How to Succeed in GIS Without Really Trying


I came across a paper I had written very early in my career that – upon rereading – made me both cringe and reflect on how the basic premise of the paper still rings true. The title was “GIS Secrets of Attila the Hun” and I even had an accompanying presentation. The idea for the topic came about when I was consuming every management book I could get my hands on. At the time, no business library would be complete without a copy of Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun and Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun. Just so I don’t come off as too sinister, I did have copies of books like Lincoln on Leadership and Winnie the Pooh on Management as well.

These “studies” in management styles really looked to demonstrate that strong leaders followed similar patterns in achieving success. My fascination with Attila the Hun was merely an acknowledgement that successful GIS programs might follow similar patterns and practices. There are not a lot of books out there about implementing or managing IT in government, let along GIS. We in the community rely on those that came before us to share their practices through peer networks, presentations and articles.

But even trailblazers need to rethink their strategies and learn from others to keep current. Once in a while, we see IT and GIS programs that were once on the top of their game become stale or stalled. They need to get over a hurdle or two to progress. The current trendy themes of Smart Communities and Digital Transformation are strong reminders that when we plateau we need to reinvent ourselves to remain relevant. What a perfect opportunity to share the new patterns of successful next-generation implementations.

Here are a couple of quick observations I would share using GIS efforts as a basis. First, the strongest enterprise efforts are not defined as one or two individuals that do all the work for every department. Put the tools in the hands of everyone and let them use technology as part of their work. You won’t be put out of a job. You’ll find you are actually in more demand. Second, lead wherever possible with applications that improve productivity and efficiency. You will see a quicker return on investment through a digital transformation. Third, document your return on investment. Doing so is a strong accountability practice.  It also aides in reminding personnel at all levels why you are investing in technology. And it’s great to have handy when budgets are tight.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco can demonstrate a return on investment where for every dollar they spend on GIS, they get $3.11 back. And they too follow these management techniques. Fourth, establish regularly scheduled cross-divisional governance committees. Make sure there is a mixture of technical staff and management present. Pinellas County, Florida used many of these techniques and when hurricanes hit, they hit the ground running with GIS instead of trying to throw technology at the problem as it was happening.

Balancing best practices in management with strong IT practices are a must. Here are some guidelines to live by:

  • Centralize your data so that it is easily accessible by all departments.
  • Deploy apps in rapid succession to gain momentum and buy in.
  • Think “Mobile-first” to migrate from paper to digital.
  • Create operational dashboards to bring insights into your decisions.
  • Rethink civic engagement; there’s purpose beyond pothole reporting.

As you can see, you don’t have to be Attila the Hun to be successful. You can deploy the ideas in this piece and succeed without really trying.


Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here

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Wade Kloos

Very well written assessment on the essential focal points for GIS managers. I could not agree more with the purposeful intent to impact business operations/productivity/efficiency (especially in government) and then documenting the results attributable to GIS.