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Environmental scanning, futures research, strategic foresight and organizational future orientation: a review, integration, and future research directions

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In this paper we explore the current understanding on how firms explore future changes and trends as well as plan their managerial responses. We review literature in four research streams: (1) environmental scanning, (2) futures research, (3) peripheral vision, and (4) corporate/strategic foresight. Through the analysis of more than 250 articles we (a) trace the evolution over time, (b) highlight the linkages between the different research streams, and (c) give recommendations for future research. Overall we call for more cross-fertilization of the different research streams and a stronger linkage to adjacent research disciplines. Through such integration and linkage research should produce better recommendations for managers on how to build an organizational future orientation, drive organizational adaptation, and make their firms robust towards external discontinuous change.
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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2080448
1
Environmental scanning, futures research, strategic foresight and organizational future orientation: a review, integration,
and future research directions
Rohrbeck, R. and M. Bade
ISPIM Annual Conference 2012, Barcelona, Spain
pg. 14
Environmental scanning, futures research, strategic
foresight and organizational future orientation: a
review, integration, and future research directions
René Rohrbeck*
Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University, Fuglesangs Allé 4,
8210 Aarhus V, Denmark.
E-mail: rrohr@asb.dk
Manuel Bade
Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Westring 425, 24118 Kiel,
Germany.
E-mail: mbade83@web.de
* Corresponding author
Abstract: In this paper we explore the current understanding on how
firms explore future changes and trends as well as plan their managerial
responses. We review literature in four research streams: (1)
environmental scanning, (2) futures research, (3) peripheral vision, and
(4) corporate/strategic foresight. Through the analysis of more than 250
articles we (a) trace the evolution over time, (b) highlight the linkages
between the different research streams, and (c) give recommendations
for future research. Overall we call for more cross-fertilization of the
different research streams and a stronger linkage to adjacent research
disciplines. Through such integration and linkage research should
produce better recommendations for managers on how to build an
organizational future orientation, drive organizational adaptation, and
make their firms robust towards external discontinuous change.
Keywords: Environmental scanning, futures research, peripheral
vision, strategic foresight, corporate foresight, dynamic capabilities,
organizational ambidexterity, organizational adaptation.
Introduction
In the last four decades the predictability of future developments have decreased
dramatically. Globalization led to the entrance of unknown competitors, the emergence of
the Internet has created global markets and now serves as a fast and inexpensive
marketing and distribution channel, risk capital allows small firms and new ventures to
become global players in months, and social networks have the power to turn niche
trends into huge markets within weeks. In consequence firms find it increasingly difficult
to retain their competitive advantage and survive in these dynamic environments [1, 2].
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2080448
2
To succeed in dynamic environments firms can follow two major approaches: (1)
through planning and (2) through structural means. Structural means include, (a)
diversification in different business areas, thus balancing risk in one field with
opportunity in the other, (b) corporate venturing schemes, where the firm is creating
internal start-up companies and is counting on serendipity to bring out at least some very
successful new businesses [3, 4], and (c) ambidextrous organizational design, where part
of the company is focusing on managing the current business, while other parts explore
new business that might profit from external change [5, 6].
In this paper we focus however on the first alternative, i.e. enhancing planning, that
starts with identifying threats and opportunities early and subsequently translates these
future insights into managerial action. Our starting point is the proposition put forward by
Igor Ansoff that disruptive change can be anticipated by searching for weak signals,
interpreting these and triggering organizational responses [7]. While Ansoff’s work was
mostly concerned about strategic planning and management, we also expect that other
functions of the firm need to engage into future-related planning. Particularly marketing
has a role in spotting changes in customer behavior and needs [8] and innovation
management can for example plan future product generations on the basis of market
opportunities [8, 9].!!
Research on this future related planning has been conducted within different research
streams. Early work was primarily using the term environmental scanning emphasizing
the need for active search and the environment as the search target [10, 11]. Under the
term futures research scholars build primarily on the logic that the future is and will
remain uncertain, thus future-oriented planning should aim to explore possible futures
rather than trying to predict the one future [12, 13]. In the 2000s there was also some
research under the term peripheral vision, emphasizing similarly to environmental
scanning, that signals on discontinuous change need to be spotted outside the current
business and that firms need to build specific sensors to detect it [14, 15]. In recent years
the term strategic/corporate foresight has gained in popularity and will be regarded as a
fourth research stream in our analysis. In this latter research stream the focus is on the
process of translating future insights into managerial actions [2, 16].
Methodology
Our overall research aim is to explore the current understanding on future-related
planning activities that are used to build a future orientation in the firm. In that respect we
define:
Organizational future orientation (OFO) is the ability to identify and interpret
changes in the environment and trigger adequate responses to ensure long-term
survival and success.
Our research aim can be broken down into three sub-issues:
Identify key topics and findings within each research stream
Describe the relationship between the research stream
Give recommendations for future research
To identify relevant literature we use the Web of Science® (WoS) database that contains
all journals in the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI). That gives us a sufficiently broad
range of articles and ensures also a sufficient quality as SSCI listed journals are all
double-blind peer-reviewed and are among the leading journals in their research fields.
3
As keywords for our search we used the four research streams: (1) environmental
scanning, (2) futures research, (3) peripheral vision and (4) corporate/strategic foresight.
The latter one has been entered into the search as two keywords ‘corporate foresight’ and
‘strategic foresight’. We have decided to combine these two because an initial review of
articles has shown that the perspectives are similar. The only difference is that corporate
foresight is focusing exclusively on the firm perspective, while under strategic foresight a
high proportion of articles is discussing the perspective of national foresight activities, for
example to identify which future technologies yield the highest societal welfare potential
and thus which research should be supported by governmental subsidies and tax
incentives.
Time-wise we decided to focus on the time after the early seminal work from Igor
Ansoff, as we could only identify very few other articles before 1980 and our research is
also aimed primarily at identifying the state-of-the-art and not trace back the historic
roots of the respected research streams. The last articles that we included were the once
published in November 2011.
To identify the relevant articles we used two filter, as can be seen in Figure 1. In the
first filter we used the keywords plus the subject area “business economics” in the WoS
database. This subject area includes all topics that are related to management science and
helped us thus to exclude all articles that had were discussing for example results form
foresight exercises in particular fields, thus not dealing with advancing the research on
foresight, but research in the particular field (for example the future of biotech). Through
this automated search and filtering we identified 259 articles.
Figure 1: Search process on the basis of the Web of Science database and manual filtering
This set of 259 however still included articles that related to future-related planning
from a national perspective, while we aim our analysis exclusively on the firm
perspective. To identify the articles on the firm perspective we reviewed the papers
manually. In most cases the abstract was already sufficient; in only a few reading through
the whole paper was required. At the end of this second filtering we had a set of 114
articles in total. The larges proportion was with 45 papers the environmental scanning
82
45
115
34
22
40
29
Environmental Scanning Futures research Peripheral vision Strategic/Corporate foresight
Automated filter
Selecting subject area ‘business economics’
Manual filter
Selecting articles on firm perspective
Article search with Web of Science
114 articles
entered our
content analysis
259 articles
identified through
database search
4
field, followed by futures research with 34, corporate/strategic foresight with 29, and
peripheral vision with 6 papers.
These 114 articles entered our content analysis, where all articles were reviewed,
classified concerning their methodology, empirical basis (where applicable), and major
findings. In addition the detailed review of the article content formed the basis of the
discussion of the evolution of the different research streams over time and the discussion
of the relationships between the research streams.
Literature on how firms explore their futures
When plotting the articles on a time scale, see Figure 2, we can see that the early research
was conducted only under the two terms environmental scanning and futures research.
The environmental scanning articles followed mostly the conceptual propositions form
Igor Ansoff [7] and tried to establish if and to what ends environmental scanning was
used [17, 18]. The articles were also predominantly empirical and often based on
quantitative analysis of survey data. The futures research articles where mostly
conceptual or literature reviews that aimed to build the frame on how to integrate the
‘multiple-futures’-logic into corporate and strategic planning [12, 19]. Another issue was
how to motivate the adoption of futures research and how to motivate for participation in
futures-research exercises [20, 21].
Figure 2: Development over time, number of articles published in the respective research streams
in the years 1980 2011.
The research streams peripheral vision and corporate/strategic foresight emerged as
important research streams only after 2000. The most influential authors in the peripheral
vision research stream are Day and Schoemaker, who have also created the term for a
conference and a special issue in the Long Range Planning journal. The emergence of the
research stream corporate/strategic foresight has been driven by a larger community of
scholars and has been growing much faster than the others.
10 18 17
11
8 15
6
29
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
1980-1989 1990-1999 2000-2011
Strategic/Corporate
foresight
Peripheral vision
Futures research
Environmental Scanning
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In the following we want to discuss more into detail the major topics covered in the
different research streams.
Environmental Scanning
In an early work Hambrick proposes that environmental scanning activities should be
employed to focus more attention on trends and changes in the firm´s environment in
order to learn from these events [22]. Jain emphasizes that this is particular important for
large firms that need to deal with a rising complexity, both in the environment and
through the increase of complexity of internal structures. This raise complexity is
increasing the need for a systematic environmental scanning [23]. Jain further
emphasizes that firms need to scan not only in the technological but also in the social,
economic, and political environment [23]. Sawyer adds the uncertainty dimensions to the
reasons why firms need environmental scanning. He finds that scanning activities of
firms rise with the level of uncertainty perceived by its top management [24].
To enhance environmental perception, top management functional diversity is found
to have a positive impact [25]. Also specific techniques can be used such as the quick
environmental scanning technique of Nanus [26, 27] or the on-line computerized data
base search [28, 29]. Overall the aim is to use environmental scanning to enhance the
firm’s performance [30].
It has also been shown that even for small firms environmental scanning seems to pay
off [31]. For small firms, that can allocate less resources on formal environmental
scanning activities or invest into dedicated units, it is suggested that maintaining a
personal information network can be a good alternative [32]
Futures Research
The starting point for futures research is the paradigm that corporate planning under
uncertainty needs to move away from forecasting and predicting towards identifying
multiple possible futures [19, 33, 34]. These can than be used to plan flexible strategies,
increase strategic agility or assess the robustness of the firm’s strategy.
In the 1980 research contributions where primarily focused on establishing the
raison d’être”, i.e. the potential usefulness of futures research. Eppink [12] linked it to
corporate and strategic planning and emphasized the importance to continuously monitor
changes in the environment. Morris [35] pointed out its usefulness for product-planning.
Sims and Eden [20] emphasis the role of facilitating discussion in the management teams,
including the creation of shared believes and dealing with conflicts. Becker sees futures
research primarily as a tool to orchestrate and coordinate ideas from disperse sources.
And finally Masini [36] points at its transformative power, if applied in a project like
fashion, where desired futures are identified and later build together.
But there were also calls for increased focus of futures studies. Or as Amara [37] puts
it:
In order to survive it [futures research] needs to dispense with its tendency to be ‘all
things to all people’
Linstone [38] also pointed already early at the difficulty to bridge the gap between
analysis and action. Decision-makers and planners are just not ready to deal with multiple
and often conflicting views of the future.
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In the 1990s the focus was mainly on advancing methods and processes of futures
research [39, 40]. Helmer [41] suggests to use that more the new possibilities create
through the Internet, by for example enabling the use of a worldwide Delphi-Net (in
reference to the Delphi technique) that would help to support governmental and industrial
planning. Coates [42] emphasizes that the awareness of the corporation´s external
environment and long-term future is getting increasingly important in technology
planning. He adds that it is important not to focus entirely on the firm, but to analyze the
whole industry to identify factors that will drive its futures. A particularly interesting
path, which is still pursued today, is also the usage of complexity theory in futures
research [43, 44].
The call to connect futures research more with other management functions [45], has
however remained largely unanswered, at least from futures research scholars.
Peripheral Vision
In contrast to futures research, the research stream on peripheral vision has from the
outset been primarily concerned about the firm perspective. The basic proposition is that
that firms need to look for information that lies beyond their core business. Scanning for
technological and market developments is important for survival and retaining the long-
term competitiveness.
Day and Schoemaker have put the term peripheral vision forward for their special
issue in Long Range Planning of (2004, Volume 37, Issue 2). In addition to the special
issue they also organized a conferece at the Wharton School under the same term. The
conference brought together 100 practitioners and scholars. The special issue compiled a
set of interesting articles from leading scholars, primarily from the field of strategic
management.
Day and Schomaker assume that firms are organized and managed in a way that
draws the attention of management towards the current business and the insight of the
firm. This results into a systematic ignorance to changes and events outside the firm.
They compare this situation to driving though fog and argue that special sensors are
needed to counterbalance this systematic ignorance [46]. This view is further emphasized
by the article from Sidney Winter in which she explains that firms tend to reemphasize
the sensors that made them successful, leading to in inadequacy of sensors in a new and
altered environment [47].
Heackel sees the need for new sensors to be routed even deeper. He argues that the
nature of business has changed from a “make-and-sell” to a “sense-and-respond”-
paradigm [8].
Prahalad points out, that organizations have an inherent dominant logic that keeps
them on the road, but also may act as a blinder towards change. While the dominant logic
is good for running the current business effectively and efficiently, it hinders the ability
of adaptation to environmental changes. To overcome this blinder, firms should focus on
next practices, use low cost experimentation, look beyond the borders of industries and
beyond geographical borders [48]. Another way to prevent such peripheral blindness is to
use teams for interpretation and ensure a sufficient diversity in team composition [49].
While the research under the term peripheral vision has generated important
contributions to the overall research field, the term as such has lost appeal in the research
community. The findings and proposition however continue to influence research today
7
and are mostly followed up and referenced in the research stream on corporate/strategic
foresight.
Corporate/Strategic Foresight
It can be argued that corporate/strategic foresight (CF) can at least be traced back to the
propositions of Igor Ansoff, that strategic management will move towards real-time and
competitive advantage will be build on the basis of timely responses to external
(discontinuous) change [7]. Thus the argument for the need for CF capabilities is also
based on the need for firms to adapt to external change to retain their competitive
advantage [50]. In addition CF research has also draws on the methodology literature
from the broader (national and societal) foresight field.
As we have argued earlier CF has also become a term of choice for scholars that have
previously worked in the field of peripheral vision and futures research, giving it already
the function of consolidating the field. This shift of terminology can also be seen in the
increase of articles that are being published under the term corporate foresight. In Figure
2 CF research accounts already for over 40% of the overall field, while in the early
phases from 1980-1990 and from 1990-2000 none of the articles was published under the
CF term.
The research on CF builds on the proposition that firms need a continuous process for
identification and interpretation of change and triggering adequate organizational
responses [2, 51, 52]. In such a process the identification of weak signals and their
filtering and interpretation is crucial [53, 54]. It has also been noted that particularly the
interpretation should be done through top management as they are the only ones in a firm
that have a sufficiently high vantage point [55].
The outcome of CF activities can be an enhanced market intelligence [56-58],
enhances innovation capacity [9, 59, 60], enhanced competitive intelligence [61], the
identification of promising new business fields [16] and better strategic decision-making
[62-64].
A particular emphasis is put on the identification and management of wild cards, i.e.
events that are singular, sudden, surprising and shattering (serious and severe
consequences). A CF system or approach should thus be able to incorporate these rare but
high impact events into planning and in case of occurrence trigger the appropriate
managerial responses in a timely fashion [65-68].
The research stream has also produced a good collection of case studies of CF
practices, which reveal methods [69-72], approaches [73] as well as the organizational
outcomes [56, 57, 74]. Overall CF is expected to facilitate organizational interpretation
[75] and learning [76] and thus can be one of the key element to ensure organizational
adaptation in times of environmental change.
An integrated perspective on organizational future orientation
In Table 1 we have attempted to compare the different research streams concerning their
basic proposition, i.e. their dominant logic, the tools and techniques and the desired
outcome they seek.
8
Environmental
scanning
Futures research
Peripheral vision
Corporate/
strategic foresight
(Top)
management
needs to scan the
environment in
order to respond
to external change
The best way to
deal with
uncertainty is to
plan on the basis
of multiple
possible futures
Firms need to
develop specific
sensors to detect
change in the
periphery early in
order to be able to
retain their
competitive
advantage
Firms need to build
integrated systems
that allow
translating
perceived change
into managerial
action
Environmental
scanning by (top)
management, by
networking or
active search for
weak signals
Methods that
build on systems
logic and allow to
deal with multiple
futures
Focus on the
establishment of
sensors that can be
build on methods,
processes or
people
A central process
that utilizes
foresight methods
and that is linked to
other functional
units such as
strategic and
innovation
management
Enhanced firm
performance
Plan under
uncertainty and
influence/create
the future
Fast response to
environmental
change
Enhanced
responsiveness
towards external
change, particular
for enhancing
strategic decision-
making and the
innovation capacity
Table 1: Comparison of the different research streams
Conclusion
By reviewing more than 30 years of scholarly research on organizational future
orientation we hope to contribute to the integration of the various research streams. In
addition we use the different lenses, provided by the research streams, to highlight their
major contributions to the overall understanding on how firms should deal with their
futures. By comparing them on their basic assumptions, their tools & techniques and their
desired outcomes, we wish to provide a basis for further integration of the research field.
As we have shown in Figure 2, the development over time seem already to point at an
integration of the different research streams under the common term corporate/strategic
foresight. In this integration it will be important to build on the knowledge on how firms
scan for change in their environment (environmental scanning perspective), how they
plan by using multiple possible futures, rather than predictions (futures research
perspective) how firms can build adequate sensors (peripheral vision perspective) and
how to tie these elements into and integrated organizational response system.
From the conceptual work of Daft and Weick [75] we know that an organizational
response might be generated along three phase, scanning (data collection), interpretation
9
(data given meaning), and learning (action). However the empirical evidence, particularly
from the corporate/strategic foresight research seems to suggest that firms still lack
systems that ensure that these steps can be taken repeatedly in order to ensure that all
relevant external change is perceived and response are triggered [74, 76, 77].
Future research directions
Integration with other research disciplines
In the discussion of the research streams we have already commented on their
relationship to broader research disciplines such as strategic and innovation management.
While environmental scanning has its roots and has always kept a direct link to strategic
management, corporate/strategic foresight is often referencing towards innovation
management literature. This latter link has its roots in the close relationship between
technology foresight and technology/R&D/engineering/innovation management. Another
link from foresight can also be traced towards marketing and particularly exploratory
marketing. Some reference foresight also to risk management, particularly concerning
discontinuous change and wild cards that translate into major threats for the firm’s
survival.
Futures research and peripheral vision have much less connection to other major
disciplines and are thus more reliant on their own basic theoretical propositions. This is a
lack which has been pointed out before [45, 78], but too few scholars have responded to
these calls.
We believe that particularly the strategic management theoretical frameworks can be
used to advance the field of organizational future orientation. Four theoretical frames can
be expected to be particularly useful: dynamic capabilities [79], strategic agility [80],
organizational ambidexterity [81, 82] and strategic adaptation [50]. Within the innovation
management discipline the areas radical innovation [83] and (technological) disruptions
[84] can be expected to have a close link.
Making these links would provide the organizational future orientation perspective
with powerful meta-frameworks. And in the other direction organizational future
orientation can advance the theoretical frameworks by contributing understanding about
the underlying micro processes.
Jointly building an understanding of Organizational Future Orientation
In contrast to economics the management research field is lacking a meta-model that
ties the different research streams together. This leads to a large variety of research topics
that often explore similar phenomena, but use different terms to describe them. If these
research streams stay ignorant towards the related or similar activities we run the risk to
continuously “re-invent the wheel”, fail to build on each other’s work and end up giving
conflicting recommendations to managers.
As we have shown in the analysis of the different research streams this is already
happening in the field that we choose to call organizational future orientation. The
problem is amplified by the lack of reference to meta-frameworks such as dynamic
capabilities (to just name one).
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We believe that more effort is required to consolidate our terminology and theoretical
frameworks as well as to increase the cross-referencing between the different research
streams. It would also do a lot of good for advancing our research field, if we were to
conduct more studies to test and reproduce earlier findings rather than aiming to identify
and explore yet another phenomenon that lacks a connection to earlier findings.
Many research disciplines have profited from developing a meta-frame of reference.
One example is the new product development (NPD) best-practice framework, which
defines the maturity of a firm’s innovation management system [85]. The Organizational
Future Orientation field has also already two attempts to create such a maturity model:
Terry Grim’s “Foresight Maturity Model” [86] and René Rohrbeck’s “Maturity Model of
Organizational Future Orientation [87].
I believe that both models are not a final answer to the call for a suitable meta-frame
for our field, but they should provide a sound basis for discussion and are certainly an
open invitation to other scholars to join in the development.
We hope that many will join in this quest to mature our research field and link it to
the established management research disciplines.
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