One example of how businesses use information is seen in the “environmental scan,” which is a concept that has existed since the 1960s. The idea is that organizations should keep an eye on the “environment” in order to make informed decisions about future challenges. The environment consists of all the external forces, be they political, social, legal, environmental, or what have you, that could impact the day-to-day functions of the organization. More generally, this is part of what businesses call “rational decision-making,” which is the practice of systematically evaluating multiple possible courses of action and settling on the best one based on relevant facts and evidence.
Environmental scanning looks something like this:
Figure 1: Graphic taken from Zhang, Majid, & Foo (2012).
In everyday terms, an organization realizes it needs information, retrieves that information from the best available source (usually based on a metric of cost and currency), synthesizes it into a format usable by the organization, shares it with the appropriate team members, evaluates it, uses it, and stores the process and the results in its internal documents for reference and retrieval.
Information may come from a variety of sources, including full-service research suppliers, who will gather and package the information for you. However, if the cost of these services is too great, the organization will harvest the information itself.
The first step is to make sure that the research task is fully understood. What is needed, when is it needed, and how will it be used? Once the scope of the research task is understood, a search strategy can be created by combining the relevant aspect(s) of your business with relevant external factor(s). For instance, if Mina’s Mining Co. is interested to see how new EPA regulations will affect its practices, its search would combine keywords that represent each area of interest:
mining or mountaintop removal
EPA or laws or legislation or regulations
Such a search in the databases would retrieve any number of useful articles about the impact of old and new regulations on mining practices. It would also be advisable to perform a similar search on government websites by using the usa.gov search portal.
This is also a good time to ask “whose voice is being left out?” Such critical questions will help you recognize other community stakeholders whose concerns you might not have initially considered. The field of Critical Business Information Literacy is especially interested in how businesses can use information ethically.
After collecting the information, it needs to be organized, evaluated, and synthesized. This often means noting the key points of various sources and tying them together in a way that is meaningful or beneficial to your organization’s practices. Keep in mind that your boss will most likely not want a stack of articles and would prefer a short synthesis (often called an executive summary) of what is in those articles and what it may mean to the organization. Think relevance, connectivity, and brevity.
After synthesizing the information, it needs to be distributed to key players and stakeholders. Making sure that everyone on the team has access to the same information is a key to productive teamwork. However, do keep in mind that sharing certain proprietary information may require the approval of higher ups.
Deeper analysis and research happens at this step, so if shortcuts were taken in evaluating or synthesizing the information then it will most likely be exposed at this point. It pays to be thorough in your research and critical in your analysis before involving others.
After all stakeholders have had a chance to review the information, discussion of the information’s ultimate meaning take place. This discussion may lead to calls for even more research, even deeper analysis, or to new ideas and strategies.
Finally, best practices stipulate that the organization document these discussions and store the information for easy retrieval and review. This is necessary so that the basis for decisions is neither lost nor forgotten, which is crucial for long-term projects. Because source information may need to be consulted at any time, the documentation should occur in an agreed upon and standardized format.
Seven Steps to Take:
1. Understand a research need
2. Create a search strategy
3. Consider whose voice is being left out.
4. Search timely, affordable sources
5. Package/synthesize the information for relevance, connectivity, and brevity
6. Share and discuss with stakeholders
7. Document and store the information