A Successful GIS Project Model

Building a successful geographic information system means harnessing effective management techniques and organizational structures.

by / February 29, 1996
Project delays and failures can eat up time, resources, goodwill and -- not infrequently -- professional reputations.

Over the years, a number of Geographic Information System (GIS) projects have failed to deliver expected results. In many cases, these projects were doomed almost from their start by management techniques and organizational structures ill suited to achieving a successful GIS.

The reason behind failure is often one of orientation. After all, local governments typically are vertical organizations with largely autonomous departments. By contrast, GIS and related technologies are horizontal in nature, typically spanning more than one department and counting as users everyone from engineers to planners and anyone else who relies on maps and records to do their daily work. Because GIS enjoys wide usage for a myriad of tasks, a derailed GIS project can be serious indeed.

Experience suggests that when a vertical (that is, a centralized, command-and-control-type) approach to project organization and management is adopted to implement a horizontal technology like GIS, communication lapses can occur, disputes can erupt over priorities, budget disagreement can become intractable and the technology's "host" department can come to dominate the decision-making process to the exclusion of others. These factors, among others, can contribute to delays, lowered expectations and outright project failure.

An alternative approach organizes a GIS project around a structure capable of building consensus, promoting cooperation and achieving success. The structure does this by drawing on the active participation of every department having a tangible interest in seeing the project succeed. GIS projects in communities as diverse as Indianapolis; Riverside, Calif.; Cincinnati; Dubuque, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio, and Winnebago County, Wis., have already adopted or intend to adopt just such an approach to their projects.

While variations can be and have been adopted, this highly effective project structure has the following general characteristics:

* A policy team made up of cabinet-level executives and/or department heads from every department having a stake in the project. This team meets regularly to determine funding sources, review budget issues, set project priorities, resolve conflicts, establish policies and determine project timetables. The team chooses its own leaders and is responsible to the mayor, city or county manager or council. The team also shares responsibility for hiring and firing the project manager.

* A project team made up of middle managers from stakeholder departments concerns itself with the technical issues related to project planning, design and the ultimate deployment of the technology. This team joins with the policy team to direct a project manager.

* A project manager is responsible for implementing both team's directives. The project manager does this with
the help of technology experts drawn from each of the participating departments. In this way, the project
moves ahead through a process of consensus building, regular and ongoing communication and mutual cooperation reached with the active participation of each department having a stake in the project. Typically, the project manager chairs neither the policy group nor the project group. Instead, these groups are responsible for setting agendas, fixing timetables and determining other critical project milestones.

How does this structure work in practice? Riverside, Calif., is a rapidly growing, 77-square-mile city of 225,000 east of Los Angeles. The city's Computer Automated Design, Mapping and Engineering (CADME) project was launched in 1991. Multiple city departments worked together to develop an extensive, sophisticated system that will help the city efficiently and cost-effectively deliver its services well into the future. The CADME project team is structured horizontally across departmental lines with representatives from Planning, Public Works, the Electric and Water divisions of Public Utilities and Information Systems.

With city management support, team members have the authority and responsibility to achieve project objectives with only limited management involvement. This working environment has led to a sense of teamwork and sparked innovation, both of which have resulted in a highly successful project. The team not only has consistently met its objectives on time and on budget, but the project is achieving even more than was initially expected.

Winnebago County, Wis., began using GIS technology in the early 1980s. Seeing a critical need for a modern land records system, the county created the Land Records Council (LRC) in 1989. The LRC later expanded to include representatives from each of the county's 21 municipalities and, ultimately, became the project team for the Winnebago County Geographic Information System (WINGS).

Project policy issues and approval for major investments were the responsibility of an executive committee, which represented the participating communities and helped foster cooperation among no fewer than 154 elected officials. The LRC created an environment conducive to ongoing, open communication that helped build cooperation and lasting commitment to the project. The LRC also facilitated consensus building on technical project issues such as database design, hardware and software selection, and data conversion and maintenance.

The structure outlined here addresses short-term project issues as well as long-term issues such as new applications development, ongoing database maintenance and system expansion. The structure is not that of a committee but of a team or a task force. The structure emphasizes consensus building, provides a means for education, relies on constant and open communication, helps promote and maintain enthusiasm, and establishes an effective and fair mechanism to resolve conflicts and set priorities. As a result, so long as its participants agree to this format and believe in the project, the GIS will have an excellent chance of succeeding.

The stakes are high when any major technology project is undertaken. The difference between success and failure frequently hinges on having an effective and workable project management structure.

Bart E. Elliott is associate principal of Denver-based UGC Consulting and directs the firm's public sector business segment.