By Rich Grady, AppGeo President

“Be careful what you ask for…you just might get it,” as the old saying goes. Is this statement apropos for nationwide IT consolidation efforts that are absorbing independent, mature GIS operations? If you are a State GIS Coordinator or GIO, did you ask to be part of the IT “melting pot”? Maybe you did, or maybe you didn’t, but this has been the trend since the New Millennium. Around 2003, NSGIC leadership articulated the “Nine Criteria [for Successful Statewide GIS],” which were quickly embraced by Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) as part of the Fifty States Initiative to rejuvenate efforts to build the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). A lot has happened since then, and many of the lessons are applicable wherever IT consolidation is taking over existing GIS operations, whether state government or elsewhere.

For reference, criterion #3 of the “Nine Criteria” was: “The statewide coordination office [for GIS] has a formal relationship with the state’s CIO or similar office.”  This was not necessarily to advocate for consolidation of GIS into IT, thereby assimilating it into the mainstream IT world; but rather, the intent was to encourage formalized communication channels and partnering. There are many things GIS can learn from IT, and vice versa. In fact, the advent of GIS as “Spatial IT” is in many ways a result of healthy cross-fertilization. My colleague Michael Terner blogged on the subject of Spatial IT earlier this year.

Let’s look at a few things for additional context. The role of a CIO is considered to be a strategic position in many states, and CIOs are often gubernatorial appointees who outrank the statewide GIS coordinator by at least a notch or two, if not more. In contrast, GIS officials typically emerged from departmental ranks and were almost never gubernatorial appointees (although there are exceptions). More often than not, their backgrounds were in disciplines related to natural resources and the environment, or surveying and cartography. And, their GIS operations typically gained critical mass independent of IT sponsorship or direction, and were driven by the need for geospatial data.

Regardless of different origins, discipline backgrounds, professional cultures, job titles, funding mechanisms, and value systems, the perception arose in a number of states that GIS was fodder for consolidation – after all, “a big fish” eats “a little fish,” right?  Unfortunately, consolidation has often been a “rocky road” because of these differences, for both GIS and IT — and not always a positive experience with the desired or intended outcomes.

When thinking outside-the-box about these observations of the situation, I have seen many characteristics that remind me of the American Melting Pot, which I realize is not the most modern term for characterizing our nation’s cultural mosaic and/or the assimilation of different cultures into the American “mainstream.”  To apply this analogy to the issue of IT consolidation and GIS might be a bit of a stretch, but here goes my attempt at exactly this controversial proposition!

GIS and IT come from distinctly different cultures. Their heritage, language, and customs are different. In some places where GIS has been consolidated under IT, there have been benefits, such as access to more hardware for computing and storage, and greater network bandwidth – the “plumbing” infrastructure. But the IT focus on the important plumbing requirements tends to dilute the consolidated GIS professional’s traditional focus on the data that flows through the IT infrastructure. IT business models have also caused some disruption and challenges to strengthening and sustaining GIS programs, such as the elimination of GIS budgets and the introduction of chargebacks and fees for services. This type of financial transformation represents an entirely new business model for most GIS programs, which were often built on the pooling of funds, quid pro quo data sharing, collaboration, and notions of creating a public good. In some cases, the migration to IT has also led to changes in career focus, where GIS professionals lose touch with the problem sets they once longed to solve, as they are required to tackle more generic and universally demanded IT issues. For these and other reasons, many GIS professionals who have gone through IT consolidation view it as downward or adversarial assimilation.

Others have seen IT as a path to get ahead, with better pay and greater enterprise-level influence. It can become the “new normal,” where GIS professionals thrive and prosper under enlightened IT leadership, adapting to new ways driven by innovation, analytics, and necessity. But in an IT world, GIS professionals are often considered immigrants, not natives. As such, they are expected to assimilate to IT norms and expectations, not the other way around – although there are exceptions where a CIO might see GIS as new and glamorous, and become a fan.

Typically, IT is the more powerful and dominant culture, and GIS must go through reorientation, rather than maintain culture distinctiveness.  And yet, GIS culture tends to remain an observable force, manifested in its vocal and active stakeholder communities. Even if consolidation has occurred, there are cases where GIS culture has managed to persist in separate enclaves, like thriving ethnic neighborhoods in our cities – or, simply by being relegated to the “cellar” as #11 on the CIO’s “top ten” list of priorities!

For GIS consolidation into IT to be less disruptive, leaders should leverage the strengths of both cultures, with respect for the diversity of the different disciplines they desire to assimilate.  I plan to delve deeper into some of the economic and organizational considerations in a future blog or two — but I’ll say this much, now:  “One size does not fit all!”