Is there a new definition for the term GIS?

The wording I used above is also the big weakness:  “…as a GIS professional…”  As GIS professionals, we are naturally very focused on GIS and have necessarily spent most of our careers needing to define GIS.  Today, we surely need to move beyond explaining what GIS is; to how GIS can contribute to strong business outcomes.  I use the word ‘contribute’ advisedly because I want to focus on those organisations where GIS has been slow to take off:  geo-enabled rather than geo-centric establishments.

First, a quick definition.  What are geo-centric and geo-enabled organisations?

  • Geo-centric organisations are those where mapping plays a major role in the business outcomes of the organization.  Examples might be national mapping organisations, geological survey entities, or even local government GIS teams.  Mapping was well understood before GIS came along.
  • Geo-enabled organisations are those where mapping was at best a supporting function of the business.  In many cases, they’re organisations that could benefit from GIS but simply have never considered the business benefits of this ‘new’ technology.  A sobering fact is that this category represents the majority… especially when there is the realisation that although a local government GIS team might be geo-centric, the wider council is geo-enabled.

Geo-centric organisations are fairly straightforward since GIS alone can achieve strong business outcomes – the GIS professional is ‘preaching to the choir”.  Provided each of the five GIS elements are considered and balanced, good outcomes can be achieved.   Moreover, since a geo-centric organisation typically has many GIS professionals on staff, the nuances and complexities of geospatial information and technology are well understood.

Geo-enabled organisations are more challenging.  Indeed, the advent of consumer mapping has hindered rather than helped these entities understand the business potential of GIS.  That’s because consumer mapping has such simple answers to each of the five elements.  In this case, simple is not good:  a shallow approach to each element is unlikely to realise full potential.  Worse, it might result in business decisions that are grounded in poor inputs.

So what’s the problem?  Why not just educate about each of the elements?  Great… but who is the audience?

The very fact that I started this post focused on the five elements of a GIS illustrates the nature of the problem.  Not only have I stated the approach from a GIS-centric perspective, I’ve then compounded the error by the order in which I list the elements.  As a GIS professional, I’ve instinctively listed the elements from technology to business.  I think of the number of times I’ve stepped through a presentation starting off really passionate about the software… then the hardware… then the thrills of geospatial data… oh, and yes, you need trained people and need to think about organisational issues.

Those presentations went down a treat with the GIS professionals.  In geocentric organisations, the decision makers are often themselves GIS professionals.  Everyone happy.   But I quickly learned that even a CIO couldn’t really give a damn about the technology; the CEO wanted 5 bullet points; the CFO just wanted out.

A very different approach is required to pitch GIS to decision makers in a potentially geo-enabled organisation.   Firstly, some research is needed… what is the organisation about?  What are their challenges?  What pain are they suffering today?  Who is suffering that pain?  What’s their background? How much are they willing to invest in fixing the problem?

Armed with that research, we might be able to identify how GIS can ease the pain.  But note the word ‘might’.  There are several reasons why GIS might not be the answer:

  • The cost of the GIS might be bigger than the cost of the pain.
  • The pain might be solvable using simpler consumer mapping approaches.
  • The geospatial data needed to solve the problem might be impossible to collect or maintain.

In short, the GIS might not deliver to the bottom line of the organisation.  At that point, it doesn’t matter how cool the technology is, it cannot succeed.

In many cases though, GIS does add real value to the business.  But only when successfully integrated into the business.  And that’s where all too often, things can go wrong.  How many GIS professionals ‘speak’ Asset Management, or ERP, or CRM or BI.  How many ‘other’ enterprise system professionals understand GIS?

In my next blog post I’ll explore how to bring these disparate specialised systems together.  Which will bring us back to the start of this post except that we’ll reverse the order and think about organisational challenges, people, data, hardware and software.

David S.