Moving from Bits and Bytes to Dollars and Cents

Managing GIS, A column from members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

By Wendy Nelson, Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Developing GIS Leaders

In a recent article in Governing magazine, columnists Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene address some of the serious human resources challenges facing local and state government. The lure of high-paying private sector jobs coupled with the dwindling benefits, such as pensions and health care, that were once mainstays of public sector careers make it even more difficult to attract and retain top-performing employees.

But a survey from the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, which Barrett and Greene reference, indicates that "professional development is one of the top three factors that keep employees engaged and thus reduce their likelihood of leaving. (The other two are an employee's own work and the ability of leaders to manage change.)"

Following the recession of the late 2000s, the public sector training budget was practically nonexistent. Lately, however, more and more government agencies have been recommitting to employee training and professional development.

With a growing number of government workers on the cusp of retirement, the challenge of cultivating the next generation of leaders is even more important. For government employees who work in the GIS realm, gaining the sort of professional development needed to rise to the next level can be attained by attending the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association's (URISA) GIS Leadership Academy.

Why a URISA GIS Leadership Academy?

More than a decade ago, URISA recognized that, within its membership, there was a training gap. GIS professionals had plenty of technical expertise. But as they moved up the ranks within their organizations, many did not have the education needed to tackle the management and leadership responsibilities that came with those career advancements. So a committee of URISA members—all recognized leaders in the profession and all Certified GIS Professionals (GISPs)—developed a unique, five-day GIS management and leadership training program: the URISA GIS Leadership Academy (ULA).

The program covers topics spanning from GIS strategic planning and return-on-investment reporting to hiring and change management. It includes interactive exercises, small group discussions, team-building activities, and opportunities to delve into topics in a way that's not possible to do at large conferences. Participation is intentionally limited to about 50 people to encourage such interaction. Each session is updated with the most current industry information, and the content is peer-reviewed.

Mirroring URISA's membership, ULA attendees are employed by a variety of organizations, including government agencies of all types and sizes, private sector firms, universities, and research institutions. Participants comprise a range of career experience as well—from young professionals to midcareer managers—and consist of both current and future GISPs.

Some organizations have made ULA attendance a critical part of their GIS staff training and development. Matt Gerike, the geospatial services manager for the City of Columbia, Missouri, encourages—and has even budgeted for—his four GIS staff members to go to ULAs in recent years.

"Returning staff look beyond success as a map or a database and more toward organizational success with processes for managing projects and strategies for communicating achievements," he reflected.

Bonding over GIS

ULA is truly one of my favorite URISA programs. Attendees are excited to be part of a group of GIS professionals who are all working to elevate their GIS programs. They share experiences and challenges and form enduring friendships. Many can't believe how much they can learn in one week, and some have even credited ULA with being the best training they have ever received. Others realize that, while they aren't managers yet, they can be agents of change for GIS within their organizations.

After taking part in ULA, numerous participants have rapidly advanced their careers, progressing into leadership roles and moving up within their own organizations. Several former attendees have even become ULA faculty as well, sharing the lessons they've learned with the next generation of GIS professionals.

Now to Develop Leadership Skills

Due to increased demand, URISA is offering ULA twice in 2017. One session was held in April in San Diego, California, and there will be another one in Providence, Rhode Island, in late July. Additionally, the Ohio URISA Chapter has already requested a ULA in Columbus in 2018, so keep an eye out for event updates.

Although training budgets are improving, funds are still limited. So some GIS professionals may only be able to go to certain events—those that are closer to home or that coincide with other meetings, for example. That is why, for this October's GIS-Pro 2017 Conference in Jacksonville, Florida, URISA has devoted an entire program track to GIS management and leadership, giving conference attendees a taste of the topics covered at ULA.

See the sessions being offered at GIS-Pro 2017, and get more information about ULAs.

About the Author

Wendy Nelson is the executive director of URISA. For more information, email her.


Read other articles in the "Managing GIS" series.