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Lessons Learned in GIS Strategic Planning

Louisville, Ky (April 17, 2020) - While an organization can’t plan for everything, not planning for anything is a disservice to the organization and stakeholders.

Strong organizations—especially ones that use an ever-evolving technology such as GIS (geographic information systems, or location intelligence)—continually plan for future developments and updates to their current product offerings. Furthermore, strategic planning like this is essential to making sure a GIS department has a single vision, where products and innovation come together to produce a sustainable future. The strategic plan is the guide for moving forward, identifying goals, resources, and solutions. It provides measurements and targets, budgets and schedules, and helps manage risk associated with the plan and implementation.

Developing a GIS-specific strategic plan ensures that departmental and organization leadership are on the same page when it comes to identifying how GIS empowers internal staff, as well as clients and external stakeholders. When making a strategic plan for GIS, staff skills, other technologies, and internal and external processes and communication all need to be taken into consideration so they can be optimized. But current resources and staff skill levels shouldn’t restrict a strategy. Instead, improvements and desired outcomes should be built directly into the strategic plan. This demonstrates to senior leadership how the department will accomplish its goals.

Below are lessons learned from several years of developing GIS-specific strategic plans from Connected Nation’s GIS Services team.

Perform a Self-Assessment

The first step to preparing a GIS strategic plan is to conduct a self-assessment. Ask questions such as:

  • Where are we now?

  • Where do we want to be?

  • What resources are going to help us get there?

The purpose is to acknowledge weaknesses in the GIS department and around the organization and turn them into opportunities. It also allows for analysis on the return on investment (ROI) for the implementation of the plan or project—for instance, how much is the organization saving in staff hours by purchasing new software, or how much is saved by developing a product where users can find answers without requiring extra staff time? Staff considerations are also important to review as part of the plan, taking into account skills, training, hiring, and staff augmentation opportunities to achieve the goals.

Read, Read, Read

After completing the self-assessment, look for ideas about how to innovate, make enhancements to current product offerings, and become more efficient with GIS. Seeking out and reading articles, case studies, and Auwin19 Letter Banner 300x169professional newsletters about GIS is an excellent way to discover how others have tackled similar issues. How have other organizations transformed comparable challenges into solutions? Which solution trends are appearing in print more frequently, and how could they alleviate specific pain points? There are many resources available within the GIS industry and more broadly about spotting trends and determining if the organization will be an early adopter or wait for additional information on the innovation.

Incorporate the Organization’s Mission

All organizations—whether they are nonprofits, government agencies, or private firms—have an overarching foundation that connects what they do with how they do it and, most importantly, why they do it. Figure out why your organization exists and incorporate that mission into the GIS strategic plan. This is an effective way to ensure that, as the GIS department plans for innovation and sustainability, there’s collaboration across the organization—at the corporate, departmental, and individual levels—to establish meaningful goals and objectives.

If an organization doesn’t have a visible, deliberate vision that is widely understood by all staff, however, then the GIS strategic planning exercise can serve as a motivator to senior leadership to establish one.

Set Goals at Various Levels

Setting goals at multiple levels within the organization increases accountability and lets each staff member know how their contributions fit into a project, program, or core competency. It also provides an opportunity to address individual skill gaps and resource needs while contributing to overarching departmental and corporate objectives.

Here’s a sample list of hierarchical goals: set an individual goal to increase training in a specific area; set a departmental goal to migrate or upgrade an essential system or process; and set a corporate goal to release a new product that helps stakeholders make more informed decisions.

Some questions to consider when setting interconnected goals include:

  • What motivates the organization’s work?

  • Why do stakeholders seek out the organization’s products and expertise?

  • Which processes and products align with the organization’s vision?

  • Do planned innovations on the GIS team fit the organization’s present and future strategies?

Don't Innovate in a Vacuum

There is no need to take on the entire strategic planning process solo. Work with and seek feedback from all GIS staff, as well as non-GIS staff and senior leadership. To do this effectively, consider some of the following feedback questions:

  • Do staff outside the GIS department know everything that the team does and is capable of doing?

  • Which products do non-GIS staff and their clients or stakeholders use most?

  • How do staff members throughout the organization use GIS products?

  • What tools and functionality do non-GIS staff wish their GIS products had?

  • What frustrates non-GIS staff when they use current products?

  • What questions are people trying to answer when using GIS tools?

Pending initial feedback, it is also beneficial to have technical meetings with select clients and stakeholders who frequently use the GIS department’s products. It is ideal to keep the number of meeting attendees small, but do include project managers and main points of contact, in addition to one or two GIS staff members who work on a project in which these stakeholders are involved. This gives the stakeholders and internal staff an opportunity to feel more connected to the strategic plan and have a vested interest in its success.

Revisit and Reassess

Once the strategic plan is created, it shouldn’t just be printed out and forgotten until next year. It should be treated as a living document—one that the GIS department revisits often to ensure its goals are still attainable and relevant, as well as reassessing certain goals to determine if they should proceed or if a pivot to a different outcome or goal should be prioritized. Consider the strategic plan as a road map that provides short- and long-term objectives, forecasts the resources that will be needed, and improves accountability with the department.

Consistently revisiting and updating the plan also shows senior leadership that the continuous evolution of GIS—by frequently improving and enhancing GIS products—is vital to the organization’s success. This allows the GIS staff to identify current and potential risks and mitigate them before they become impediments to the organization’s success.

Empowering as Many People as Possible

Devising GIS innovations through strategic planning doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process each time. It may take time initially to ramp up strategic planning activities and create a process that works for the organizations, but the benefits to the culture of the organization are significant. Once the GIS manager establishes a cycle of research, planning, and feedback, the GIS department will be able to effectively Hitt Ashley 01 200x300collaborate with everyone in the organization to ensure the products and processes put in place directly contribute to the overarching vision and empower as many people—internally and externally—as possible.

About the Author: Ashley Hitt is the Director of GIS Services. She oversees the day-to-day operations of the GIS team. She’s responsible for developing strategies using GIS to provide data visualization solutions that impact policy, economic development, and the digital divide.