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What separates geospatial leaders from the rest

Leaders go beyond technology and focus on building an organization and culture that drive geospatial literacy. This invariably leads to outsized business results.

Canadian organizations leading the way with location intelligence didn't get there by accident. A new study from IDC Canada indicates that commitment to a set of 14 essential practices differentiates organizations that use geospatial data and analytics to compete and win. How are leaders different? What are the essential practices? And what can organizations do to join the leaders’ circle?

Let's review.

How leaders are different

Organizations are awash in data. With billions of connected devices and vast stores of historical data, businesses have unprecedented access to information about their customers, operations and the communities they serve.

Much of this data is geospatial, meaning it relates to somewhere on the planet. Geospatial data allows organizations to answer a unique set of questions. Questions like: where should we locate our next retail outlet to maximize sales? How should we re-route traffic during road construction to minimize bottlenecks? How do we use satellite imagery to quickly and accurately identify property damaged in a storm?

On its own, geospatial data is potent raw material. But like any raw material, the real value comes from what you produce with it. And in the case of geospatial data, what you create is insight – a deep understanding of your business that helps to solve problems in unique ways.

Organizations that are exceptional at deriving business insights from geospatial data arm themselves with a powerful competitive advantage. This ability is called location intelligence.

But like all abilities, location intelligence varies by organization. In particular, some are better than others at using it to drive business results. The key is understanding how organizations vary and what leading organizations do differently.

The study revealed that organizations generally fall into one of five categories of location intelligence proficiency. Proficiency, in this case, refers to how effective the organization is at driving business outcomes with location intelligence. Below are summaries of each of the levels.

Lagging: These organizations lack a geospatial strategy and are relatively underdeveloped in terms of advanced knowledge, processes and technology. Most indicate location intelligence as an important organizational capability but lack focus.

Developing: Developing organizations acknowledge the presence of an informal geospatial vision and strategy but admit it covers a sparse set of stakeholders. A few mature organizational practices may exist, often focused on foundational geospatial capabilities such as data management.

Emerging: Emerging organizations have a documented geospatial strategy spanning several business areas. Typically, these organizations have implemented a more flexible and adaptive technology architecture. Improved sustainment practices, such as better integration with IT support, often surface at this level.

Expanding: Expanding organizations have a well-developed geospatial strategy and are working to evolve their capabilities corporate-wide. These firms report greater maturity in organizational enablers such as professional development, cross-department data sharing, and governance oversight.

Advanced: These organizations are leaders with location intelligence. At this level, an organization-wide geospatial strategy ensures location intelligence informs decision-making at all levels. A culture of innovation, collaboration, and geospatial awareness permeates the organization.

Advanced organizations with focused geospatial strategies – among other differentiators – consistently outperformed other organizations in terms of improved business outcomes. These organizations reported (on average) an 18% improvement in business outcomes realized in the past two years – nearly double what many lagging organizations reported.

The nature of the business outcomes was also notably more strategic for Advanced organizations. These organizations indicated location intelligence was used to improve their brand and reputation, reduce service response times and even create societal benefits. This contrasts with less proficient organizations that focus more on cost and productivity improvements.

The findings were consistent across industry verticals; however, some industries are further ahead than others. The Energy and Municipal Government sectors, specifically, showed the largest proportion of Advanced and Expanding organizations. These industries are longstanding users of geospatial technology and have business operations that cover large geographic areas. Location is inherent to their business. Understandably, many of the leading organizations are found in these industries. However, leaders are present in all sectors, and those that are thriving have excelled at adapting geospatial capabilities to their unique business dynamics.

What leaders focus on for success

To better understand why geospatial leaders are successful, we need to understand what they do well. What are the common practices that these organizations excel at that correspond to better business outcomes?

Advanced organizations, it turns out, demonstrate a high degree of proficiency in 14 practice areas spanning five organizational domains. Each practice correlates significantly with improved business outcomes, indicating that these practices are "essential" to location intelligence success. Additionally, the practices correlate significantly with each other, indicating that these practices could be considered "keystone habits." This means they enable and reinforce other good habits. Below are summaries of the 14 practices across five pillars of location intelligence: Strategy, Technology & Data, Organization, Culture, and Literacy.


Geospatial leaders don't leave success to chance. They build carefully crafted strategies that determine how to leverage geospatial data, technology, and expertise to advance the organization's strategic objectives. These strategies go beyond one or two departments and cover the entire business.

Essential "strategy" practices of leading organizations include:

  • Measuring and tracking business outcomes: Rigorous and quantitative methods to track and monitor the business outcomes of their geospatial initiatives and investments

  • Strategic alignment: Close alignment between the geospatial strategy, IT strategy and business strategy

  • Stakeholder support: Broad support from relevant business stakeholders; a relentless focus on understanding stakeholders’ business needs

  • Leadership commitment: Active engagement and support of senior management for geospatial initiatives

Technology & Data

The best organizations build technical foundations based on scalable and flexible geospatial platforms and accessible and easily shareable data. These organizations recognize that data is the heart of location intelligence. To that end, they implement tools and methods that maximize their people's ability to extract business insights.

Essential "technology & data" practices of leading organizations include:

  • Scalability and flexibility: Cloud-based and "as-a-service" platforms that allow for easy scaling and rapid deployment of new applications

  • Access and sharing: Rigorous data quality processes and standards; clearly defined access controls enforced through mature policies and process documentation; sharing enabled through data portals supporting geospatial data


Beyond technology and data, leaders recognize that talented people and robust processes are what drive sustained success. A commitment to not only hiring great people but developing their talents according to demands of the business is key to the people side of geospatial excellence. Additionally, leaders build capacity to ensure high-functioning day-to-day operations, as well as longer-term governance oversight.

Essential "organization" practices of leading organizations include:

  • Professional development: Clear skills development targets and funded training and development opportunities

  • Governance framework: A distinct geospatial governance framework focused on effective policies and standards as opposed to a central bureaucracy; decision-making authority favors the most knowledgeable

  • Integrated support and project delivery: Strong integration of geospatial system support with overall IT support function; robust project delivery methodology with project performance actively monitored and measured


Location intelligence is more than the sum of individual members' skills and expertise. The attitudes and mindsets of an organization and how it encourages innovation and collaboration dramatically impacts the adoption of geospatial capabilities. Organizations with innovative and collaborative cultures tend to realize better business results from their geospatial investments. These organizations also tend to promote geospatial initiatives and capabilities more directly, and as an organization are more aware of new trends than lagging organizations.

Essential "culture" practices of leading organizations include:

  • Innovation: Innovation is a top priority of senior management and supported by dedicated funding

  • Collaboration: Close collaboration across a broad range of stakeholders

  • Promotion and awareness: Initiatives and success stories broadly promoted and celebrated; dedicated staff proactively engage with business stakeholders to raise awareness of geospatial and surface new opportunities


What makes an organization location intelligent ultimately comes down to utilization. It isn't just about having a documented strategy, high-tech software and experts on staff. Being smart requires people to adopt and use geospatial tools and know-how to draw insights from data and solve real business problems. The more broadly and more creatively these capabilities are applied, the better. Leading organizations are good at leveraging geospatial capabilities in many ways and applying it across many business functions. The breadth and diversity of their geospatial capabilities is key to their success. These organizations are highly literate in terms of the application of geospatial capabilities to their business.

Essential "literacy" practices of leading organizations include:

  • Patterns of use: Broad adoption of geospatial technology, including traditional use cases such as mapping and data management, and advanced use cases such as location analytics, real-time monitoring, and stakeholder engagement

  • Business capabilities: Support a wide range of traditional and non-traditional business functions (i.e., not limited to a few conventional user communities)

How to join the leaders’ circle

As you scanned this article, you probably thought about where your organization lands in terms of location intelligence proficiency. And you might be wondering: how can we join the leaders’ circle?

The first step is to run a comparative diagnostic. How does your organization compare to the geospatial leaders in your industry? What are your strengths and weaknesses in terms of the essential practices identified in the study? What improvements do you need to close the gap? The answers to these questions will help you focus your efforts and take actions that benefit your bottom line.

Beyond that, consider your major challenges. The IDC study indicated that for lagging organizations, difficult technology implementation, lack of business integration and a lack of geospatial skills are among the primary barriers to success. Work to overcome these by developing a focused geospatial strategy. Some of these are complex and all are inter-related. Addressing them requires an approach that focuses closely on the integration of people, process and technology.

Remember, leadership is a journey. But those that make the leap, reap the rewards. Be honest about your organization's level of location intelligence and work to address the gaps. By honing in on what leaders do well and adapting these practices to your organization, you can put your business on top.

For further reading, check out our e-book Geospatial Strategy Essentials for Managers.

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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