Patterns of Resistance to Technological Change and How to Transcend Them

Having worked in GIS since the early 1990s, I have grown up alongside the increased popularization of geospatial technology. Retrospectively, I can see that in spite of the extensive evolution this field has undergone, certain patterns of resistance to technological change persist. Why?

Despite GIS becoming more ubiquitous and familiar, like other evolving technologies, it has also gotten more complex. For those who are not technologists, this complexity can be intimidating—and they tend to react accordingly.

After several decades of implementing, supporting, and leading geospatial technology implementations at all sorts of organizations, I have seen six distinct patterns of resistance emerge consistently. Let’s explore them and see what we can do about them.

The Fear Factor

When people first encounter geospatial technology, they often think, “This is beyond me.” They then avoid GIS or push back if they’re asked to use it. But is GIS the threat, or does the threat revolve around the fact that it is new or different? Likely, it’s the latter.

This fear-based reaction is fairly common. People are afraid that they won’t be able to understand or use the new technology. They worry that, if they fail, they will expose their lack of knowledge or, worse, become irrelevant at work and lose their jobs. So they balk at, avoid, or altogether reject this new information product.

Those who dismiss GIS as being too complicated may also react by guarding their turf. This can further frustrate the implementation process.

What’s the solution, then? Engage with these people early in the change process. Start with relatable concepts, and build clear examples that are meaningful to them. Help them learn by taking time at the outset to empower them to succeed with GIS.


A GIS implementation can be disruptive. Phrases such as, “We’ve always done it this way,” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” pop up a lot. Uncoordinated, confusing, or conflicting communication can impede GIS adoption.

So how can an organization avoid this? By coming up with a well-orchestrated communication plan that leaves time for people to adjust to the new technology and contains built-in messaging that focuses on the value of the people who will be affected by it. Engage stakeholders early, and make any and all communication simple. Drastic change, especially, requires lengthier notice and robust internal marketing.

Enlist existing GIS users to help lead the change across the organization as well. Have them mentor new users, fostering shared ownership of the technology. Building a community and encouraging continual collaboration among its members are critical to successful GIS implementations.

Misunderstanding GIS

Simply trying to answer the question, What is GIS? is tricky. Just search that online. Explanations move into complex information technology concepts pretty quickly.

ArcGIS StoryMaps apps are useful for this, since they show off GIS and how maps can be used to tell stories or illustrate concepts. Dashboards that integrate maps and other media are also helpful for demonstrating how GIS works in less obvious ways. Just be sure to explain how GIS makes these kinds of visualizations possible.

Metadata (or the Lack Thereof)

In GIS, it’s important to know the details about the data—i.e., metadata. Yet it’s common to see cryptic attribute headers, undefined units of measurement, and no details about scale. Too often, people neglect metadata in their published geospatial layers, but this makes the data less trustworthy.

Completing metadata is not the fun part of GIS, but it’s critical for data integrity. With open data in particular, consumers need to know the pedigree and quality of the data, how to best use it, any constraints on its use, and other data facts.

Like the nutrition data found on packaged food products, it’s important to show data’s ingredients and how fresh it is. Geodetic information is critically important. How typical is it to come across data that hasn’t been properly spatially referenced?

GIS professionals need to evangelize data quality by posting metadata when they publish their own data. Additionally, GIS leaders need to implement clear data integrity and technology standards and engage with people throughout the organization to spread awareness about the hazards of poor geospatial data quality.

Disconnects with Users

As geospatial data processing, analysis, and visualization evolve, many attractive software interfaces continue to emerge. But some of these are complicated to operate, expensive to maintain, and poorly documented. Too many go untested, causing users to get frustrated and ditch the tools.

In implementing geospatial technology for the first time or at a larger scale, organizations need to focus on users’ needs ahead of the software itself. Think first of the business problem users need to solve and then create a checklist to screen software candidates. The winner should answer the question, What are we trying to achieve? This will help GIS practitioners and managers facilitate the best interfaces and the right data inputs to help users gain insight rather than get frustrated.

Poor Human Response to Structure

Some people detest process-driven workflows. This occurs because of several reasons: distraction; boredom; and lack of supervision, discipline, or incentives for follow-through. These points of failure can decrease the overall value of solutions. But those who operate within a GIS framework need to be reliable and willing to stick with it, even when they are bored with routine.

For example, parcel management requires steady adherence to process-driven workflows. Many people and organizations, from taxpayers to tax authorities, depend on this critical information. If parcel managers don’t follow specific processes, errors are more likely to crop up, and that can be costly to all stakeholders.

Organizations can build into structured workflows, checkpoints for monitoring data quality metrics to enable leaders and supervisors to evaluate the effectiveness of workflows and the integrity of data over time.

Opportunities for Positive Change

These six patterns of resistance to adopting geospatial technology can present organizations with difficult challenges. But they also engender opportunities for positive change. Awareness is the first step.

It is important to set goals and collaborate closely with stakeholders. Be a partner first and a geospatial services manager second, exerting the strong customer engagement skills required to build community and keep people interested in using geospatial apps with their data. Empower people to employ the technology to solve their problems and gain the deeper insight that only the spatial dimension provides. Encourage people to consider the inherent value that geospatial tools and data bring to solving location-based problems. Help people learn how to use the technology to meet their needs and grow within it. Listen and be a trusted adviser.

Through good leadership and strong partnerships, we can learn from one another, whether in our own geospatial communities or from the spectrum of geospatial practitioners across verticals and around the world.

About the author

Ellen West Nodwell

Ellen West Nodwell, GISP, leads IntegraShare Dimensions, Inc., a GIS services company. She grew up in a family of mappers and came to GIS after doing manual analysis and mapping for more than 15 years. Nodwell has supported GIS users, administered GIS data, and managed a global GIS group. She became a GIS consultant in 2013 and founded IntegraShare Dimensions in 2016. Nodwell is engaged in several georiented nonprofit efforts as well.