Skip to main content

Six ways to make geographic thinking part of your company culture

For many organizations, lacking a culture that embraces geography and geographic thinking is the major hurdle to widespread adoption of geospatial technology and analytics. Here are six observations of how organizations inspire strong geospatial cultures.

There’s a great quote from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear that I love. It goes:

[People] don’t rise to the level of their goals; they fall to the level of their systems.

The same rule applies to organizations. Most companies have goals and strategies, but some thrive, and some don’t. Why is that? A lot of it comes down to their systems.

Unsuccessful firms view their strategy as outside their day-to-day—separate from what they normally do. Winners, on the other hand, internalize their strategy. For these firms, success is a habit made possible by the capabilities they ingrain into the culture of their organizations. 

As a strategist focused on the geospatial industry, I spend a lot of time helping organizations devise and then implement geospatial strategies. My observation is that the most successful organizations get the culture part of it right. They create an environment where thinking about where becomes second nature. 

How do they do this? My six keys to building and sustaining a geospatial culture:

Skill up

Improve geospatial literacy.

A baseline level of knowledge in the tools and science of geography is step one to building a geospatially-informed culture. Without it, your people will struggle. The jargon will sound foreign, the concepts confusing. People will regard geography as a specialist discipline—for the experts, not for me.

First, evaluate your organization’s geospatial literacy by creating a role-based assessment. This measures people’s proficiency with geospatial concepts and tools across key business functions. The idea is to assess a person’s ability to apply some basic geography concepts to their role. Here’s a great guide for crafting those questions. I also wrote previously about a simple tool for translating business language to geospatial language.

Once you’ve done that, create a basic geography curriculum. We’re not creating experts here, so no need to go overboard. Focus on improving geospatial literacy in terms of applying geospatial analysis to various job functions.


Institutionalize geospatial knowledge.

This bleeds over from the first point but takes it a step further. For knowledge to be ingrained in the organization’s collective consciousness, it needs to be organized. That means compiling people’s experience and know-how into reusable practices and resources that everyone can leverage.

One of the best ways is to “institutionalize” geospatial knowledge by establishing a geospatial competency center or center of excellence (COE). A COE is a shared business function responsible for developing practices, providing leadership and training, and advancing innovation in a particular focus area. It’s like having an in-house academy for all things geospatial.

The form a COE takes is as unique as the organization. For some, it might focus on standards-setting. This could include developing rules around proper cartographic representation or external data distribution. For others, it might be about knowledge curation, such as compiling geospatial use cases from across different departments and synthesizing them into consumable content. Still others might focus on researching advances in geospatial technology, essentially serving as an innovation center. 

You might be tempted to think that a COE is the exclusive domain of federal government agencies or large academic institutions. Not necessarily. We see COEs in the geospatial and analytics space in everything from local government to the commercial sector. But even if you don’t establish an official COE, it’s the process of institutionalizing geospatial knowledge that matters. At a minimum, form a virtual team of cross-department leaders who meet regularly to do the ongoing work of organizing geospatial know-how.

Plan with geography

Include a geospatial reflection point in key planning activities.

How often do your management planning sessions genuinely consider the question where? Be honest. Maybe there’s a casual nod to geography in the form of an operations map, but do discussions ever delve into the influence of location on your business interests? 

To plan geospatially is to consider the impact of location on key business decisions. One way is to include a set of geospatial prompts in planning meetings. Things like:

  • How do our customers, assets and key business interests vary from location to location?
  • Are our products or services tailored to account for regional variation?
  • Are we considerate of the localized needs of employees?

There’s an infinite range of questions you could ask. The point is to ask some of them. Questions like these are meant to trigger conversation and get the geospatial wheels turning. This further reinforces geographic thinking, as unanswered questions tend to lead to further investigation, additional education and increased investment. 

Planning meetings become a source of demand for geospatial knowledge. And when demand is linked to plans and strategies, action is more likely taken.

Communicate with geography

Augment company communications with geospatial intelligence.

To build on my last recommendation, don't stop at planning; incorporate maps and geospatial insights into company communications.

Every communication is an opportunity to ingrain geographic thinking into the collective consciousness of the organization. Every quarterly update, every annual report, every department email. If you’re a retailer, it could be as simple as including a map of sales hotspots in monthly sales reports. If you’re in health and safety, provide an ongoing map of the change in monthly safety incidents by region. The more you present information this way, the more it’s internalized as a standard way of communicating.

There’s no limit to how far you can go when enriching your communications with geospatial intelligence. But every time you do, you chip away at the walls of people who struggle to see the unique value of geographic thinking.


Make an occasion of your geo-successes.

Anything worthwhile is worth celebrating. Celebrations honour valued accomplishments and show gratitude to those responsible. It signals to those involved and to onlookers that what’s being celebrated is important to the community. It’s a reminder of the values of the culture.

Celebrate geography. Share a success story on your corporate intranet when you’ve launched a new tool. If you’re a manager, send a personal thank you when you see someone demonstrating geospatial excellence.

Don’t stop at one-off celebrations either. Make an annual tradition out of geography. There’s heaps of research that shows that traditions are vital to culture. That’s because they represent an acknowledgment of the values and beliefs that shape us. So much so that we note it in our calendar.

A common geospatial tradition is GIS Day. It happens every November and is an international celebration of all things geo. Hold your own GIS Day event or create a separate geo-tradition. How about introducing a geospatial hero of the month to celebrate people who go above and beyond with geography? Do what works for you—make it fun!

Create geo-leaders

Inspire business leaders to be geospatial champions.

Research shows that leadership engagement is one of the primary indicators of a successful geospatial program. It makes sense. Influential people are well known to have an outsized impact on culture. Our celebrity-fueled Instagram culture is a testament to that.

I’ve observed first-hand the influence of leadership on the success of geospatial initiatives. And a curious pattern I’ve noticed is the especially prominent influence of leaders outside traditional geospatial functions. It’s like the more out of left field you come as an advocate for geo, the more sway your opinion carries. I think it’s because these leaders see opportunities to innovate—and innovation breeds excitement and engagement.

How to engage influential business leaders and inspire them to be geospatial champions? Try these tactics:

  • Invite leaders to geospatial seminars, webinars and conferences
  • Present examples of geo-success from peers in other organizations 
  • Co-develop an opportunity assessment, identifying how geospatial technology and analytics can better support their area
  • Create a proof-of-concept that shows the art of the possible

What if you are one of these leaders? Could you see yourself as a potential geospatial champion? If so, don’t wait; get involved! You have a tremendous opportunity waiting for you. 

Remember, organizations that ingrain geographic thinking into the fabric of their corporate cultures unlock a powerful capability. And with modern advances in geospatial technology, this capability is more accessible than ever. Take real steps to make geo a habit.

For additional reading check out my 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.

Profile Photo of Matthew Lewin