Environmental Scanning Workshop: Environmental Scanning in the Strategic Planning Process
James L. Morrison, Workshop Facilitator

Demographics Shape the Future of Higher Education
A Conference Presented by the College Board of Adult Learning Services
May 18-19, 2000
Washington, DC

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


The following articles help provide the context for our deliberations. It is not essential that you read them prior to the workshop; you may want to read them after the workshop. They will remail available at this URL, which you can also reach through the conference section of the Horizon server in the past conferences section. (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.
  7. Boyett, J. & Snyder, D. P. "Twenty-First Century Workplace Trends." On the Horizon, 1998, 6(2), 1,4-9.

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 three 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.

Agenda for Thursday, May 18

1:30-1:45 Using scanning to anticipate the future
1:45 - 2:15 Task 1: Identifying potential events that would affect the future of colleges and universities
2:15 - 2:30 Task 2: Prioritizing events
2:30 - 2:45 Task 3: Defining signals of most critical events
2:45 -  3:00 Break
3:00 - 3:20 Task 4: Deriving implications of most critical event
3:20 - 3:45  Task 5: Formulate recommended actions for college and university leaders to consider now
3:45 - 4:30 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 chairs were asked to submit the notes of the proceedings of their groups. One group chaired by Joe Boyd ( responded to this request. The three most important events that they identified as having a significant effect on colleges and universities in the next five years were as follows:

  1. All taxing entities reduce funding for higher education by 50%
  2. Business / Industry no longer use degrees and other certifications for gatekeeping purposes
  3. The economy sinks into a depression

  The signals that underlie each of these events are:

1. All taxing entities reduce funding for higher education by 50%

  • Trends toward reduced state funding as a percentage of the total cost of
    educating each student
  • Election of candidates favoring more limited taxation
  • Taxpayer discontent regarding the costs of public services
  • Universities move toward private fund raising, corporate funding
  • Elimination or reduction of student aid-increase in loans
  • Business / Industry engaging in more training and education
  • Aging population less inclined to fund education

2. Business / Industry no longer uses degrees and other certification for

  • Decline in demand for degree programs
  • Increase in hiring those without degrees / certifications
  • Decline in business-education partnerships
  • Business dissatisfaction with higher education
  • Increase in business / corporate training programs
  • High school guidance counselors are telling students to go straight to
       work,  not to college
  • Decline in average age of first time job holders
  • Reduction in hiring of college graduates
  • Decline in accreditation entities

3. Economic depression

  • Decline in GNP
  • Housing market declines
  • Decline in discretionary income
  • Higher prices
  • Increased enrollments in higher education
  • Emotional depression on the increase
  • Stock market drops
  • Increase in petroleum prices
  • High unemployment rate

The most critical potential event identified by this group was "Taxing entities reduce funding for higher ed by 50%." If this event were to occur, the following implications may also occur:

  • Students pay a greater portion of their higher education costs than previously
  • Fewer people will go to college
  • College's infrastructures will suffer; the number of deteriorating buildings will increase
  • Increased competition among colleges for private dollars
  • Greater divide between haves and have-nots (perhaps)
  • Colleges and universities will have increased flexibility after getting out from under state requirements
  • Creative modes of instructional delivery increase
  • Loss of minority enrollment
  • More business / education partnerships
  • Loss of federal aid grants
  • Accreditation jeopardized
  • Partnerships / consortia between / among colleges and universities
  • Reduced academic offerings (courses and programs) - possible greater
    impact on hard sciences and technology
  • Increase of concerned "activist" students
  • Decline in theoretical research
  • Increase in ADA lawsuits
  • Increase in adjuncts, decrease in full time faculty
  • Short-term, short-sighted, less visionary enterprises undertaken by institutions
  • Loss of cultural conservation / awareness

Given this analysis, this group recommended that college and university leaders should consider:

  • Teaching about the potential event, so that students are aware of the implications
  • Increasing fundraising for student scholarships
  • Conducting a comprehensive analysis of constituents' (voters, students) needs and expectations
  • Creating a plan for addressing constituent needs
  • Forming a networking / lobbying / consortia
  • Working with the business community
  • Emphasizing minority recruitment