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The rise of GIS as a business capability

Business capabilities are the building blocks of an organization. They represent a business’ most important abilities and are the key link between strategy and results. For many organizations, GIS (and geographic science) is a critical business capability, but is often regarded as a supporting, background technology. A change of mindset is needed.

It’s generally understood that organizations succeed primarily on their ability to build and manage effective business capabilities. A 2013 study by The Economist found that 61% of senior executives acknowledge that their firms struggle to implement strategy, and that the failure to build the needed capabilities was a prime culprit. In fact, organizations have been so bad at building capabilities that the odds of a strategic initiative succeeding are about as good as a coin flip.

For the unacquainted, a business capability is a collective ability to do something well and achieve specific outcomes. Capabilities represent the things an organization must be able to do to fulfill its mission. They are the functional “what” of an organization.

In essence, capabilities are organizational building blocks that embody the business’ most important activities. They are the key link between the vision described in a strategy and the results desired through its execution. When capabilities are strong, strategies thrive. When capabilities are weak or missing, strategies invariably fail.

In practice, capabilities are a combination of competencies, processes, tools and governance. The combination here is key. It’s one thing to have good people and great technology, but another to manage in a way that drives sustained value. Capabilities are the intersection of skills and knowledge, applications and data, workflows and activities, and control and oversight.

Of course, not all capabilities are created equal.

Some represent truly strategic capabilities; meaning they provide a source of sustainable advantage. Others represent core or foundational capabilities which are essentially baseline abilities. Either way, strong organizations build strong capabilities at all levels.

Example: city government

Consider the example of a city government pursuing a smart city strategy. Council has recognized the need for greater transparency and sees open data as a strategic priority. The city has identified some initial datasets, developed an open data site and published the data for all to see.

Looks good. But is that where it ends?

How and when should this data be updated (processes)? Do residents have self-service tools to search, map and analyze the data (tools)? Do staff have the requisite knowledge to respond to enquiries about discrepancies uncovered in the data (competencies)? What determines if the open data initiative is successful or not (governance)?

From this perspective, open data is a business capability. It needs appropriate attention.

GIS as a capability

For a lot of organizations, GIS or geographic science is an important capability. But in many cases, it’s not managed this way.

Even though GIS is the source of authoritative enterprise mapping, the platform for real-time operational awareness and a critical communication hub, it’s still often regarded as a tool. And as a tool, it is something that can be squeezed for budget and resources. With a pen stroke, a vital capability can be marginalized.

The drive to digital business is changing all of that. Digital is transforming how organizations deliver their products and services and how they run their businesses. More and more businesses are going real time, becoming data-driven and getting “smart”

And at the heart of this revolution is information. Specifically, geospatial information. Lots of it.

Most of what concerns an organization has a geographic context. Products are shipped to addresses, power outages impact specific road corridors and crime affects certain neighbourhoods. This means an organization’s most important decisions can be mapped, analyzed for spatial relationships and communicated to those affected.

This new world has thrust GIS to the forefront. More is expected from the technology and those who work with it. To deliver on the promise of digital, organizations need to ingrain geospatial in their DNA.

Let’s return to the city government example. To support their smart city initiatives, council recognized the need to incorporate GIS more directly and broadly into its services and operations. A capability needed to be built.

Council prioritized development of skills in the GIS data sciences and partnerships with educational institutions were cultivated to nurture the next wave of talent (competencies). The existing GIS environment was migrated to a Web GIS platform and the new environment was integrated with enterprise asset management and ERP systems to enable GIS in the office, field and community (tools). An agile-based project delivery methodology was adopted to promote rapid delivery of new solutions to users (processes); processes were developed to expedite sourcing and prioritization of funds for GIS initiatives and a formal committee structure was implemented for oversight (governance). The city had focused on developing a capability that better supported a more geospatially-driven organization.

Building a GIS capability

Building a GIS capability is not a one-time or one-step exercise. Like any transformation, it’s a process of continuous improvement.  However, a capability-building initiative should consider at least five key practices.

  1. Determine the capabilities required. The first step is to identify the GIS capabilities that underpin the organization’s business strategy. This means reviewing priority business initiatives and core operations and determining the subset of capabilities needed. For some organizations, a GIS capability oriented around enterprise mapping might suffice. For others, a more diverse set of capabilities is required, including real-time, geospatial analytics and remote, field-based decision support.
  2. Identify common and unique capabilities. For most organizations, GIS needs will differ by department or function. However, there are often capabilities that are common or shared. It’s important to identify the common versus unique capabilities and build appropriately. For instance, in our city government example the majority of departments might have common needs when it comes to enterprise mapping, thus building a shared enterprise mapping centre might be appropriate.  On the other hand, the geoanalytics needs might be considerably different among departments. Consider law enforcement and economic development, for example. The tools, processes and skills required are different for analyzing crime patterns versus identifying investment incentive zones.
  3. Design comprehensive capabilities. This means addressing the four core elements of capabilities – competencies, processes, tools and governance. This should be done individually for each capability and collectively for all capabilities. The collective view is especially important when considering governance since many of the activities, KPIs and standards are common to all capabilities.
  4. Measure for performance. To be effective, the performance of capabilities must be measurable. In fact, a strong sign that they’ve been defined appropriately is that business performance can be articulated clearly. A performance measure for a mobile field capability, for example, could be expressed as “the percentage of field operations supported through mobile GIS solutions”. 
  5. Continuously improve. Capability building is never complete. It’s about constantly monitoring and refining the mix of skills, tech, process and governance. As it evolves, an organization might require additional skills, different KPIs or different tools. The point is to continue evolve your GIS in a way that aligns with your organization’s strategy.

GIS has a major role to play in the modern business world. As a platform and a science that distills complex information into the common context of geography, GIS is at the heart of the digital revolution. To realize its full potential, organizations must take purposeful steps toward building their GIS capability.

About the Author

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Strategic Advisory Services for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on helping management teams optimize and transform their business through GIS and location-based strategies. As a seasoned consultant, Matthew has provided organizations in the public and private sectors with practical strategies that enable GIS as an enterprise business capability. At the intersection of business and technology is where Matthew’s interests lie, and he thrives on helping organizations bridge the gap to achieve their most challenging GIS ambitions.

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