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Spring 2008
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A Stragetic Approach to a New Organization
How to hit the ground running in your new position

During the first hours of my new job as the GIS manager at the Mid-America Regional Council, I cleared the crumbs from my predecessor's keyboard, pulled old sticky notes from the monitor, rifled through existing folders for useful information, and made the ritualistic first trip to the supply closet. It was straightforward to this point, the keywords being to this point. I had to decide what to do next, and it was not going to be long before the phone started ringing.

I experienced successes and failures during my first months as a GIS manager. (I'd like to think the successes outweighed the failures.) I initially used a by-the-book approach, quickly realizing that classic approaches to GIS planning fit nicely when starting from scratch, but not so well when coming into an organization where GIS already exists. With this in mind, and in the spirit of not letting hindsight go wasted, I've extrapolated some lessons learned into tips for new GIS managers. The overriding goal of these tips is to understand the current state of your organization's GIS so you can set priorities based on logic rather than developing strategy on the fly.

Meet Your Staff

Your staff is your first priority. Review their job descriptions and meet with them individually to discuss current responsibilities, projects, and training needs as well as to begin developing a rapport with them. It's also a good idea to start scheduling regular staff meetings to foster an ongoing dialog.

Plug In to the Organization

You need to find out how GIS is used throughout the organization. Meet with department heads to find out how GIS assists their missions. Let them do the talking and avoid making promises. Ask who the primary GIS contacts are and follow up with them to determine their workflows and GIS projects.

Get Familiar with Current Projects and Workflows

Create a list of the GIS projects and workflows you've learned about. For each entry on the list, identify who it serves, who's working on it, its start and finish dates if it's not a daily workflow, the datasets it uses, and the products it produces.

Then, let those who gave you the information for the list review it for accuracy. After that, maybe with a cup of coffee, read it over to get a good overview of how GIS is used in the organization, projects with priority status, and stagnating projects.

Create a Data Inventory

Make an inventory of your GIS data. Record each dataset including the projects and workflows it's used within. Sort the list of datasets by number of uses. It's hardly scientific, but sorted this way, you'll get a quick glimpse of how the data is used.

If your organization already has a data inventory, compare it to your list and look for gaps. If it doesn't, document the following relative to each dataset: file name and location; source; date of last update; whether it's updated in-house, out-of-house, or not at all; who is responsible for it; and its projection and coordinate system.

All of this seems like a lot of work, and it is! Remember, as the GIS manager you are ultimately responsible for the condition of the GIS data, so it makes good sense to get familiar with it.

Audit Your Software Licenses

The previous tips help you get ahold of how GIS is used within your organization on a daily basis, which puts you in a good position to assess its GIS software. My initial questions were, What software licenses do we have? Where are they installed? Are we using a stand-alone or concurrent model? and, Where are the installation disks?

Finding out how many licenses you have is really no trick—just call your vendor and ask for a summary. The tricky parts are assessing the supply and demand of software, then creating the proper balance. There's no single solution for this, but getting a good grasp of the number of users and the types of GIS projects and workflows will go a long way to helping you determine how to balance software licenses.

Finally, be sure you find out the status of your software maintenance so you don't get caught off guard with an unexpected maintenance invoice.

Review the IT Structure

A successful GIS requires a solid IT infrastructure. If you're like me and have a strong GIS background with a weaker IT side, look to your IT staff to help you understand your organization's network configuration.

Start with the basics. Find out how many servers your organization has and which ones are handling GIS data and/or software. Document the basic hardware specifications of each server along with its operating system. Determine the storage model used such as a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) or storage area network (SAN) and the backup mechanisms that are in place.

Shoot for the big picture. If it's not already available, create a diagram of the system. If you don't understand some aspect of the system, ask for clarification—that's how you'll learn. Doing all the above will go a long way to reducing the chance you'll encounter unforeseen expenses related to technology upgrades when planning new applications. It will also make it easier to purchase server software, which may require answering mysterious questions about sockets and CPU counts.

Learn the Budgeting Process

As a GIS manager, you play an important role in securing money for your department and spending it wisely. Determine the budget cycle, what's left in the current budget, and when the next budget is due. Clarify your role in the budgeting process early on. Do you provide the numbers to your boss for approval, or do you maintain your own budget?

Most importantly, don't let the budget take you by surprise. Having your boss come into your office explaining that the budget is due in a week will only leave you scrambling for ways to spend money, which will ultimately lead to waste. Instead put yourself ahead of the budget cycle so your figures are based on sound judgment and need.

Connect the Dots

If you've followed these steps, you've done a lot of work and will be rewarded with a thorough understanding of your GIS. Now connect the dots to see the big picture. Look for obvious connections, possible reprioritizations, and answers to key questions. Do certain workflows feed into several projects? Are some data layers high priorities based on usage or critical missions? Do you have staffing shortages or glaring training needs? Answering these kinds of questions will help you better manage your GIS and plan for the future.

Report Your Findings

Don't keep your lessons learned and new insights to yourself. Report your findings back to the organization's department heads and any other stakeholders.

Don't sugarcoat your findings. Deliver a realistic summary using understandable terms. In executive summary form, explain the state of the GIS including how it's being used to support departmental goals, who the users are, the data it's producing, the workflows it assists, and the annual costs to support it. Also cover the challenges you see ahead, those projects you've identified as stagnant, and any gaps that need to be filled (whether monetary, staffing, data, or technology based) to make the GIS successful. This effort will help you educate decision makers about the value of GIS and garner support for your work.

For more information, contact Brian Parr at bparr@marc.org.

About the Author

Brian Parr is the GIS manager for the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). MARC serves as the association of city and county governments and the metropolitan planning organization for the bistate Kansas City region.

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