Step 4. Assess the Organization's External and Internal Environments

During the planning process, an organization should examine their internal and external environments to determine the best strategies for a successful future. Internal factors should be examined to identify strengths and weaknesses, while external factors should be examined to determine opportunities and threats/challenges. Through the external assessment, an understanding of areas such as the political and economic climate and how they affect the organization will be gained. Through the internal assessment, the organization's culture and the impact of current programs and practices are among the areas that may be examined. The external and internal assessments enable an organization to identify and focus on key issues (Bryson, 2004).

A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) or SWOC (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges) analysis is a common tool used to ensure all important environmental aspects are considered.

Why External Assessments are Important

While many strategic planning experts recommend SWOT analyses as a key way to analyze their environments, some scholars disagree. Terry Hill and Roy Westbrook (1997) studied 20 companies who used a SWOT analysis in the strategic planning process and argue that SWOT analyses resulted in "long lists (over 40 factors on average), general (often meaningless) descriptions, a failure to prioritize and no attempt to verify any points. But the most worrying general characteristic was that no-one subsequently used the outputs within the later stages of the strategy process. The continued use of the SWOT analysis, therefore, needs to be questioned" (p. 46).

However, Hill and Westbrook's study sample was quite small, and their criticisms seem misdirected. They should be focused on the way the 20 organizations they studied conducted their overall strategic planning process, not on the SWOT analysis technique as a whole. For example, Hill and Westbrook (1997) state "the consultants rarely challenged or sought clarification of the points raised. They merely recorded the points and listed them under each heading" (p. 49). Hill and Westbrook also note that most of the companies didn't actually use the results of the SWOT analysis, but this should be a criticism of the planners executing the strategic planning process at the organization- not the SWOT analysis, since the same criticism could be true of any tool used to assess internal and external environments. Lastly, with such a small study sample, Hill and Westbrook made broad generalizations about the SWOT process.

Tools for conducting a SWOT or SWOC analysis
In this video, James Manktelow and Amy Carlson offer tips and questions to ask when conducting a SWOT analysis.

The My Strategic Plan website is another SWOT analysis tool. The website offers detailed questions to ask for each aspect of the analysis. offers sample SWOT analysis templates and an instructional SWOT analysis video.

John Bryson (2004) suggests two different techniques for executing a SWOC analysis: the Organizational Highs, Lows, and Themes Exercise and the Snow Card Technique.

Organizational Highs, Lows, and Themes Exercise
Using this technique, participants look back on their organizational history to reflect on their past highs, lows, and themes, looking for patterns, strengths, and weaknesses. During the exercise, participants reflect on organizational highs and lows that have occurred during a specific period of time, and when each occurred. They place their notes on the group's chart, which is organized along a timeline. Each thought is placed along a vertical access, signifying how "high" or "low" the event was. Group members are then asked to identify themes along the timeline, and think about the opportunities, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses the organization has faced, and how they reacted to each of them. The group then is asked to think about what the organization may face in the future for an equal period of time, think about what opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses they may encounter, and what they would like to see as the organization.

Snow Card Technique
In this technique, participants are asked to focus on a single organizational issue. Each group member independently brainstorms as many ideas as they can. They then select their 5-7 best ideas from their brainstorming and write each onto a "snow card" (small white piece of paper or sticky note). The snow cards are collected and attached to the wall. Group members then cluster and label the snow cards based on common themes. The group continues to rearrange the cards until a consensus is reached on the arrangement. The technique is often repeated three additional times, so that strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges are all analyzed by the group.

A good online resource to consult when considering strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges is available at A how-to video is also available at link listed above, or can be accessed directly from YouTube at is a great resource for organizations looking to conduct their SWOC analysis online through a shared wiki. Here, participants can add their insight, and they'll receive an email notification each time an update is posted. By conducting a stakeholder analysis online, planners will be able to engage more participants than would be able to attend an actual SWOT analysis meeting.

Environmental Scan
Another way to analyze the environment is through an environmental scan conducted by staff, volunteers or consultants. The scan should look for changes in the social, economic, political, and technological climates and identify any issues that will affect their organization (Pflaum and Delmont, 1987).

Case Studies
North Davidson Arts District NoDa.gifNoDA edited.ppt successfully used WikiPlanning to engage stakeholders. Participants were able to take a survey online, providing their feedback for a proposed light rail station. They also posted photos of their community, commenting on what they liked, and what needed improvement. A message board asked participants to offer comments on questions, such as "What opportunities or challenges do you think a light rail stop near 36th Street would bring to NoDa?" Chat sessions were also scheduled (Ryan, 2009).

Wikimedia Strategic Planning used a wiki throughout their strategic plan, and participants had thewikimeida.jpg opportunity to offer their insights about what their internal and external environments looked like.

What do you do with the SWOC analysis results?
Once the SWOC analysis is complete, next steps need to be determined. Further thinking and planning will be necessary after the SWOC analysis is completed to determine what the results mean for the organization, and what they want to focus on in the future. Thought should be given as to which strengths can be built upon, and which opportunities can be taken advantage of, and which weaknesses and challenges can be minimized. Strategic planners should look for patterns and issues that need to be dealt with immediately, and work should begin as soon as possible after the SWOC analysis is completed to ensure the momentum continues (Bryson, 2004).

Please continue to Step 5. Identify the Strategic Issues Facing the Organization.