Environmental Scanning Preconference Professional Development Workshop
James L. Morrison, Workshop Facilitator

Association for Institutional Research
40th Annual AIR Forum
May 21-24, 2000
Cincinnati, Ohio

We are being bombarded by tumultuous forces for change as we enter the next decade: Virtual classrooms, global communications, global economies, telecourses, distance learning, corporate classrooms, increased competition among social agencies for scarce resources, pressure for institutional mergers, state-wide program review and so on. In order to plan effectively in this environment, college leaders must be able to anticipate new developments that will affect their institutions and curricular programs.


This workshop is designed to assist college leaders to systematically factor the external environment into the strategic planning process. The specific objectives are to:

  • identify potential events that could affect the future of colleges and universities
  • derive implications and recommend actions vis--vis these potential events


Please read the following articles that help provide the context for our deliberations (Note: On the Horizon articles are reproduced here with the permission of Jossey-Bass Publishers.)

  1. Snyder, D. P. "High Tech and Higher Education: A Wave of Creative Destruction is Rolling Toward the Halls of Academe."   On the Horizon, 1996, 4(5), 1, 3-7.
  2. O'Banion, T. "Schooling is Out--Learning is In." On the Horizon, 1996, 3(5), 1-2, 5-6.
  3. Morrison, J. L. "Anticipating the Future." On the Horizon, 1996, 4(3), 2-3.
  4. Morrison, J. L. "Transforming Educational Organizations." On the Horizon, 1997, 5(1), 2-3.
  5. Boggs, G. R. "Focus on Learning." On the Horizon, 1998, 6(1), 1, 5-6.
  6. Norris, D. M. "Perpetual Learning as a Revolutionary Creation." On the Horizon, 1996, 4(6), 1, 3-6.

We will begin the workshop with observations on how we can anticipate the future, which serves as an introduction to linking potential external developments to internal decision-making. Scanning the external environment for signals of change is a major step in a strategic management/planning process. For more information about this process, read "Strategic Management in the Context of Global Change" (Morrison & Wilson, 1996) and "Analyzing Environments and Developing Scenarios for Uncertain Times" (Morrison & Wilson, 1997).

We only have six  hours for this workshop. However, this is sufficient time for you to gain experience in external analysis to the point that you will be able to replicate the workshop on your campus.


9:00 - 10:30


Anticipating the Future



Break (move into small groups)



Task 1: Identifying potential events that would affect the future of colleges and universities



Task 2: Prioritizing events



Task 3: Defining signals of most critical event





Task 4: Deriving implications of most critical event



Task 5: Formulate recommended actions for college and university leaders to consider now


Reportbacks and Wrap-up

Exercise Description:
Potential Events That Can Change the Future of Colleges and Universities

Events are unambiguous and confirmable. When they occur, the future is different. External event identification and analysis is critical in planning.

It is important that an event statement be unambiguous; otherwise, it is not helpful in the planning process because (a) it is unclear what may be meant by the statement (i.e., different people may understand the statement differently) and (b) we have no clear target that allows us to derive implications and action steps. For example, consider the following event statement: There will be significant changes in political, social, and economic systems in the U.S. Each person on a planning team may agree with this statement, but may also interpret it differently. It would be far more useful in analysis for a statement like: "In the next election, the political right gains control of Congress." Or "Minorities become the majority in 10 states" Or "The European Community incorporates Eastern Europe in a free trade zone." The latter statements are concrete, unambiguous, and signal significant change that could impact colleges and universities.

We will conduct this exercise in small groups using the Nominal Group Process


Task 1 (30 minutes). The first task is to identify those potential external events in the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political sectors, local through global, that would change the future of higher education if they occurred.

Task 2 (15 minutes). When I call time, you will prioritize the events by using paste-on dots. Vote for five of the most critical events that affect colleges and universities  that have some probability of occurrence within the next decade.

  • Do not be concerned about the event being high or low probability; be concerned only about the severity of the impact (positive or negative).
  • Do not put more than one dot on one event statement.
  • Put all dots by the beginning of the event statement (so that we can quickly see the frequency distribution of dots)

Task 3 (30 minutes). The next part of the exercise is to identify the signals that your three top events (as indicated by the frequency distribution of votes) could occur.

Task 4
(30 minutes). When you have completed Task 3, derive the implications of your most critical event for the higher education. In other words, assume that this event occurs. What would happen to higher education as a result of its occurrence?

Task 5
(15 minutes). The final task is to develop recommendations as to what higher education leaders should consider doing now in anticipation of this event occurring. Again, do not be concerned about the probability of occurrence of the event. Let's see what recommendations you invent, and then examine the recommendations to see if they make sense to implement regardless of whether the event occurs or not. One outcome of this exercise is the creation of plans that we could not have conceived without going through the process, but, when we examine the plans, make sense to begin implementing now.

Reportbacks and Wrap-up

We have 45 minutes for reportbacks. Each group reporter will report the three most critical events his/her group identified, the signals that support the occurrence of the top event, the implications of the event for higher education, and recommendations as to what higher education leaders should do now. We will use the remaining 15 minutes of the workshop to address what questions you have.


Group section leaders were asked to send the proceedings of their group for publication to this page so that others could see the kinds of information and analysis we did in a relatively short period of time. Vinnie Maruggi, the recorder of Group 4, sent the record produced by that group and Mark Champion sent the record produced by his group. George Gabriel worked with several members of all groups after the workshop to produce their document. These proceedings were written from flip chart notes; we appreciate the extra effort that Vinnie, Mark, and George made to provide the summaries of group discussions for us.

All material within the HORIZON site, unless otherwise noted, may be distributed freely for educational purposes. If you do redistribute any of this material, it must retain this copyright notice and you must use appropriate citation including the URL. Also, we would appreciate your sending James L. Morrison a note as to how you are using it. HTML and design by Noel Fiser, ©2006. Page last modified: 6/28/2003 4:45:24 PM. 23378 visitors since February 2000.