apple Assessing Your External Environment

External Assessment

Assessing the external environment in which the agency operates is the next critical step. The external environment includes everything that impacts the agency for better or for worse from outside the walls of the organization.

For every agency there are unique forces and trends that are related to things such as:

  • changes in the political climate
  • social or economic issues for a particular group of clients
  • changes in technology
  • changes in adult education
  • changes within the local community

These kinds of outside factors play a significant role in the agency’s planning and decisions for the future, so information-gathering about these issues is necessary. You need to think through how you are going to respond to these external opportunities and threats. Are there key opportunities your agency needs to pursue either right away or in the near future? Are there threats that your agency needs to address and take action on? Opportunities tend to vanish but threats rarely go away of their own accord.

Coming back to the SWOT analysis introduced earlier (where you analyze organizational strengths, weaknesses and opportunities and threats), we now look at the external factors (opportunities and threats). These represent the opportunities and threats that exist beyond the walls of the agency that have an effect on the agency’s success.

Opportunities are positive in nature. They are those chances that come our way, or doors that open up, that can lead to new ventures and possibilities for the agency. An example might be a new business or industry opening up in your community which could result in your literacy agency starting up a new training program.

Threats are negative in nature. They are any external events or factors that have a detrimental affect on an agency’s success. An example of this might be another organization or business that opens and offers similar programming to that of your agency.

Conditions and events that happen in the world around the agency create the positive and negative forces that influence the agency’s decision-making. Agencies need to be conscious of the trends that are taking shape and be discerning in reading the signs if they are to make the best decisions on how to respond to the external environment.

The reason behind all this information-gathering is to become well enough informed so that your agency can make decisions for the future that will result in a positive contribution towards its mission and its local community. You want to become aware of the important external factors both positive and negative that you must take into account when looking for opportunities for moving forward.

What you are looking for when collecting data on the agency’s external environment?

Specifically, agencies want to be able to predict with some degree of accuracy what they can expect with regard to things like:

  • The changing landscape of literacy
  • Changing government priorities in adult education
  • New development and emerging needs in the local community
  • Literacy learners: who they are, where they come from and what they need
  • Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities: internal restructuring and changing role with literacy agencies
  • Changing roles and responsibilities within Employment Ontario
  • New initiatives in other provincial government ministries and in the federal and municipal government
  • Current and potential sources of funding
  • New relationships and opportunities with other streams and sectors
  • Opportunities for other external partnerships
  • New developments with your competitors, including both competitive and collaborative forces
  • What skills are available in your area? What skills are employers looking for?
  • Changes in education levels and high school drop out rates in your community
  • Other educational opportunities in your area

To conduct their external assessment, agencies will want to examine the following areas with respect to three basic questions:

  • What is happening in this area?
  • What are the inherent opportunities here?
  • What are the threats?

Collecting external information

With the above three key questions in mind, you can begin to gather information related to the external environment. There are a number of ways of doing this.

  • Check out the Trends, Opportunities and Priorities (TOP) report prepared by your Local Training and Adjustment Board for your town or city. See for more information.
  • Have informal conversations with local business people and people on the city council.
  • Look for signs of new development and investigate. For example, what new developments are occurring in your community? Will these developments result in new staff being needed or a new type of training? If yes, for what kind of positions?
  • Stay in the loop and watch for announcements and information coming from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities ( or other areas of government. Be sure to regularly check both print and web-based resources. For example, the Employment Ontario Partners Gateway is an excellent source of information for literacy agencies about developments with Employment Ontario.
  • Connect with literacy practitioners in other communities to see what’s happening in their areas and to get their “take” on new developments in the literacy field.
  • Contact your sectoral, regional and umbrella literacy networks for information.
  • For information on external trends facing literacy, check out Community Literacy of Ontario’s website at:
  • Stay informed about government initiatives – check ministry websites, talk to your MPP and MP, look for bulletins, news releases and newspaper articles.
  • Take advantage of Literacy Services Planning meeting opportunities and get your question on the agenda for discussion.
  • Regularly check the websites of external organizations such as your local elementary and secondary school boards as well as the websites of your potential partners and competitors.
  • Attend community social service, education or job fairs to keep abreast of changes and opportunities in your community.
  • Hold a focus group with key external stakeholders asking for their feedback on trends and issues or send them a print or electronic survey.
  • Ask internal stakeholders for their perspective on external issues. Often staff, students, volunteers and board members are an excellent source of information on these topics!

Sample questions

Here are some sample questions that you might want to ask when gathering external data on the threats and opportunities facing your agency. They can be used as questions for focus groups, for one-to-one interviews, for large group brainstorming and discussion or for developing a survey or written questionnaire.

  1. What are some of the key trends and forces occurring in our external environment? In our community?
  2. Which of these trends and forces are most likely to influence our agency’s future either positively or negatively?
  3. What strengths can our agency bring to these changes/challenges?
  4. What steps can our agency take now in order to be in a strong position when the time comes?
  5. What are the three most important external opportunities facing our agency?
  6. What are three possible external threats to our agency’s success?
  7. What opportunities and threats can you see in the future that are associated with our current and future partnerships?
  8. What more could our agency do to increase its revenue and develop funder relationships?
  9. What competitors have a negative impact on the success of our agency and what can we do to minimize those effects and maximize our potential?
  10.  What competitors are most closely aligned with our agency goals and values and how can we encourage collaborative work between us?




Don’t try to do it all on your own. Instead, you could:

  • Share tasks equally with other staff people and then pool your findings
  • Recruit a volunteer for research purposes. Some people prefer volunteering for a short-term project as opposed to an ongoing, long-term commitment
  • Free up some time to allow one of your “go-getters” on staff to conduct this research
  • Ask members of your board of directors to help gather this information on behalf of the program
  • Take advantage of your personal network of family and friends who may have access to the information you are looking for
  • Don’t forget about using websites to collect external information: they are an amazing source of information that can save you a lot of leg work!


What do you do with the information?

Once you have gathered information on the opportunities and threats facing your literacy agency, collate, organize, and summarize the information concisely in writing and combine it with the other assessment information on your mission, mandates, and values and your organizational strengths and weaknesses.

Organizing and documenting your work throughout the strategic planning process is very important. The first time through it will seem very time-consuming; however, doing a thorough job as you go along will save time in the end.

Combining all of this data gives you a comprehensive picture of your mission, values and mandates as well as the internal and external environments of your agency. This information is necessary in order for you to see where your agency’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats lie. Knowing this, you will be properly equipped to make good decisions about what your agency can do and should do in the future.

You are now through the most time-consuming stage of Assessment and you are ready to move on to Step 2, Evaluation.

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. Who are the key stakeholders and organizations that you need to connect with to assess your external environment?
  2. What is likely to be the best way to gather information on the external environment in your agency (i.e. review of websites, informal conversations, focus groups, surveys, etc.)?
  3. Who in your circle of family, friends and co-workers might have connections and knowledge of the external stakeholder groups you need to link with?
  4. How might you connect with your colleagues from other literacy agencies locally or around the province to share strategies and ideas on the external literacy environment?
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