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Enterprising GIS Management

Successful GIS managers must deal with the sometimes complex interactions of the software, hardware, people, data, and applications that make up a GIS. The demands on managers have grown as the role of GIS has changed from a project-oriented application to an enterprisewide information infrastructure.

What is an enterprise GIS? The most familiar definition is an approach for implementing GIS throughout an organization. Enterprise GIS is also an architecture that integrates geospatial data and services and shares them across the organization. In more general IT terms, it can also be viewed as an infrastructure that extends and enables existing systems using geospatial data and services.

Why would a GIS manager want to expand from the department to the enterprise level? In recent years, many organizations have become data rich while remaining information poor. Implementing GIS across the organization benefits business managers and other decision makers who can use geospatially enabled data to devise better solutions to business problems. Through enterprise GIS, IT managers have solutions for integration problems and interoperability issues and can integrate them with existing high-value systems such as SAS and SAP. Because geospatial data is accessible and usable by staff throughout an organization served by an enterprise GIS, GIS specialists can use their time more productively by focusing on analysis, application development, and other high-return activities.

When implemented on the enterprise level, GIS leverages an organization's existing resources in data, staff, and funds by eliminating redundancies and streamlining processes. It also provides qualitative improvements in operations by responding to issues of accountability and customer service.

Enterprise GIS requires planning, integration, testing, and support that is greater than traditional departmental GIS. However, its integration with mainstream IT makes it more powerful and pervasive.

Esri has developed GIS designed for enterprise deployment. ArcGIS, the Esri suite of GIS products, provides a generic platform for dealing with geographic information and processes from the desktop to the server to the Internet to mobile devices. This single scalable architecture encompasses multiple complementary products for both end users and developers that are built on industry standards.

Industry standards means managers can take advantage of available expertise in mainstream development environments such as C# and Java. The integration and interoperability supplied by ArcGIS applies not only to data but also to applications and services. The ArcGIS Data Interoperability extension streamlines work flows by expanding direct read capabilities, adding robust import/export functionality, and providing custom transformation capabilities. This makes more information in the organization readily available to the GIS. It also eliminates the need for separately maintaining converted data.

ArcWeb Services use common interface standards, such as J2EE, .NET, and SOAP/XML, to provide focused cross platform functionality. With ArcGIS Engine, embedded GIS applications can be developed that are both tailored to end users' exact needs and transparent to them. ArcGIS Server, a developer product designed specifically for the enterprise, enables more efficient centralized administration of GIS from the server side.

While the technologies associated with managing GIS have changed with the move to an enterprise environment, some of the most daunting challenges facing a GIS manager remain organizational, social, and/or political in nature. Consequently, many of the qualities required for success a decade ago also remain the same. These include leadership abilities, business management skills, and an understanding of the power of geospatial information.

GIS managers need leadership skills in addition to technical knowledge. GIS is a group activity that requires cooperation to be successful. Consensus building is critical because GIS benefits are realized through leveraging the organization's existing resources and enhancing its business processes. Resources can't be leveraged if there is no access to them. Processes cannot be improved if they are not shared. Remember that existing resources also include expertise and funds, not just data.

In the enterprise setting, training benefits both end users and GIS professionals—so make training a priority, not an afterthought. The benefits of training for GIS specialists are apparent but the need for training casual or discipline specific users may not be as well recognized. Trained casual users benefit from using geospatial information while freeing GIS specialists for other tasks. Cross training helps create buy-in for GIS by developing staff members who are well versed in GIS in addition to a specific discipline such as planning or engineering.

Offering progressive training gives users a place to start and a way to grow. Training for any group should include an understanding of the strengths and limitations of the data and how to intelligently apply it to the organization's work.

Consensus building within the GIS department is also important. GIS staff members are more motivated if they are part of a team that shares common goals. Always giving deadlines and frequently inspecting work ensures both timeliness and quality. Through understanding what motivates people, GIS managers can build loyalty and team spirit. This process takes time and patience, but a unified effort always yields superior results.

In addition to the need for leadership skills, another aspect of GIS management that hasn't changed is the need to answer those two annoying questions:

What does it cost?
What are the immediate benefits?

Although building an enterprise GIS is a long-range goal, managers who use an organized approach that initially focuses on high-benefit, low-cost projects can demonstrate the value of an enterprise GIS in the relatively short term. These initial successes can help safeguard staffing and budgets by supplying visibility and proof that GIS contributes to organizational goals. For example, deploying ArcReader gets geospatial data into the hands of users at minimal cost and requires little training, but these users soon discover that geospatial data enables them to make better decisions.

Controlling costs and optimizing the use of software, hardware, network, and staff tax the business management skills of any IT manager. Enterprise GIS is deployed and managed just like any other IT system. However, the scalable nature of ArcGIS software helps tame these aspects for the GIS manager.

Understanding the power of geospatial data has been a hallmark of successful GIS managers from the earliest project implementations. This requires a manager who not only has vision but also a willingness to upset the organizational apple cart by proposing new ways of accomplishing goals and the courage to sometimes be wrong. More is learned from failure than success, and learning speeds up in the face of adversity.

This applies not just to the manager but also to the GIS team. A manager who provides more challenging assignments and increased responsibility for junior staff members will help them grow not only in technical expertise but in leadership ability, too.

The Focus section of this issue of ArcUser magazine features articles by two experienced GIS managers. These veterans share with readers the strategies and insights that have helped them successfully grow GIS in their organizations.

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