaints, and business and financial reports. Somewhat fewer look at demographic statistics. The least popular sources of environmental data for regular monitoring were books, academic journals, lobbyist reports, futurist journals, and films and theatre.

Both the survey of government departments and extensive interviews with government officers revealed that internal sources are also deemed important in staying up-to-date on environmental concerns. Interviews with organization executives, program and policy experts, regional representatives, and concerned employees can be useful in contributing to environmental intelligence. The survey found that each of the following categories were reported by almost one third of the respondents: informal interviews, computer networking, teleconferencing, and chance meetings. These more informal means of acquiring information appeared to be at least as important as some more formal information-gathering techniques. In fact, formal interviews were one of the least favoured means of seeking information within the organization.

These findings are not unlike those of some earlier studies carried out in the U.S., which found strategic information sources for managers to be more or less evenly divided between external and internal sources. Moreover, Aguilar (1967) found that personal sources contributed more than 70% of the environmental intelligence acquired by organizations. The managers surveyed by Aguilar said they obtained much of their information from random unplanned encounters with friends, neighbours or chance acquaintances, as often as from business or professional sources.

Stoffels (1982, p. 10) agreed with Aguilar that management must rely on people, both inside and outside the organization, for much of its strategic environmental input. He also agreed that much important environmental data can come from "unexpected and remote personal sources."

Forecasting Practices

Although forecasting is discussed frequently in the academic literature, both in Canada and abroad, Canadian government departments do not appear to rely heavily on these techniques. Only one fifth of the respondents reported sometimes or often using social forecasting or futures research techniques to decide the priority of issues. The remainder responded that they seldom or never rely on these techniques. The failure of some organizations to use forecasting techniques has been attributed to an earlier tendency to oversell the value of these techniques:

Early research predictions made in the 1950s were oversold to progressive companies such as Monsanto, Sears, and General Electric. The resulting emphasis on questionable long-range, pie-in-the-sky projections led the whole field of futures studies, except for a few major think tanks, to fall into disrepute. Unlike earlier fortune-teller generalists, today's issue managers concentrate on tangible short-term (one to five years) social and political trend studies. (Heath & Nelson, 1986, p. 161)

Types of Systems

In the survey, it was found that the percentage of communication directorates reporting different types of scanning and monitoring systems were: continuous system, 40%; periodic system, 33%; irregular system, 20%; and no system, 7%. In total, 60% of those surveyed indicate they have a formal strategic planning framework into which their issue monitoring functions feed. This last point is a good indicator of the extent to which the environmental analysis function has garnered more than the rhetorical commitment of organizational decision makers.


Traditionally, governments have been seen to be one-way conveyors of information, transmitting only what they want the public to know. This model is no longer appropriate. In a society where people at all levels of the hierarchy receive information simultaneously, where control or ownership of information becomes increasingly difficult, the need for an interactive model has become increasingly acknowledged. Such an interactive model means that large public and private sector organizations must be ever cognizant of public attitudes and behaviour patterns. Because of their high level of external accountability, government departments must ensure the adequacy of feedback loops that allow the ongoing modification of performance. Through environmental surveillance--involving scanning, monitoring, and forecasting activities--governments are able to keep abreast of changes in the environment that necessitate new policies or services or adjustments in present programs or policies. By recognizing and assigning priorities to emerging issues, by seeking to understand the background and implications of the issues, and by projecting possible future scenarios, the organization is able to develop a framework for issues management and crisis management. Most important, the information base acquired through scanning and monitoring processes enables the organization to engage in long-range strategic planning, to offer credible and useful advice to those in decision-making positions, and to make appropriate choices in the managing of communications. The role of communicators in organizations is changing; those of us involved in educating the organizational communicators should be cognizant of these changing needs.


Aguilar used similar terminology--undirected viewing, conditioned viewing, informal search, and formal search.
In 1989 I conducted a number of formal interviews with communication managers. Between 1989 and 1992, I have also engaged in many informal discussions and interviews in the context of seminars presented to government communications officers.
Interview results suggested different conclusions; they suggested that while monitoring activities are common, scanning activities are less so. It is likely that many survey respondents failed to make the distinction between scanning and monitoring activities and overreported scanning activities.
The relatively low frequency with which respondents reported that they scan futurist journals supports speculation that some respondents may have confused monitoring with scanning activities. Scanning systems would normally always include reference to futurist journals.


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