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A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association
Thoughts on Technology Coordination
By Lee N. Hartsfield, GISP, GIS Coordinator, Tallahassee-Leon County, Florida
Merriam-Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines obstacle as something that stands in front of or impedes progress or achievement.
You are just being an obstacle . . . again. Why won't you let me do this? We have to do this now! We don't have time for these delays! My customers have to have this or they're not going to be happy when I tell them that you are just being difficult!
Have you heard these? Have you been told by your manager to stand your ground, but don't make waves? Alternatively, does your manager sometimes ask you the same questions?
In meeting the challenges of technology coordination, the GIS professional must frequently assess which ideas promote progress or achievement and which ideas could jeopardize systems and/or data integrity. With our ever-growing technology, change comes rapidly and sometimes with little warning. It is little wonder that our customers have a difficult time understanding our efforts and motives.
The City of Tallahassee
The City of Tallahassee is the capital of the State of Florida and the county seat of Leon County. In May 1990, the city, the Leon County Board of County Commissioners, and the Leon County Property Appraiser's Office entered into an Interlocal Agreement to create a joint Geographic Information System, the Tallahassee-Leon County GIS. As GIS coordinator, I lead a group of 15 professionals, which form GIS Central. GIS Central provides support services to each of the principal partners. These services include system administration, database management, Internet/intranet development and support, application design and support, and map analysis expertise.
As a GIS coordinator, my chief responsibility is to manage the GIS program as determined by policies and procedures or best practices. In either case, these may be determined by others with or without my direct input. The challenges are many and their number grows as our technology expands. We must be consistent, be clear in our communications, enlist the help of competent staff, and manage expectations, if we are going to be successful.
Communication skills are essential in any customer or client relationship, and there are scores of books written on the subject. In my experience, listening is the hardest part of communication. If I feel like I am being attacked, I take a defensive posture and dig into my position. I hear mortar fire and I dig my foxhole. I only come up to aim and shoot at my adversary. Yes . . . on occasion, I have shot a messenger or two. The ironic part is I get angry when someone fires back at me. This situation almost always leads to some kind of wrestling match and more times than not, the contest is exhausting and very unproductive. How do I change the outcome if I am not happy with the results? I must recognize that the first challenge begins with me. I must slow down and listen carefully to my customer or client. My response must be clear and address the matter effectively. If my response is based on policies and procedures or best practices, then their argument may be with the policies and procedures and not me personally.
I have been known to suggest to staff that I supervise, you have a choice to deal with process or personality. I believe that most of us prefer personality, especially if we find someone that agrees with the way we do things. However, put two strong-willed people in the middle and you usually get conflict. If these people have a little stubborn streak in them (I have also been guilty of this a time or two), then it seems that resolution only occurs after sending it up the chain of command. Remember, their position can be changed, if the proper authority provides that alternative. The resolution often indicates a winner or a loser, but ultimately both sides have disappointed their respective managers. Even under the best of circumstances, if we accomplish things based on who we know, then what happens when they leave or change positions? Process gives you the best recourse. It establishes the policies and procedures and best practices and how we deal with them. It can be time intensive and not much fun, but it will provide us with a common basis for any discussion that we may have.
Here are some comments that a manager may need to address:
I don't have time to change the policies and procedures. This is not a big deal. Can't you do it just this one time?
I have to confess that I fell into this one a couple of times. Helping out . . . being the "go-to guy." Yes, you can get away with it from time to time. However, I must admit that it impacts the future relationship and behavior with the individual that you just saved by fudging the rules.
Well! You did it before, why not now? Why is this so different?
Consistency in how we manage expectations is another critical skill. Our customers and our customers' customers need their expectations properly managed. Remember, if you don't assist your customers in establishing reasonable expectations (within your resources and within accepted policies and procedures), they will most certainly establish unreasonable expectations for you. Don't promise what you can't deliver. Likewise, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. This is a tough one to swallow for the real creative geniuses that we have in our organizations. If we don't clearly understand what impacts our actions may cause, we must slow down and examine them carefully. We have the policies and procedures in place to protect one of our most valued items—information. Careless or not properly processed changes may very well jeopardize our investment.
Following these suggestions can be difficult in any organization, but it becomes even more difficult as the organization grows. To survive, you must empower staff to "stand in front of" your investment of information. They must recognize that some will call them an obstacle. However, they are only protecting what needs to be protected. They must be familiar with the policies and procedures and best practices. They will require ongoing professional training to keep up with the latest in best practices as defined by the industry and implemented by your organization. They will need to keep a personal touch without deviating from the established processes.
I have been and will continue to be an obstacle that stands between ill-conceived changes outside of accepted policies and procedures and best practices. However, I hope to be able to recognize when changes to the accepted policies and procedures and best practices are required. In those cases, I need to rely on processes established by the organization to change them. This will usually take time. However, if I have properly communicated the expectations of those in authority that I represent, then it should surprise no one. Finally, I must be open to change when change is required and understand that technology is ever evolving.
Technological innovations of today make obsolete the boundaries of yesterday, and may we never be an obstacle to progress or achievement.
About the Author
Lee Hartsfield has been the Tallahassee-Leon County (TLC) GIS coordinator since 2000, and he has worked in local government since 1992. In his role as TLC GIS coordinator, he manages and facilitates a joint GIS program for the City of Tallahassee, Leon County, and the Leon County Property Appraiser's Office. He has an M.S. in geography from Florida State University and is recognized as a GISP. He is past president of Florida URISA and on the Board of Directors for the Seven Hills Regional User Group for GIS. He has been and continues to be involved in grass roots efforts to form a statewide GIS consortium for the State of Florida. The Tallahassee-Leon County GIS received Esri's SAG Award in 2008.
For more information, contact Lee N. Hartsfield (e-mail: HartsfieldL@leoncountyfl.gov).