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Is your geospatial strategy aligned with the rest of your business?

I'm frequently asked about the relationship between a geospatial strategy and the many other strategies that exist in most organizations. The question usually relates to alignment and how to ensure the goals of your geospatial program and the systems you implement sync with the plans and priorities of other organizational functions. How do you advance your geospatial agenda while maintaining reasonable consistency with the rest of the business?

A simple test you can perform is to evaluate the design and desired outcomes of your geospatial strategy against the defining elements of other strategies. The idea is to see if your geospatial strategy is generally aligned or if you're setting yourself up for an unfortunate collision. Below I've compiled a table to help with the process.

The Best Geospatial Strategies Are the Best Aligned

An effective geospatial strategy syncs with strategies developed at other levels in the organization

Strategy Type

How Aligned Is Your Geospatial Strategy?

✔️ Aligned

Not aligned

Organization Strategy

Defines the vision, competitive position and strategic priorities of the organization

The chosen mix of geospatial technology, services, processes and expertise forms a cohesive capability that reinforces the organization’s strategy

The geospatial strategy fails to support major strategic priorities or is disconnected from the organization’s overall vision

IT Strategy

Defines the information-based technology, data services and human resources deployed by an organization to support and enable the overall strategy

Geospatial technology investments integrate with the broader IT environment and respect the principles and standards set forth by the IT strategy

Geospatial technology decisions conflict with established IT standards and principles leading to integration risks and increased maintenance burden

Business Unit Strategy

Defines the scope and competitive approach for a specific department or line of business. Ideally aligns with and aggregates up to the organization strategy level

Geospatial systems implemented at the business unit level support the business unit’s needs, but respect broader platform and capability decisions made at the organization and IT level for the purpose of scale benefits, knowledge sharing and effective governance

The geospatial strategy fails to support specific business unit priorities or fails to align with organization-wide geospatial principles and systems without sufficient business justification

Data Strategy

Defines the scope and approach to collecting, storing, managing, using and sharing an organization’s information assets

Practices for handling geospatial records, imagery and maps respect principles defined under the organization’s overall data strategy

The geospatial strategy introduces practices or standards for geospatial data handling that conflict with defining tenets of the corporate data strategy

Analytics Strategy

Defines the scope and approach to deriving business insights from an organization’s information assets to support better decision making

Geospatial context is brought to bear on the full spectrum of descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive analytics questions posed by the organization

The geospatial strategy fails to create adequate data or systems functionality to deliver the geospatial context required of key analytics workflows

Digital Transformation Strategy

Defines the approach to digitalizing an organization’s products and services, customer experience and core operations

Digital products, services and experiences introduced through the transformation strategy are enhanced through geospatial context and intelligence

The geospatial strategy fails to integrate with the organization’s key digital initiatives resulting in digital innovations that miss out on the value of spatial awareness

Workforce Strategy

Defines how an organization attracts, recruits, integrates and retains people with the right mix of skills and competencies to deliver on an organization’s mission and strategy

Gaps in geospatial literacy and skills requirements are identified and an approach to sourcing and developing geospatial talent is integrated with the overall workforce strategy

The geospatial strategy fails to establish specific recruiting, staffing and professional development practices needed to address geospatial literacy gaps

The table describes a set of common enterprise strategies. They range from the very top-level organization strategy to functional or departmental strategies. Most organizations will have some, if not all, of these strategies planned or in flight at a given time. The trick is to design your geospatial strategy so that the critical decisions and actions that define your strategy gracefully intersect and integrate with these other strategies.

Keep in mind you're not striving for 100% perfect alignment here. While I present two options—aligned or not aligned—the reality is that alignment exists along a spectrum. Your goal should be to optimize the degree of alignment by targeting a level that respects the core principles of the other strategies while advancing your overall geospatial vision. This is a balancing act where advancing your organization's overall mission should be the focus.

Organization strategy. Your organization strategy is your topmost strategy. It's the defining "where-to-play/how-to-win" proposition for your entire business. 

The purpose of every subordinate strategy, including a geospatial strategy, is to support and reinforce your organization's overall strategy. That means the systems and capabilities established under your geospatial strategy should conspire to help your organization compete and, ideally, win in its chosen markets. 

How? Well, the core value proposition of geospatial technology is that it provides location-specific insights—that is, it answers questions relating to spatial variation. Questions like: in what regions are products selling the most? Why in one region versus another? How could this change in the future, given shifting consumer preferences in different regions? How should we tailor our marketing efforts to account for these changes? 

A well-aligned geospatial strategy focuses on building systems and capabilities that help to answer these questions. That includes relevant maps and information products, data acquisition processes, user-facing applications, user and analyst training programs, technology infrastructure and management processes needed to sustain the capability for the long term.

IT strategy. Geospatial technology is, by definition, an information technology. It refers to the collective set of technologies that acquire, store, process, analyze and visualize geographic information. That means your geospatial strategy, as an inherently information-based strategy, will be strongly influenced by your organization's IT strategy, which defines the overall complement of technologies, services and human resources required to deliver on the business strategy. 

Ideally, your geospatial strategy extends the IT strategy by defining technologies and processes specific to the geospatial discipline. To align, these technologies and processes should integrate well with the broader IT environment and respect established IT governance controls. That includes data security and privacy standards, cloud deployment practices and buy v. build principles. If you stray too far from these principles, you'll likely experience pushback from your CIO and be forced to produce a strong exception case.

Business unit strategy. Most likely, your organization is divided into several departments or functions—we'll call these business units. Often each business unit has its own strategy that (hopefully) cascades from the top-level organization strategy. The idea is that each business unit serves to advance the overall business strategy through a set of department-specific tactics and initiatives.

These tactics and initiatives often involve implementing a set of department-specific systems—some of them geospatial. From the business unit's perspective, if they use these systems to advance their strategy, they have alignment. However, if we cast up to the whole-of-organization level, we can see that optimizing locally like this can result in global inefficiencies. Decisions made at the business unit level without consideration for decisions or investments made at the organization level can lead to functional silos characterized by redundancies and duplication of effort in everything from system functionality to data management processes to support roles. It can hinder knowledge sharing between business units and exacerbate your organization's technical debt, where numerous siloed systems become increasingly more expensive to maintain over time.

A well-aligned geospatial strategy takes great pains to balance the needs of individual business units with the direction and constraints established at the whole-of-organization and related IT strategy levels.

Data strategy. A data strategy is another common strategy found in modern organizations, especially those that recognize data as a core business asset. Most often, you'll see a data strategy focus on data handling, particularly the practices associated with collecting, storing, managing, using and sharing corporate data. This is referred to as a defence-oriented data strategy (I'll talk about the other type of data strategy—the offence-oriented strategy—in the next section on Analytics strategy).

Your geospatial strategy should focus on refining these practices in a way that respects the general data lifecycle principles but defines rules and standards unique to handling geospatial data. This can include imagery acquisition practices, field data collection tools, data models and schemas for foundational data layers, and attribute-level data access standards. At the same time, core data standards or policies regarding records retention, data privacy and data dissemination should be adhered to as closely as possible by default. These areas are usually tightly governed, and only rare exceptions will be accommodated.

The geospatial strategy implements geospatial-specific data science technologies and learning models that support descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive data analysis.

Analytics strategy. The complement to a data handling strategy is an analytics strategy which focuses on implementing data science technologies and models to enhance business decision making.

On the whole, geospatial technology is an analytics technology—it's simply the extension of data-driven analysis into the geographic realm. That means that to align your geospatial strategy with the goals of your analytics strategy, you need to implement geospatial tools and capabilities that bring the necessary geospatial context to any analytics question that needs it. Often this becomes a battle over tools. The analytics program wants to use its tools for analysis, while the geospatial team wants everyone to use theirs. Assuming the insights derived are the same, this is more a matter of philosophy and preference than anything. The key is whether you're accessing a common, authoritative data source. If not, a priority of your geospatial strategy should be to create a shared data source for spatial analysis purposes that's accessible by multiple systems.

Digital transformation strategy. A goal for many organizations is to leverage digital technology to not only improve how they do business, but to fundamentally transform how the organization runs, engages customers and delivers its products and services.

For your geospatial strategy to align, you need to bring the unique capabilities of geospatial technology to bear on these transformation efforts. That means connecting new digital workflows and experiences to geospatial data, analysis and visualizations. For example, imagine a utility company in the process of transforming the customer experience by delivering personalized mobile updates in the event of a power outage. The location of a customer's impacted properties is imperative to showing where the outage has occurred, affected areas, restored areas and even estimated restore time. This is where geospatial data and technology's unique value help drive the transformation effort. Your goal in aligning your geospatial strategy is to identify where geospatial technology can add value and build the capabilities necessary to deliver it.

In practice, you often see organizations tackle digital transformation through the creation of digital innovation programs. These are incubators for the research and development of new digital experiences. Programs like these can be an excellent vehicle for ensuring better geospatial integration. Work with these program owners to incorporate geospatial analysis and capabilities into the design and proof of concept process. That way, geospatial thinking will be front and centre during digital ideation as opposed to an afterthought.

Workforce strategy. A workforce strategy aims to ensure that people with the right skills and competencies are staffed and developed through an ongoing set of human resource and professional development practices and programs. Resourcing and developing geospatial talent is no different. The goal for your geospatial strategy should be to identify gaps in geospatial literacy across the staff complement in your organization and then work to address them within the bounds of the programs.

To align your geospatial strategy, look at your organization's programs related to recruiting, skills training, professional development, job shadowing, succession planning and performance management. Likely your organization already has some of these practices in place, so leverage them as best you can rather than duplicate effort.

As you consider strategic alignment, keep in mind that it's not about achieving flawless consistency. In fact, it isn't necessarily realistic in many cases—especially when considering the number and breadth of strategies in flight in your organization. What's important is that you spend deliberate time reviewing your geospatial strategy for alignment and identifying where you might have significant disconnects. Work to alleviate these issues—within the confines of your geospatial strategy or potentially within the confines of the strategy it conflicts with—and adjust in favour of supporting your organization's long-term purpose.

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This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

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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