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Winter 2006/2007
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"Managing GIS"
A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Enterprise GIS—Some Keys to Success

By Dianne Haley, URISA Past President

Dianne HaleyGIS technology has been implemented in a wide variety of organizations and with varying degrees of success. Initial implementations were often driven by an individual business function or business unit within an organization. Acceptance of the technology as a key business tool by other business areas within the organization often occurred only after the initial success of the original group.

In recent years, there has been a focus on enterprise systems and enterprise implementations of a variety of technologies. The sharing of the technology and the data associated with that technology across a multidisciplinary organization, or across loosely associated organizations, has many challenges and obstacles. Many enterprise implementations of GIS technology are considered successful; many are considered failures.

Enterprise GIS implementations are costly, and yet this seems to be the direction adopted by organizations tackling the initiative for the first time and often for the second or third time. Why do organizations take this approach? How is success measured? Are there techniques that can ensure success of enterprise GIS implementations?

In discussing strategies for successful enterprise GIS implementation, it should remain evident that each organization is ultimately unique, having its own culture, business practices, methodologies, and processes. What works for one will not necessarily be adequate or appropriate for another. The nature of the organization, and the people that work within it, will shape the way technology is accepted and used by the corporation. Consideration must be given to the complex, "political" nature of the organization. It cannot be assumed that individuals will behave professionally, or rationally, rather than according to personal agendas. Nor can it be assumed that individuals within organizations will recognize GIS as a superior technology and incorporate it into their daily workflow without question or that restructuring the organization will address the behavior or implementation problems. GIS implementation activities and business units must be able to balance the interests and needs of all those who may be impacted by introduction and use of the technology.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the success of an enterprise GIS implementation. These include, but are not limited to, visioning and planning; the GIS business unit—its organizational placement, staffing, and mandate; data management; funding strategies; user involvement, including committee structure and project teams; and pilot projects and prototypes. Each of these subject areas could be the focus of one or more articles on its own, but this article will focus on the subject of data management.

Geographic data is a strategic, corporate asset that should be managed rigorously and contribute to the success of the organization. A data management strategy to do so not only affects the allocation of staff and funds but also the workflow between organizational entities and the organizational structure. If the mandate of the GIS business unit is strategic in nature, and it has little or no responsibility for spatial data maintenance, it is suggested that the GIS business unit act as a change management agent. In this role, it would assume responsibility for consensus building on policies and guidelines for data acquisition, maintenance, and dissemination. Effective policies and procedures form a foundation for the successful development, operation, and management of most enterprise GIS initiatives. Studies have shown that increased formalization improves information flow. Institutionalizing policies and procedures captures existing knowledge and ensures that the GIS initiative will survive the passing of time, increased complexity, and departure of key staff. The GIS business unit would also be heavily involved in the reengineering of workflow practices and procedures, ensuring data sharing objectives are effectively met. These roles and responsibilities could be documented in service level agreements (SLAs).

In economic terms, there is a tendency to treat geographic information as a public good—accessible to everybody and shared without loss to anyone. Yet within the organization, information often takes on the characteristics of a commodity. The willingness of individuals to allow their information to be placed on a corporate database is often dependent on their perception of the costs and benefits. In many cases, the benefits of data sharing are not realized by the individuals who bear the costs, particularly the costs of data capture and maintenance. The distributed nature of data collection and maintenance within most organizations can present challenges to ensuring the data is maintained as effectively as possible. The responsible business units are often required to maintain and present data in a manner to be used by all corporate data users, which may exceed the effort needed for their specific business functions. Corporate requirements of specific datasets may often require a redesign of the database and data structures; in such cases, the issue of funding the redevelopment needs to be addressed. Understanding and accepting the corporate responsibilities associated with providing data on behalf of the enterprise may be difficult if compensation is not made for the additional workload this would entail. This may be particularly evident in situations where corporate ideals are not strongly supported and cooperation among business units is not the norm. Enterprise GIS implementation requires due consideration for the impacts of spatial data maintenance on the existing business activities of the organization. SLAs between the business units maintaining the spatial data, the business units using the spatial data, and the GIS business unit responsible for managing the spatial data will provide opportunities to alleviate any conflicts that might arise. Because the responsibilities are documented in an SLA, expectations of the business units involved can be more appropriately managed.

Whatever the organizational situation, data management to support enterprise initiatives and corporate ideals will not come easily, particularly if the entire concept is new to the business groups. What's in it for me? and Who's going to pay for this work? will be common questions. Documenting the roles and responsibilities of the participating business units, either in service level agreements or the project plans (or both), and the dissemination of that information throughout the enterprise, will promote understanding and manage expectations. Funding strategies to support the data management and maintenance activities need to be considered and developed early in the initiative.

About the Author

Dianne Haley, BSc, MScGIS, GISP, is the GIS Program coordinator for the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. She is a past president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association.

More Information

For more information, contact Dianne Haley (tel.: 403-297-6861, e-mail: dianne.haley@eub.ca, Web: www.eub.ca).

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