Five steps to a better geospatial strategy

So your business needs a geospatial strategy. And you’ve been put in charge. Now what?

If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Crafting a strategy isn’t something most people do every day. It’s especially true in the geospatial business where we tend to stick to our comfort zones and focus on the latest technology.

The good news is that developing a strategy doesn’t have to be complicated. You just need to focus on what matters: understanding your business, defining success and making the right choices.

If you lack experience with strategic planning—or want a way to hone your thinking—here’s an approach that boils it down to its essence.

What is a strategy?

Before we review the approach, let’s clarify what a strategy is and what it isn’t.

A strategy, any strategy, represents your “theory of success”. It’s a conceptual model of how to achieve a desired outcome. It’s a solution to a set of problems and an explanation of how to overcome them. An effective strategy creates opportunities.

A strategy is not a vision. A vision represents your destination. A strategy is the integrated set of choices that define how you achieve the vision.

A strategy is not a plan. A plan is required to execute the strategy but is not the strategy itself. That’s why a “strategic plan” has two inter-related but distinct components: the strategy and the plan.

What is a geospatial strategy?

A geospatial strategy is a theory of success like any other strategy. But what it creates is unique.

The product of a geospatial strategy is a location intelligence capability. Location intelligence is the ability to derive business insights from geospatial information. 

At the organizational level, location intelligence is a composite of the collective knowledge and expertise and enabling technology, data, business processes and cultural norms. Organizations with well-developed location intelligence abilities are effective at turning technical know-how into desired business outcomes.

A geospatial strategy enables the business through the location intelligence capability it creates. That means creating the right location intelligence capability is the trick. Deciding what you will focus on and why is the art of strategy.

The steps that follow focus on this approach. 

(Please note: I use the term “geospatial strategy” in this article as a catch-all term for strategies focused on the application of geospatial technology and capabilities. In practice, this type of strategy might be referred to as a location intelligence strategy or a location strategy. I treat these synonymously.)

The key steps for building a geospatial strategy are to map the business needs, define success, configure the building blocks, test for fit and plan for change.

Step 1: Map the business needs

A geospatial strategy begins with the business. Start by understanding your organization’s business needs. Then translate them into geospatial needs.

Understanding the business needs

The first step is to work with business stakeholders to document their goals, strategies and priorities. These aren’t always documented or even well understood so they can take some effort to unearth. But don’t skimp out on this part. Understanding what the business needs based on what it does or plans to do is the basis of a great strategy.

Ideally, you’ll conduct discovery exercises at two levels: the organizational level and the departmental level. 

Organization-level discovery, involving senior management, provides an understanding of strategic context. Department-level discovery produces an understanding of line-of-business needs, challenges and opportunities. 

If it goes well, you’ll come away with a stronger awareness of how location intelligence enables your organization and where there are gaps. The trick is organizing this knowledge so you can develop a strategy. To do this, you need to identify your organization’s business capabilities and group the business needs by the business capability they impact.

Business capabilities are an expression of your organization’s most important activities. They represent what your organization does, as opposed to how they do it. Business capabilities are ideal for strategic planning because they link to business outcomes, which is what we want to enable through geospatial solutions. They also tend to cut across business functions, which avoids reinforcing organizational silos.

I’ve written previously about using business capabilities for strategic planning. I encourage you to read that article for more detail.  

Translating to geospatial needs

To translate the business needs (grouped by business capability) into geospatial needs, you can use a few tools. 

The geospatial patterns of use represent the core functionality of a geospatial platform (see below). Since they are conceptual usage patterns, they map well to business capabilities. They can also be combined to reflect complex workflows.

The geospatial patterns of use are mapping and visualization, data management, field mobility, monitoring, location analytics, design and planning, decision support, constituent engagement and sharing and collaboration.

For each business capability, review the business needs and conceptualize different solutions using the patterns of use. Get creative! But think holistically and construct solutions that address the desired business outcomes at the capability level. Again, see my previous article for more detail.

You can also use other frameworks to translate business needs. The six geospatial patterns of analysis is another useful concept that focuses on how geospatial information is used. So is the geospatial information lifecycle (the green wheel diagram). Use any or all. The point is to structure how you translate business needs.

Of course, many of the business needs will not be strictly functional. You will hear about issues related to application support, user training, system integration, data quality and leadership. These represent non-functional or sustaining needs. You’ll need to organize these business needs too for building your strategy. The following are the most common categories:

  • Non-functional: Performance, integration and accessibility
  • Sustainment: Data management, application management, infrastructure management, governance, workforce, delivery processes and culture

With the business goals, strategies and priorities understood, and the geospatial needs identified, you have the raw material for your strategy. The next step is to start building it.

Step 2: Define success

Start with the end in mind—great advice for personal development, also great advice for strategy development. Before you dive into strategy, get clear on where you’re headed. Craft your vision.

At the business level, a vision defines your organization’s broadest aspirations. It paints a picture of a future that your business strategy strives to achieve.

At the geospatial level, a vision defines your location intelligence aspirations. It describes how location intelligence enables and empowers your business strategy.

The primary elements of a location intelligence vision include a vision statement, a set of guiding principles and desired business outcomes.

The vision statement is meant to be aspirational. It should reach for something inspiring. That said, the statement itself is not overly critical—how you define it is what counts.

Ideally, you will define your vision statement in collaboration with a select group of stakeholders. The importance is that people get a say in the direction of the geospatial strategy right from the start. It might take some effort and a few attempts, but collaboratively developing a vision statement helps to establish common ground and minimizes dissenting views.

Guiding principles are your fundamental beliefs or behaviors. They are useful because they provide a short, sharp articulation of your geospatial program’s philosophy. They also tend to be long-lived irrespective of changes in your strategy. In this way, they are ideal for showing traceability between your strategy and your vision (discussed in step 4). 

An example of a guiding principle from the City of Toronto’s geospatial strategy is: “We treat geospatial data as a corporate asset. Location-based data is vital to city operations and must remain current, accurate and high quality.”

The desired business outcomes are statements of achievement. They’re what you aim to accomplish, in business terms, through execution of the strategy.

You should define the desired business outcomes in strategic terms and avoid the minutiae of tactical objectives. That said, they shouldn’t be fluff. A good test is if metrics could be developed to measure the performance of each outcome. Outcomes like improved customer service or fewer safety incidents are examples of strategic business outcomes.

For strategies covering many departments, try to cascade the outcomes. That means outcomes identified at a department level should align with and reinforce organization-level outcomes. 

You will probably identify many business outcomes, but try to keep it to a manageable set—enough to provide focus to your strategy. 

Step 3: Configure the building blocks

At this point, you have a clear understanding of the business needs and a crisp definition of success. You’re ready to build your strategy.

In my experience, the best geospatial strategies focus on seven core building blocks (see below). The building blocks represent areas where you need to make strategic choices. These choices, when combined, represent your theory of success.

The best geospatial strategies focus on seven core building blocks: business applications, data and data management, technology infrastructure, delivery processes, governance, workforce and culture.

The building blocks are intended to be broad and cover the fundamental aspects of a geospatial strategy. That said, the level of detail you go to on each building block largely depends on your current situation. In some cases, an organization might choose to focus more closely on the technology and data building blocks. But in general, this framework provides a holistic structure for thinking through and defining a geospatial strategy. 

So, how do you define each building block? The process I recommend is to work through a set of strategic questions. These questions should focus on the fundamentals and challenge you to make decisions. These are not softball questions. They should require you to make tough calls. Remember, strategy is about making choices!

Below I’ve compiled a list of strategic questions for each building block. Your job is to work through these questions (and others relevant to your situation) and determine which direction you will take. 

Of course, why you choose to go in one direction or another is as important as the decision itself. That’s why I’ve also included a set of decision criteria to accompany the questions. When considering your options, you need a way to rationalize your decisions. Why is one direction preferable to another? The decision criteria are guidelines or factors to consider when making your decisions.

Keep in mind that these building blocks don’t exist in isolation. One influences the other. For instance, your business application decisions impact your data decisions and vice versa. Be sure to iteratively refine your choices as you consider the influence of upstream and downstream decisions.

By the end, you might have several different building block configurations. That’s ok. These represent your strategic options, which you’ll evaluate in the next step.

Business applications

The business applications building block addresses the question: how do we provide the required business functionality? The strategic decisions determine the scope and configuration of your application landscape.

Data & data management

The data & data management building block addresses the question: how do we provide reliable access to accurate and relevant geospatial data? The strategic decisions determine the scope and configuration of data capabilities required by the business applications and business users.

Technology infrastructure

The technology infrastructure building block addresses the question: how do we provide a sufficiently robust infrastructure to support our business applications and data demands? The goal is to ensure business applications and data are provided to business users when and where they’re needed. The strategic decisions determine the approach to ensuring a stable and flexible technology foundation.

Delivery processes

The delivery processes building block addresses the question: how do we support and sustain our geospatial environment? The goal is to ensure there is alignment among business, geospatial and IT processes. The strategic decisions determine the focus of your delivery processes and workflows.

Governance

The governance building block addresses the question: how do we ensure accountability, effective decision making and appropriate oversight? The goal is to formulate the focus and structure of the governance model. The strategic decisions determine the what and the how of your governance model.

Workforce

The workforce building block addresses the question: do we have the right skills, knowledge and organizational structure? The goal is to ensure that the people who use and support the geospatial environment are positioned for success. The strategic decisions determine the configuration of the human resources that bring location intelligence to life.

Culture

The culture building block addresses the question: how do we actualize the behaviours and mindsets needed to be successful? The goal is to promote the cultural norms and attitudes required to achieve the vision. The strategic decisions determine the tone and shape of your location intelligence culture.

Step 4: Test for fit

Once you’ve worked through the building blocks and roughed out your strategy, you need to test it.

You can’t know with 100% certainty that your strategy will be successful. This is strategy, not clairvoyance. But you can make a reasonable estimation by running it through a few checks that test the viability of your strategy.

  • Strategic alignment: An effective strategy aligns with and supports the vision. Trace the strategic decisions defined for each building block to the guiding principles and desired business outcomes defined in your vision. If you don’t see a connection, your strategy is not serving your business aspirations.
  • Business needs: The strategy must address the business needs identified during discovery. Review the functional, non-functional and sustainment needs identified in step 1 and trace back the impact of your strategic choices. If your strategy doesn’t tie back to the needs of the business, it could be viewed as tone deaf and ill conceived.
  • Good practices: An effective strategy ingrains practices that promote long-term sustainability and effectiveness. Evaluate your strategy by looking at how geospatial maturity improves compared to leading practices. There are several maturity models in circulation to leverage for this purpose. I have a few that I can share that take a broad and holistic view of your capability. 
    IDC’s InfoDoc “Winning with Location Intelligence: The Essential Practices” goes into more detail about these core location intelligence capabilities. Our strategic assessment service, Location Intelligence 360 (Li36), benchmarks an organization’s location intelligence maturity against that of other high-performing organizations using IDC’s independent research. Visit the Li360 website to learn more.
  • Practicality: It’s great to have a strategy that promises big things, but if it has no practical path to implementation, then it’s dead in the water. You must consider the cost, risk and effort required to execute the strategy. Evaluate the relative advantages and disadvantages of your geospatial strategy from each of these perspectives. 
  • Business readiness: The ability of the business to accept the proposed strategy shouldn’t be overlooked. Business readiness can be difficult to pin down but asking yourself some open questions can serve as a good reality check. Have we been through this before? Are users tired of change? Are there any strong or influential detractors? How disruptive is the strategy? Be honest, address the concerns and build support where necessary. 

Keep in mind you’re not doing full-on change management at this point. You’re evaluating your strategy and determining viability at a holistic level.

Step 5: Plan for change

With your strategy in hand, the final step is to put it into action. 

An implementation plan takes your strategy from a theory of success to an actionable set of initiatives and investments. A lot of your success will be determined by how well you enable and manage change.

Change management is a big topic. Too big for an in-depth discussion here. However, for strategic planning purposes, you should at a minimum focus on a few key tenets of change. These can make or break your strategy.

  • Leadership commitment: One of the most impactful but overlooked aspects of strategy execution is the level of involvement from leadership. Commitment from the top can go a long way to overcoming barriers and the inevitable hiccups that you might encounter. Develop a program steering committee that includes relevant senior leadership. Gain their support and make them accountable for mobilizing organizational resources and enabling connections amongst stakeholders.
  • Prioritization: In a world of scarce resources, you won’t be able to do everything envisioned in your strategy. Not in the first year. You need to set priorities. Take an objective approach to prioritization and consider the balance of cost, risk and benefits at the tactical level. Review my previous article to understand how.
  • Measuring progress: What gets measured gets done. Monitoring the progress of initiatives and tracking business benefits keeps you honest. Develop performance metrics for the initiatives and investments in your roadmap, and make sure they are relatively easy to measure and track. 
  • Iterative execution: The further out you plan, the greater the uncertainty. Change is inevitable due to shifts in business priorities or technology direction. An iterative implementation approach can help to mitigate the impact. Build the initial version of your plan with a long-term view in mind. Then, regularly review progress and adjust course as necessary. A semi-annual or annual review and revise process is best. Follow the Deming Cycle of plan, do, check and act. This is a tried and tested process for iteratively planning and executing a roadmap.

Remember, no strategy lasts forever. As your business changes so will your geospatial strategy. Be sure to continually scan the external environment and the user community and look for new challenges and opportunities. Filter these back through the five steps and determine if a new strategy is in order. If it is, get working!

Learn how to unlock your geospatial potential. Discover our Location Intelligence 360 assessment.

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

About the Author

Matthew Lewin

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Management Consulting 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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