Skip to main content

The importance of governance in executing your geospatial strategy

The relationship between governance and strategy isn’t always clearly understood. In my experience working with customers, one of the most important conversations in the process of developing a geospatial strategy is not about the technology, applications or data—it's about governance. Specifically, that conversation has to be about the design of your governance structure and the creation of the governance controls that will be necessary to ultimately deliver your strategy.

At Esri Canada, we define geospatial governance as the process organizations use to monitor and oversee decisions about their geospatial capabilities. A geospatial capability is the combination of (geospatial) people, processes and technology that an organization uses to advance its business agenda. The purpose of geospatial governance is to maximize the value delivered by the geospatial function to the business and customers. Overall, governance ensures that the organization executes the geospatial strategy effectively, updates objectives regularly and prioritizes GIS investments appropriately.

In the diagram below, I’ve illustrated the role of governance in relation to strategy. Governance monitors the implementation of your strategy and ensures alignment with the business direction. And when working effectively, it creates the right GIS capabilities to advance business goals and objectives significantly.

A relationship chart with governance at the summit. The chart shows that governance monitors an organization’s geospatial strategy and geospatial capability. Geospatial strategy creates an organization’s geospatial capability, which generates location intelligence, which enables business strategy, which defines geospatial strategy.

During strategic planning engagements, I emphasize that a strategy is a blueprint for achieving your vision. In the journey to devising a geospatial strategy, you must set a direction, define your future aspirations for GIS and make up-front decisions about how you’ll achieve that vision. We discuss current and future business goals through this planning process, then decide where to strategically focus and what areas to avoid.

A well-developed geospatial strategy takes time to create, because many options and scenarios will need to be thoughtfully considered in the process. At the end of the journey, the strategy represents a series of “big” decisions, key milestones and business transformations. To preserve the integrity of the strategy, you need an appropriate level of governance to ensure that the strategic intent is understood and maintained, and that the implementation roadmap is regularly monitored and updated.

Overall, I've found three main ways that governance supports your geospatial strategy.

1. Governance ensures ongoing alignment between the geospatial strategy and the business strategy.

Once the strategy turns to execution and delivery, day-to-day decisions need to be made to move projects forward and implement the changes required to advance your organization toward your long-term vision. These daily decisions are often tactical and extremely important as you progress towards specific objectives.

Governance helps you and your people make the correct small choices in alignment with your big strategic decisions. It provides ongoing alignment between your business plans and activities, ensuring that you achieve expected results and outcomes. For example, the way your organization plans and budgets for GIS technology is a governance concern and includes processes to align department business needs, objectives and GIS technology investment. This long-range planning process needs to focus on implementing spatial solutions that produce the highest value and are easily justified based on measurable business benefits.

While GIS is often competing for funding against other significant technology investments, the demand for GIS must be vetted, prioritized and packaged into viable projects. To do that effectively, you need to have people who are accountable for engaging different business departments, a method to capture GIS-related demand, a process that prioritizes proposed projects and accepted guidelines to package a program of work for annual funding.

2. Governance helps you establish crystal-clear accountability and decision making processes that will bring your strategy to life.

Your geospatial strategy covers all the activities required to modernize your technology, optimize your processes and improve the skills of your workforce. The role of governance is to help establish who is responsible for different aspects of your strategy by defining a decision making framework that applies to geospatial technology, data, services and capabilities.

Being clear on who facilitates communication and collaboration on decisions between divisions, partners and leaders is critical to removing barriers. For example, within your organization, think about who is accountable for improving spatial data quality, establishing data standards, evaluating advancement in GIS technology and assessing new GIS solutions against your organization's business challenges.

Defining the right roles and describing the appropriate responsibilities will take some work; however, once there is agreement and buy-in from stakeholders, you can capture the committees, working groups or individuals who need to act as decision makers in a RACI chart. The RACI chart is an effective and straightforward way to map activities to different roles, and it's an accessible format that can be reviewed and updated regularly as part of your governance scope.

3. Governance helps you track the performance and benefits realized from your investments in GIS solutions and services.

Sir Winston Churchill is credited with the quote, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." This sounds like a simple premise, but many organizations focus heavily on delivering the projects and fail to monitor and evaluate performance measures.

You need a clear understanding of whether your geospatial strategy and projects are achieving your targets and helping you reap the expected benefits. If you aren’t closely monitoring your performance indicators, you won’t be able to intervene early to solve problems or implement corrective action.

Successful governance programs measure and monitor results at regular intervals. This is typically the responsibility of a steering committee or working group that provides the ongoing support, oversight and active engagement to ensure that the geospatial strategy delivers to plan, maximizing benefits.

The ability to maintain focus over the long term, continuously improve maturity, monitor the effectiveness of processes and make corrections where required is the role of governance. One of the methods I recommend is to capture benefits in a register. A benefits register is a governance artifact designed to record the expected business benefits, as described in a pre-project business case, against the actual financial or non-financial benefits you’ve realized post-project.

Furthermore, the measure of value may increase over time as you monitor the adoption level. For example, in year one, if only 50% of users have adopted the solution, your benefit realized needs to reflect that level of use. In year two, if that usage rate increases to 80%, your benefits realization claim will increase.

The benefits register can be updated at regular intervals (whether quarterly or annually) and reviewed with the steering committee to raise awareness. It can also be used as a reference to form the justification for future GIS investment.

In terms of governance, the people responsible for the processes used to track and measure outcomes play an essential role in proving that the GIS strategy contributes to the organization's success and ultimately helps drive your business agenda.

Developing your strategy and implementing a GIS governance program requires a long-term commitment. Establishing governance is about defining accountabilities, calibrating decision making processes and implementing the proper controls such as standards, policies and performance measures that focus on maximizing the value and benefits of your strategy. A geospatial strategy unlocks the power of people, processes and technology to drive business goals. GIS governance is the mechanism through which a strategy is delivered, managed effectively and continually optimized. Both are essential to the success of your GIS function. And when working together, they significantly contribute to the success of your business.

If you’d like to learn more about governance from Esri Canada’s management consulting team, read our blog posts on decision making and governance for GIS or practical steps for improving your organization's spatial data governance.

For further reading about strategy and governance, check out Esri Canada’s free e-book Geospatial Strategy Essentials for Managers.

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

About the Author

Allen Williams leads the Management Consulting Practice at Esri Canada. He focuses on helping organizations build transformative geospatial strategies and roadmaps, giving them practical steps to maximize the value of location intelligence. Allen has worked with organizations at all levels of government and a broad range of industry sectors. He helps customers develop long-term geospatial strategies and governance programs resulting in modernization and innovation.

Profile Photo of Allen Williams