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Six steps for scaling your GIS program

Maybe you’ve been reading our geospatial strategy blog posts and have been thinking: “My GIS team only has two people on it. I want to develop a geospatial strategy, but with such limited resources, where should I start?” You might be looking at a scaling issue. In this blog post, Esri Canada manager of management consulting Allen Williams discusses an approach that emerging GIS teams can use to grow sustainably.

Recently, I spoke to an Esri Canada customer at an event on the west coast. They’re part of a small GIS team at a medium-sized municipality and they’re well aware of the power of GIS, but with such a small team, eager to take the next step, they are grappling with the challenge of scaling. They want to be able to grow the size of their team and increase adoption of GIS across the organization, but a lot of the available advice out there is focused on running large GIS programs.

This isn’t a trivial issue. Scaling a small GIS program is a real challenge and can be complex. The needs, concerns and capabilities of a one- or two-person GIS team are as different from those of an enterprise-level program as night and day. Going from one to the other can’t happen overnight. Growth requires a careful and considered approach beyond just making additional maps and implementing new software. It’s about having a clear vision and goals, and a plan to achieve them.

I’ve put together this guide to give GIS teams like yours a resource for planning growth. Essentially, it’s about knowing where you’re starting out and having a realistic idea of where you want to end up, while recognizing the steps you’ll need to take in between to make that change stick.

First, understand your current state

It’s going to be really hard for you to give directions to a destination if you don’t know your starting point, so start by getting to know your current state.

To help you out, I’ve developed a model you can use to identify your GIS function archetype. We’ve talked about archetypes before on the Esri Canada blog; an archetype is just a recurring pattern. I’ve seen these patterns recur in my own work with customers looking to grow their GIS capability. You might find that your GIS team fits into more than one archetype. Don’t get too caught up in the details; just choose the one that is the closest fit. If you’re really stuck, that might mean you need to undertake a more comprehensive evaluation of your capabilities, or maybe you need an outside perspective on your current state. In any case, the below is a great starting point.

1. Emerging explorer 

Archetype description
These are small teams with limited resources, often in the early stages of GIS adoption.

Typical characteristics

  • Focus areas
    • GIS adoption and awareness
    • Basic spatial data collection and visualization
    • Identifying potential GIS-related use cases in the organization
  • GIS capabilities
    • Basic mapping and data visualization
    • Simple spatial analysis for basic decision making 
    • Limited integration with existing organizational systems
  • Skills & competencies
    • Proficiency in GIS technology
    • Basic understanding of spatial data management
    • Strong problem-solving skills and creativity in applying GIS to organizational challenges

A conservation organization is exploring the potential of GIS technology to help monitor and manage wildlife habitats. Three GIS analysts use spatial data to track animal migration and identify areas for conservation efforts. With limited resources and expertise, they’re at the beginning stages of building their GIS capabilities.

2. Functional specialist

Archetype description
Teams focusing on specific GIS functions within a department that lack integration across the organization.

Typical characteristics

  • Focus areas
    • Specialized GIS functions within a specific department or domain
    • Supporting departmental decision-making processes with spatial analysis
    • Providing expertise in GIS techniques relevant to the department's goals
  • GIS capabilities
    • In-depth knowledge of GIS tools and techniques specific to the department's domain
    • Advanced spatial analysis skills tailored to departmental needs
    • Limited cross-departmental collaboration and communication
  • Skills and competencies
    • Domain-specific knowledge (e.g., urban planning, asset management, crime analysis)
    • Strong communication skills to convey GIS insights to departmental stakeholders
    • Ability to work independently on departmental GIS projects

A municipal planning department employs a team of GIS specialists who focus exclusively on mapping and analyzing land use scenarios. While they excel in their specific function, their GIS efforts are limited to supporting zoning decisions and urban development projects within the department. Engagement with other departments, such as transportation or environmental services, is minimal.

3. Integrated department

Archetype description
Larger teams with moderate collaboration across departments that still operate to serve department objectives.

Typical characteristics

  • Focus areas
    • Coordinated GIS efforts across multiple departments or business units
    • Sharing data and resources to support broader organizational goals
    • Establishing standardized GIS practices and workflows
  • GIS capabilities
    • Interdisciplinary GIS expertise spanning multiple domains (e.g., public safety, utilities, transportation)
    • Integration with core organizational systems and geodatabases
    • Collaboration on cross-departmental GIS projects and initiatives
  • Skills and competencies
    • Ability to work across departments and communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders
    • Proficiency in GIS software and tools applicable to various domains
    • Knowledge of data management and integration techniques
    • Project management skills to coordinate GIS efforts across departments

A regional government agency maintains an IT-GIS department that works with other cross-functional teams responsible for various GIS-related tasks. While each team specializes in specific areas like emergency management, public health and infrastructure planning, they collaborate closely to share data, insights and resources across departments, leading to a more coordinated GIS program.

4. Strategic collaborator

Archetype description
Teams with established governance across the organization that contribute to strategic decision making.

Typical characteristics

  • Focus areas
    • Aligning GIS initiatives with organizational strategies and goals
    • Contributing to strategic decision making through spatial analysis
    • Leveraging GIS to drive innovation and competitive advantage
  • GIS capabilities
    • Advanced spatial analysis techniques for strategic planning, modelling and forecasting
    • Integration of GIS with enterprise-level systems (e.g., ERP, CRM)
    • Leadership engagement in shaping GIS strategy and commitment to the vision at the organizational level
  • Skills and competencies
    • Strategic thinking and ability to align GIS initiatives with broader organizational objectives
    • Strong leadership and influencing skills to drive GIS adoption and innovation
    • Knowledge of emerging GIS technologies and trends
    • Ability to communicate GIS insights to senior executives and decision makers

A utility company has established a GIS team that supports day-to-day operations and actively collaborates with other business units to inform strategic decision making. By integrating spatial analysis into asset management, customer service and long-term planning, the GIS team becomes a valuable partner in driving efficiency, resilience and innovation across the organization.

5. Enterprise leader

Archetype description
Mature teams with extensive capability and established governance practices, driving GIS strategy at an enterprise level.

Typical characteristics

  • Focus areas
    • Establishing GIS as a cornerstone component of organizational operations and strategy
    • Driving enterprise-wide GIS initiatives and transformations
    • Innovating with GIS to gain competitive advantage and create new business opportunities
  • GIS capabilities
    • Modern GIS platform & tools supporting diverse business functions and operations
    • Enterprise-wide spatial data governance and management
    • Integration of GIS with advanced technologies (e.g., IoT, AI) for advanced analytics and decision support
  • Skills and competencies
    • Visionary leadership to shape the future of GIS within the organization and influence industry
    • Strong business acumen to identify GIS opportunities aligned with market trends and business partner/customer needs
    • Ability to build and lead high-performing interdisciplinary GIS teams
    • Expertise in enterprise architecture and systems integration

A corporation with diverse business interests has evolved its GIS program into an enterprise-level initiative. With a dedicated team of geospatial experts, technology infrastructure and robust governance frameworks, the GIS program influences strategic decisions at the highest levels of the organization. From optimizing supply chain logistics to identifying new market opportunities, spatial intelligence is deeply ingrained in the company's agenda, driving innovation and value.

Once you’ve identified where you are, it’s time to focus on your plan to scale.

Steps for growing your GIS capability from small to enterprise

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to use a stepwise approach that balances quick wins and quick results with a longer-term plan. This proven approach will be more likely to lead to adoption, governance and executive buy-in.

I’ve based the list below on years of working with customers. These are just a few areas that you can consider focusing on as you evolve your GIS program. Often these overlap with one another, and the areas they cover (governance, training, process development etc.) will in time become continuous concerns for you as an emerging GIS leader. For this reason, rather than thinking of these strictly as steps, you might want to think of these as practices to adopt and cycle back to regularly—perhaps annually—as you continue to grow and scale your geospatial program.

Define a comprehensive GIS strategy

  • Recognize and continue to reframe how GIS can create value for the organization
  • Understand organizational goals and department priorities and align GIS objectives accordingly
  • Establish principles and approaches for advancing geospatial technology, data and the workforce
  • Communicate the strategic importance of GIS to stakeholders across the organization on a regular basis

Invest in technology and resources

  • Assess current technology stack and identify gaps to meet new demand for services and solutions
  • Invest in flexible and scalable GIS platforms and tools to support enterprise-level operations
  • Recruit and train skilled professionals with diverse GIS expertise, including analysts, developers, solution architects and project managers

Develop robust processes and governance

  • Standardize data collection, storage and analysis processes to ensure consistency and reliability
  • Implement governance frameworks to manage data quality, security and compliance
  • Foster collaboration and communication across departments to break down silos
  • Develop geospatial standard operating procedures and guidelines

Secure long-term funding commitments

  • Advocate for dedicated funding for GIS initiatives, emphasizing long-term value and return on investment
  • Build business cases for funding requests, highlighting the strategic importance of GIS in achieving organizational objectives
  • Establish partnerships with funding sources, both internal and external, to diversify financial support
  • Track the value realized from investments in geospatial solutions over the long term

Prioritize continuous learning, training and development

  • Provide ongoing training opportunities to keep GIS professionals updated on emerging technologies and best practices
  • Encourage cross-training and knowledge sharing within the team to foster a culture of collaboration
  • Invest in professional certifications and educational programs to enhance skillsets and career growth prospects
  • Attend regional GIS events and webinars

Deliver results and demonstrate incredible value

  • Deliver on your commitments and projects
  • Regularly document and publish your GIS success stories
  • Prototype new ideas and test them for results and potential benefits
  • Communicate those successes to decision makers and the C-suite

A word of encouragement

Even as a small team, you can successfully scale your GIS program. I’ve seen dozens of customers do it. It’s key not to get overwhelmed, but to choose one or two items at a time to focus on rather than trying to do everything at once. You might find that in improving on one area, you’ve given yourself a head start in the others. If you use your geospatial strategy to remain focused, you’ll see huge payoffs in data quality, process efficiency and executive buy-in over time. And if you find that what you need is support, don’t be afraid to reach out directly—our team has decades of experience helping customers like you with exactly this.

Want to hear more of Allen’s tips and tricks on how to expand your GIS program? He’ll be speaking at the GIS Manager’s Summit on July 14, 2024, right before this year’s Esri User Conference in San Diego, California. See you there!

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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