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October - December 2006
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Getting to We
By Christopher Thomas, Esri Government Solutions Manager

The ultimate dream of almost every GIS manager I have ever spoken with revolves around the notion of developing an organization-wide or enterprise GIS program. Throughout my career, I have always enjoyed following the progress of the GIS managers I have met. I like to see how they are doing and what steps they are taking to reach their goals.

What drives most GIS managers is a passionate belief that GIS can have a positive effect on their agencies and the citizens they serve. Reaching the goal of an enterprise-wide GIS can be difficult to achieve as the definition of enterprise-wide constantly changes. From a technical perspective, a GIS manager who began her career 10 or 20 years ago would not have dreamed of the opportunities that now exist to extend GIS via mobile devices and the Internet.

Experience has taught me that, although implementing the latest trends in GIS technology is important, engaging staff members throughout an organization in the GIS development process is at least as important. The question I would pose to all up-and-coming GIS professionals is "Is it more important to focus on reaching the technical goals related to developing an enterprise GIS or establish a feeling of shared ownership of the enterprise GIS among the people in the organization who help create it."

I would argue the latter is more essential. Successfully developing an enterprise GIS will elude those who fail to credit everyone involved in the system's success. All participants need to recognize that their roles are vital and have their contributions properly acknowledged. The following observations, taken from my experience as a manager, illuminate this argument.

In the early days of my career as a GIS manager, our department head came by to talk with the GIS staff about working on a project. In part, he wanted the staff to work on the project as part of his plan to heighten the GIS department's visibility with the city manager and council.

His desire to interact with the GIS staff was sincere and he suggested approaches we could use. During the discussion, he referenced a project that had been recently completed and inquired, "Couldn't we run this project like the one we worked on for planning?"

One of my best GIS analysts, who harbored some disdain for this department head, glared at him and said, "What, do we have a mouse in our pocket?" Of course, he was referring to the department head's limited hands-on involvement in the previous project. This comment generated tension you could have cut with a knife.

Watching this and other similar exchanges taught me a valuable lesson in dealing with coworkers. If you have disdain for your manager, keep it to yourself. When you offend an individual in power—a person who can help further your efforts—you are only hurting yourself. The GIS analyst's confrontational reaction in this situation was misguided. It is important to foster a sense of ownership among everyone involved in a GIS program, regardless of their level of involvement. While the department head's role was not a hands-on one, he was instrumental in helping the GIS department gain exposure with the executive management. This exposure helped build the GIS budget and staffing support.

Creating an inclusive environment among the departments that the GIS staff works hard to support is important, too. To make sure these individuals understood their importance, I explained how their input and participation would lead to a superior product—a product they would more than likely use. All of our successful projects involved engaging the departments we supported.

Borrowing from these lessons, I regularly developed staff reports, articles, or presentations for trade shows based on the GIS programs I had worked on with other departments. Though GIS was the primary focus, the heroes of the stories were members of the departments GIS technology supported.

Evidence that what you are doing is working often comes at unexpected moments. The GIS program I was a part of regularly hosted visits from members of other governments from around the world. I would proudly take the visitors around to various departments and show examples of our products, usually deferring to the staff of the department we were visiting and allowing them to explain their work. I would, of course, beam as these individuals recounted their roles in the GIS and the support the GIS afforded them in their work.

I recall escorting an individual who was unusually skeptical about the GIS program he had come to see. As we moved through the various departments, he attempted to trip up the individuals we spoke with as if he wanted to prove that the jurisdiction I worked for had not moved toward a true enterprise GIS.

The departments did a wonderful job of explaining the work we performed and how we interacted with the GIS. While I had escorted dozens of visitors, I picked up on something I had never recognized before: every individual in the organization used the term we when they described their work as it related to the GIS.

As this previously skeptical visitor's tour came to an end, he complimented us on the GIS program we had developed. In that moment, I realized that reaching the goal of establishing a robust enterprise GIS revolved around one simple goal—getting to we!

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