Enterprise GIS: Realizing the Dream

By Ross Smith, PA Consulting Group

Today’s changing business and regulatory environment require utilities to be diligent about their IT investments. Pressure continues to mount on functional groups to do more with less, requiring them to make more effective use of the limited capital that is allocated for IT-enabled business change programs. This downward pressure on IT capital budgets is at odds with common challenges faced across the industry that include:

  • retaining competency with an aging workforce,
  • optimizing performance in light of regulatory pressures and compliance issues,
  • transforming the business to be “fit for purpose,”
  • simplifying business through performance improvement, and
  • improving support function performance.

This has meant that the functional groups within a utility must now compete for their share of a limited, and often shrinking, capital IT budget while striving to improve performance through better use of information technology.

One technology in particular offers a utility an enterprise-level opportunity to help overcome a number of the operational challenges they face: geographic information systems (GIS). This is a mature technology that is well understood by GIS practitioners, but, paradoxically, many utilities struggle to make the case for implementing an enterprise-wide GIS. Instead, they act tactically and build “siloed” applications in each department–often on different GIS technology platforms and with little regard for data-sharing, standardization or data stewardship across the enterprise.

Through the appropriate use of geospatial or related technologies, a utility can build an end-to-end, return-on-investment-(ROI) driven enterprise GIS strategy that improves operational effectiveness, safety, and environmental and financial performance across a number of business processes.

Moving Beyond Departmental GIS

Several business and organizational drivers behind a utility’s desire to move beyond the typical engineering-based GIS to a robust enterprise GIS that collectively serves a wide cross-section of the business exist. For example, many utilities are seeking to:

  • build consensus across their organization to allow “Ëœenterprise’ views to emerge, rather than traditional silo views;
  • prove the real-value of a GIS-related investment in financial and/or quantitative terms;
  • prioritize investment in GIS-related technologies based on the value delivered to the business; and
  • deliver successfully on expected business benefits to enable a sustainable track record of delivery to justify continued investment.

Traditionally, utilities have engaged GIS vendors or consultants to undertake “needs analysis” that were meant to identify opportunities within the business where GIS technology could help drive down cost, as well as improve efficiencies and regulatory compliance. In many cases, however, these studies were carried out using a bottom-up approach that focused on the technology (features, functionality) rather than on the business outcome. They resulted in application focused approaches that neither broke down organizational barriers nor truly established a robust business case for an enterprise GIS. Unfortunately, they often perpetuated the siloed and tactical approaches that utilities practiced for years.

A better approach exists, an approach that must be business-led (not technology-led); benefits-focused (not functionality or application focused); highly-participative at senior levels of the organization (top-down); and must use proven ROI methods for quantifying and proving the value of the investment. The outcome of the approach that follows these principles should provide a powerful and robust business case that is supported by senior stakeholders, quantifies the required investment (capital and operational), defines the benefits delivery roadmap and delivers realistic ROI justification.

A Top-Down ROI-Driven Approach

One approach is to use the “One Page Program Blueprint” (OPPB) concept. This single page functions as the mechanism for capturing, validating and communicating the key building blocks of a robust business case. It identifies and articulates the key components of any complex program. The simplicity of this approach is its strength, as it decomposes complex programs with many moving parts and puts them into a coherent framework that can be more easily understood (see figure).

Several key benefits of the OPPB approach exist. First, it is a highly participative approach, involving the senior team, managers and staff. This involvement ensures consensus and full ownership of the plan and commitment to its success. Secondly, the OPPB approach positively draws out creativity from within the business, which results in plans that are more ambitious and deliver more value than traditional approaches. Next, it develops plans that are realistic, achievable and sufficiently flexible for future adaptation in light of changing circumstances. And, finally, the entire process encourages cross-functional collaboration, offering both team and individual development while leaving all parties well equipped to rerun and sustain the business case process as business needs and objectives change.

The OPPB is the central mechansim for building the core business case elements. Based on the content from the blueprint, a utility can build a robust enterprise GIS program budget, benefits roadmap and ROI-driven calculations that quantitatively prove the value of the whole program.

Building an OPPB

Four key steps must be carried out to create a comprehensive blueprint.

Step 1: Define objectives and goals for the enterprise GIS program. To ensure there is a clear understanding behind the drivers for this GIS program and to help define priorities, key stakeholders should be interviewed to help define and establish high level objectives and goals. It is critical that the objectives for the program be linked to the utility’s business strategy. If, for example, cost containment or reduction is a focus of the utility’s senior leadership team, then the program should seek to deliver on these strategic imperatives.

Step 2: Understand the limitations and challenges with the current situation (the “as-is” state). To set the baseline for what is impeding the utility in achieving business performance and reliability improvements, operational staff should engage in cross-functional working sessions to elicit the challenges and limitations of the existing data, tools (technology), processes and organizational design. This does not imply that detailed as-is process mapping is required. Instead, these working sessions should enable practical cross-functional conversations about common challenges each department faces with regards to managing data, accessing information, decision-making and cross-department interactions.

Click here to enlarge image

The as-is state is typically not difficult to determine. Typically, utilities will talk about the challenges with siloed data, homegrown systems, poor data quality, challenges with accessing information in a timely manner from the office or field, the lack of defined standards or processes, and so on.

Step 3: Agree on a “vision of tomorrow” or the desired situation (the “to-be” state).

During the same working sessions referenced above, it is important to identify the desired future state with respect to data, tools (technology), processes and organizational design. This clearly identifies the “end game” that the program must produce (consolidated data, better access, standardized) but in the context of the senior leaders objectives/goals defined in Step 1.

Step 4: Construct the program: What do we practically need to do? Identifying the current and required “states” exposes the gap between the two. This permits the utility to identify discrete projects that will collectively close the identified gap and implement the necessary changes to data, technology, organizational design and processes. This ensures a complete view of the required activities to complete a program and then transition into business-as-usual workflow sustainability.

Once these discrete initiatives have been identified and agreed upon, their individual costs (capex/opex) can be determined and resourced and they can be built into a program timeline (roadmap), which allows the utility to define the delivery team’s organizational structure.

Making it Work

The OPPB approach was developed in response to utilities’ needs to develop and build more robust business cases to justify GIS investments. In addition, it allows utilities to prioritize potential future (next stage) investment for programs that were already in motion.

A common misconception exists about business case development being a means to an end (to obtain budget). However, developing a business case in isolation of the business is a recipe for disaster. Although funding could be obtained by building a business case with assumptions and unchecked facts, the subsequent delivery of the expected benefit almost always fails to meet expectations. As a result, subsequent results for funding may be met with skepticism, delay and a lack of commitment or buy-in.

By using the OPPB process, utilities can decompose the complexity of their proposed GIS investments and assemble the required enterprise GIS assessment components from both top-down and bottom-up. This approach maintains the critical balance between robust analysis and creativity, while providing an effective, unique process for building ownership, commitment and consensus across the business.

Ross Smith is a member of PA Consulting Group’s management team, in the firm’s IT consulting practice, with a focus on asset management, operational support systems (OSS) and geospatial physical network inventory (GIS). Recognized as an industry leader, Smith is a co-author of the recently released book “ËœThe Business Benefits of GIS: An ROI Approach,” which provides a comprehensive methodology designed to help companies create a business case, budget, ROI model and roadmap for employing GIS technologies successfully.

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