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How to review a geospatial strategy

In this blog post by Esri Canada’s director of management consulting, Matthew Lewin, learn about the thirteen-point list he uses when reviewing his customers’ geospatial strategies for quality.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been fortunate to work with a variety of organizations on their geospatial strategies. In some cases, my team and I developed the strategy; other times, a customer asked us to review an internally produced document. On other occasions, we were invited to analyze another consultant’s work.

Regardless of the source, I’ve learned that you can usually tell a good strategy from a not-so-good one based on a handful of factors. These days when reviewing strategies, I regularly consult this list to help me evaluate a strategy’s quality.

In this blog post, I walk through each of the factors, which I present as a set of probing questions. Use them as a guide when developing your geospatial strategy. Or use them as a final checklist to see if you hit the mark. There are thirteen in total:

  1. Is it aspirational?
  2. Is it business-driven?
  3. Is it inclusive?
  4. Is it geospatial?
  5. Is it modern?
  6. Is it aligned with the IT strategy?
  7. Is it holistic?
  8. Does it commit to tough decisions?
  9. Is it traceable?
  10. Does it adopt best practices?
  11. Is it practical?
  12. Is leadership on board?
  13. Does it tell a good story?

Is it aspirational?

A strategy, first and foremost, needs a vision—a compelling articulation of a desirable future. 

Most strategies I encounter have some form of a vision, typically written as a statement, often in combination with a mission statement. That vision is typically supported by a set of guiding principles and high-level goals. All good stuff!

My interest is whether the combined statements are aspirational or not. Do they describe a future that’s desirable and ambitious? Or do they leave me searching for more? 

First, the vision should be desirable. It should depict a future that creates value for the organization and its customers. It should motivate and unite people around a common purpose.

At the same time, the vision should be ambitious—it should strive for change. Unfortunately, I frequently see geospatial vision statements that are middling in their ambitions. Often, they describe a future that looks a lot like the present, prompting me to ask: why bother with a strategy at all? A vision must aspire to something that transcends the status quo. Without it, people will view your strategy as weak, uninspired shelfware. 

Here’s an example vision statement from a city government:

To provide the organization with a geospatial platform for mapping and spatial data analysis.

Pretty ordinary. This is more of a service offering statement than a vision. It’s not particularly ambitious and certainly not inspiring. And it seems to focus on internal operations while ignoring the community at large. 

Here’s a stronger, more aspirational version:

Our geospatial capabilities will be recognized as a core enabler of the City’s strategic vision, where innovation and insights derived from geospatial information empower a prosperous, inclusive and safe community. 

This version is much more inspiring and more inclusive. It strives for a lofty goal (being recognized as a core enabler) and at the same time includes the ultimate beneficiary of the strategy: the community. 

For more on crafting a winning aspiration, Roger Martin, the author of Playing to Win, provides a great writeup on his blog

Is it business-driven?

The main goal of a geospatial strategy is to create a capability that delivers value to the business through better location intelligence. That means the needs of the business determine the strategy.

When I review a strategy, I look to see that the business needs are front and center and concisely documented. Specifically, I’m looking to see that the needs are understood and at multiple levels across relevant stakeholder groups. The needs should be clearly defined and framed within a geospatial context (this is a geospatial strategy, after all).

At the corporate level, are the organization’s goals, objectives and priorities summarized? Are key initiatives highlighted, particularly those of high importance to senior management? Is a connection made between the corporate strategy and the role of geospatial technology?

At the department level, are specific business unit goals identified? Are critical business capabilities documented? Are key geospatial use cases described along with current challenges? How about new opportunities to leverage geospatial technology? 

What about outside the organization? Are the needs of customers considered? Does the strategy articulate these stakeholders’ requirements and how geospatial technology currently does or doesn’t support them? Are there other groups external to the organization to consider?

Remember, a geospatial strategy serves the business, not the other way around. It will only be successful if it delivers material value and tangible outcomes to your business and your customers.

Is it inclusive?

Ideally, a geospatial strategy considers the full span of the business—or at least a broad cross-section of relevant stakeholders.

Few things can set a strategy back quicker than an influential group crying foul because they weren’t included in the strategy. Not to mention the potential for missed opportunities when you focus only on the usual geospatial user groups and fail to include non-traditional or overlooked areas.

If there’s a legitimate reason to limit stakeholder engagement, then I’d want to understand how the strategy could adapt to include other interests in the future. Sometimes geospatial strategies are developed in stages, with early stages focused on shoring up a core community. That’s perfectly fine. But effective strategies are scalable strategies, and scaling across to include different types of stakeholders is as important as scaling up to allow for greater numbers of stakeholders.

Is it geospatial?

It might sound obvious, but a geospatial strategy should focus on solutions that are, by and large, geospatial. I mean this in two ways.

One: Proposed solutions should clearly show how insights derived from geospatial information help address an identified business need. If the solution descriptions are vague in terms of how they contribute to generating location intelligence, one might assume some other non-spatial solution could address the business need. You might even hear the dreaded: “we could probably do that in a spreadsheet.” Make sure you leave no doubt about the geospatial value proposition.

Two: The proposed solutions should be broadly geospatial. Often, I see recommendations that focus on one aspect of a geospatial workflow, such as map production, and fail to consider the upstream data acquisition requirements or downstream analysis needs. Since location is information, I like to see solutions that address business needs across the entirety of the information lifecycle. This lifecycle includes collection & acquisition, validation & management, discovery & access, mapping & visualization, analysis & interpretation, and sharing & collaboration. Read more on that topic here.

Is it modern?

Like all digital industries, change in the geospatial industry is rapid and relentless. Not only are new versions of enterprise software released frequently, but advances that were cutting edge just a few years ago can quickly become standard features (see: big data analysis). 

The last thing you want is a geospatial strategy that’s outdated from the start. This can lead to investment decisions that poorly reflect the current and future business environment. It can also exacerbate technical debt. A hallmark of an effective geospatial strategy is that the strategy helps to future-proof the business from unforeseen disruption, not contribute to it.

When I’m reviewing a strategy, I look to see if it’s centered on today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Does it embrace modern solutions and implementation patterns? Does it address pressing and future business concerns? Does it consider emerging technological advances (e.g., geo.AI or blockchain integration)? Does it reflect changing workforce dynamics (e.g., the shift to work-from-home and office staff decentralization)? 

A good strategy positions the organization for a successful future.

Is it aligned with the IT strategy?

Geospatial technology refers to the range of technology that deals specifically with geographic information. As an information-centric technology, it’s imperative that a geospatial strategy reflect and respect the direction, principles and standards established through the IT strategy. 

Why is this? In most organizations, the geospatial portfolio is one of many portfolios of solutions. To manage an ecosystem of solutions that can often number in the thousands, most IT organizations develop strategies to deal with the complexities. That means developing strategies for mobile, storage, integration and the cloud, in addition to implementing standards for security, privacy and architecture. 

Deviating significantly from the IT strategy can mean adding a considerable support burden to the IT organization and can make integration with other systems more difficult. In fact, I’ve seen IT organizations stop a geospatial strategy in its tracks for this reason. In other cases, IT draws a strong, almost adversarial line between what they support and what the geospatial team is responsible for (usually, everything above the OS tier).

When reviewing a geospatial strategy, I determine whether the IT strategy’s key principles have been acknowledged and factored into decisions about solutions, data practices, infrastructure and the support model. I also like to know the IT team was included in the strategy formulation process and validated any deviations from the IT strategy.

Is it holistic?

I think of a geospatial strategy not as one strategy but as a set of interrelated sub-strategies. I refer to these as the seven building blocks of a geospatial strategy:

  • People: Workforce and Culture
  • Processes: Governance and Delivery (Operations)
  • Technology: Applications, Data and Infrastructure

An effective geospatial strategy gives due consideration to all seven of these areas.

Without a holistic perspective, your strategy is unbalanced. A strategy that makes strong technology recommendations but overlooks the new skills or workflows required to leverage these solutions will fail in technology adoption. Likewise, strategies that recommend centralizing staff and systems but ignore the organization’s entrepreneurial, autonomy-centric culture will be perceived as poorly aligned and out-of-touch with business norms.

A strong geospatial strategy is holistic and self-reinforcing. It addresses the full span of people, processes and technology decisions, and each building block supports and reinforces.

This brings me to my next point: 

Does it commit to tough decisions?

Decision making is the essence of strategy formulation. As Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter put it: Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. Often these are tough choices.

You might have to decide between shoring up your internal geomatics team or outsourcing to a partner. You might have to decide between shifting to a SaaS-only application strategy or having a balanced mix of on-premises and off-premises solutions. Perhaps there’s a choice between acquiring a fleet of UAVs and building an internal drone mapping program or partnering with a vendor.

The decisions are endless, but the point is that you need to commit to clear choices about impactful or risky aspects of your geospatial strategy. When reviewing a strategy, I look for these commitments. They’re the difference between a strong, clear strategy and a vague, non-committal opinion piece.

Is it traceable?

A good strategy traces a clear line to the issues it addresses and the business outcomes it creates.

No one wants a strategy that promises big things, but upon further inspection, fails to address the organization’s critical issues or desired outcomes. Traceability ensures a strategy is fit for purpose. 

When reviewing a strategy, I look for both backward and forward traceability. 

For backward traceability, there should be a clear connection between the strategic actions and the critical issues identified during the initial analysis. Are the business needs addressed? How? To what degree?

For forward traceability, I look for a link between the long-term goals and objectives and the strategic actions defined by the strategy. Years from now, will this strategy achieve or come close to achieving the stated goals?

Does it adopt best practices?

An important test of the strategy is whether it adopts best practices for execution. 

By best practices, I mean the method you follow to achieve a goal. While there are infinite decisions you can make in terms of people, processes and technology, once you commit to your approach, adopting best practices is essential to effective implementation. These can include architectural practices, data management practices, professional development practices, governance practices and so on. I covered 14 essential practices in a previous article.

The more you ingrain best practices into your roadmap, the greater certainty you’ll enjoy through the execution phase. Again, your geospatial strategy isn’t defined by best practices—that’s the domain of your vision and your strategic choices. Best practices are the well-known methods that yield good outcomes under certain circumstances. 

Is it practical?

I started this article by saying it’s important to have an ambitious strategy. That’s true. But I acknowledge we live in a world of finite resources, and a strategy must reflect reality on some level. There’s little point in committing time and energy to analyzing business needs, developing a collaborative vision, committing to tough decisions and formulating a roadmap only to realize that there’s no practical path forward. Likewise, if the change impact is so great that chances of adoption are minimal, then your strategy has missed the mark.

A practical geospatial strategy:

  • Prioritizes investments based on value, cost and feasibility
  • Defines an appropriately paced roadmap that reflects available resources and funding
  • Identifies necessary governance to monitor and track the progress of the strategy
  • Identifies and manages the change impact to staff responsibilities, internal and external workflows, system interfaces and customer interactions, among others. 

Is leadership on board?

Research from 2018 found that leadership engagement is one of the most important factors for a geospatial strategy’s success. This is especially true for new or transformational strategies where funding and approvals are strongly concentrated in the leadership ranks. But even when decisions are decentralized, a disgruntled or disinterested influential leader can railroad a strategy quickly if they’re not engaged from the beginning.

A strong strategy involves senior leadership from inception and throughout its formulation. I’m specifically drawn to strategies that have a vocal champion at the sponsor level. These individuals show they’re committed to the strategy’s success and provide the political will necessary to drive its execution.

Does it tell a good story?

Even if your strategy has top-notch analysis and a thorough plan of action, if it’s poorly written, sloppily organized or if it fails to communicate a compelling message to decision makers, it’s DOA.

Once I’ve made it through the weeds of a strategy, I like to step back and ask:

  • Is the strategy coherently structured and does it follow a logical flow? Can I easily decipher the current state of affairs, the vision and strategic decisions, and the plan of action?
  • Is it easy to read? Does it use plain language and avoid jargon-heavy phrasing?
  • Do the recommendations indicate who benefits and who is impacted?
  • Are major risks and concerns called out and addressed?

You want people to believe in the strategy. Craft a simple, straightforward message that gets people excited about the journey ahead and motivated to prevent missed opportunities.  

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

Note: Thanks to Chris Blackstock for his feedback and input into this article. This blog post was originally posted on LinkedIn.

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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