identifying trends and horizon scanning

What is the difference between current awareness and horizon scanning?

August 4, 2021
Clare Brown

“An informed perspective is more important than ever in order to anticipate what comes next and succeed in emerging futures”. HBR, October 16, 2015

Legal professionals are busy people. They are concerned with doing the best they can for their clients and making sure that their business runs smoothly. Trend spotting or horizon scanning isn’t necessarily at the top of their daily “to do” lists but if they want to grow the firm effectively, everyone - from trainee to managing partner - needs to anticipate future events. 

The best way information people can help to do this is to first understand how everything fits together. We need to look at the difference between current awareness and horizon scanning - and put them both into a wider strategic context. When we present our management teams with evidence that they need automated current awareness, we should also be dazzling them with future information possibilities. 

What is Current Awareness?

Over 30 years ago, academic commentators defined current awareness as “a system, and often a publication, for notifying current documents to users of libraries and information services”. They contrasted this with “selective dissemination of information” (SDI) which is the provision of current awareness to users based on a statement of the individual’s information requirements”.

Although SDI is an outdated term, current awareness and its delivery remains a vital part of the information professional’s role. It has evolved into many different forms and is now a key part of the organisation’s information flow; companies expect quality intelligence. Your legal, financial, compliance, business development and client management teams require a constant stream of high quality current awareness content that they can turn into valuable knowledge.

As Legal Insights Europe says, “current awareness can be seen as being about what is happening today, tomorrow, next week. It is the right now”.

Find your complete guide to Current Awareness here!

What is Horizon Scanning?

Horizon scanning is about taking the long term view; going beyond tomorrow or next week and thinking more about the year to come. It focuses less on the day-to-day detail and enables you, more broadly, to pick up on trends, threats, and opportunities.  

According to one definition

Horizon Scanning is the systematic outlook to detect early signs of potentially important developments. These can be weak (or early) signals, trends, wild cards or other developments, persistent problems, risks and threats, including matters at the margins of current thinking that challenge past assumptions. 

Horizon Scanning can be completely explorative and open or be a limited search for information in a specific field based on the objectives of the respective projects or tasks. It seeks to determine what is constant, what may change, and what is constantly changing in the time horizon under analysis. A set of criteria is used in the searching and/ or filtering process. The time horizon can be short-, medium- or long-term.

I like this definition as it introduces some of the challenges involved when library and information people are creating conceptual searches, for instance, the vague terms such as, “wild card”, “explorative”, “open”, and “changing”. The whole article from which this definition is taken is worth reading and I will be returning to it shortly. 

Staying with horizon scanning for the moment, Legal Insights Europe helpfully differentiates between “wide net” and “sharp focus” scanning. The first of these is the comprehensive, automated approach to horizon scanning. Initially, it is impossible to know which developments or trends will be of interest, so you need to see everything. 

“Sharp focus” horizon scanning is about understanding more about the potential scope and impact of an interesting trend. At this point, you will be focusing on searching a narrow selection of sources, whilst collating research to disseminate to your end-users so that they are aware of the implications of these trends. 

The question is, how do information professionals know which horizon to scan? Where do we start looking and how do we convince our firms that it would be in their interest to get us involved. 

“To know is to foresee, to foresee is to have power"

The answer might lie in a strategic and collaborative form of foresight, or as Kerstin E. Cuhls defines it, “a systematic debate of complex futures”. Large corporations, governments and intergovernmental organisations have used various methods to use information in their efforts to predict all possible outcomes. For instance, 

Georghiou (2007) reported that foresight activities have been conducted in conjunction with NIS in the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Columbia, India, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and other countries. In Germany, the Fraunhofer Society has taken the lead in progressively applying foresight not only in NIS but also in the preparation of strategic scenarios at the corporate level (Cuhls, 2015). (Yuichi Washida and Akihisa Yahata “Predictive value of horizon scanning for future scenarios in Foresight, 3 February 2021)

The excellent article on horizon scanning I mentioned above explains how they attempt it. In essence, it involves literature searches, conversations, taking a broad view, and being open to any and all possibilities:

  • Structured: it is a systematic approach by applying methods of futures research, science-based, and based on new theories of futures research
  • Debate: it includes interaction of relevant actors, active preparation for the future or different futures, and orientation towards shaping the future
  • Complex: it includes the consideration of systemic interdependencies, takes a holistic view
  • Futures is plural: it is an open view on different paths into the future with thinking in alternatives. We also envisage different types of futures, in futures research we differentiate between possible, probable and preferable futures

This is all well and good, however what does this mean in practice? A law firm doesn’t necessarily need or want to employ futurists, but as trusted advisors to their clients, they are expected to have a certain level of foresight. Clients face an ever-evolving business, socio-economic, and legal landscape, so they need their advisors to be prepared for any eventuality.  

Law firms need to put this “foresight” into practice so that they can be prepared to take their - and their clients - businesses into the future in a structured and efficient way. 

horizon

Get ahead with practical approaches to Horizon Scanning

Everyone in the firm needs to be able to anticipate future trends to a certain degree: teams involved in intelligence, business development, innovation and strategy initiatives.

But as interesting as this excursion into the realm of academic and governmental crystal-ball gazing is, here are some ideas to get you and your team started. Follow the horizon scanning cycle. 

Create your team and define your objectives

The most important aspect of horizon scanning is the defining of its objectives - although the team should be made up of people who have influence. At this early stage, you need to know who will be responsible for the project and who will be involved. You will need to get buy-in from management. 

This is important because the team will generate background information, collect evidence and put together scenarios where the firm requires advanced future-readiness. This group will be responsible for monitoring, reviewing, and sharing information about future developments of any kind. These have to both align with, and inform, the firm’s strategy. 

Once this is in place the hard work can start!

Collate your keywords and decide on your sources

I’ve already stated that creating searches like these are challenging. Will you be taking the “wide net” or “sharp focus” approach to scanning? In either case, this is where the library and information people on the team will be able to advise. In order to do this, they need as much information as possible - we all know how hard it is to create a conceptual search on a topic as nebulous as “the future”!

It is hoped that you have a premium content aggregation platform like Vable to automate the initial information gathering. Explore keywords and create groups of them as per your team discussions. Decide which sources you will be scanning - you might want to focus on the quality, or broaden your searches to capture the more interesting parts of the internet!

Assess relevant trends

Once you are getting content in, what can you learn from it? Are there any trends, insights, or weak signals that you can pull together to indicate some kind of pattern. Expect to spend time on identifying trends you’d like to accept, reject, monitor or ignore. This is where you need the input of experts. 

The experience of your internal experts will be invaluable. They will confirm whether you are on the right track to get more information on potentially relevant trends. We all know that trend spotting relies on all kinds of sources so explore conferences or webinars where you can learn from external experts. A simple lunchtime webinar might offer emerging knowhow or previously unthought of keywords to add to searches.

Filtering takes place throughout the whole process. Your search will evolve, as will the sources. When you are evaluating the trends, you will be making sense of them in relation to your objectives. Then you are ready to think about specific reports.

Map trends to your strategy

Once you have spotted threats, opportunities and potential issues that will make a significant impact on your firm - or clients -  you can generate relevant reports. These will involve analysis and recommendations for future action and will take time and require considerable knowledge and expertise. This is the “sharp focus” aspect that I mentioned previously and these will then require further research. 

And the cycle begins again… 

Creating firm-wide buy in

The main issue with horizon scanning is its accuracy - even governments get it wrong! However, if you achieve some understanding of the future, your team will impress all the right people. Get it wrong and it could be harder to recover from such a setback. On the bright side, if you are following a number of trends, you have more chances of success. Ultimately, trends management will prove itself invaluable to your firm. 

In conclusion, we all know the future cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy. However, with the right horizon scanning strategy and team in place, you can create powerful knowledge to prepare your firm and clients for what might lie ahead.

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