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The mere presence of an implementation plan does not guarantee success. Most organizations do not have sufficient staff to cope with the commitment and extra work required when introducing a GIS to existing operations. GIS implementation must also consider all technology transfer processes.

Common Pitfalls

Several pitfalls exist that most often contribute to the failure of a GIS implementation strategy. These are identified below:

Failure to identify and involve all users Users in an operational GIS environment consist of operations, management, and policy levels of the organization. All three levels should be considered when identifying the needs of your users.
Failure to match GIS capability and needs. A wide spectrum of GIS hardware and software choices currently exist. The buyer is presented with a significant challenge making the right choice. Remember, the right choice will be the GIS that provides the needed performance no more, no less for the minimum investment. The success of a GIS implementation is particularly sensitive to the right hardware and software choices !
Failure to identify total costs. The GIS acquisition cost is relatively easy to identify. However, it will represent a very small fraction of the total cost of implementing a GIS. Ongoing costs are substantial and include hardware and software maintenance, staffing, system administration, initial data loading, data updating, custom programming, and consulting fees.
Failure to conduct a pilot study The GIS implementation plan concerns itself with the many technical and administrative issues and their related cost impacts. Three of the most crucial issues, are database design, data loading and maintenance, and day-to-day operations. The pilot study will allow you to gather detailed observations, provided it is properly designed, to allow you to effectively estimate the operational requirements.
Giving the GIS implementation responsibility to the EDP Department. Because of the distinct differences of the GIS from conventional EDP systems, the GIS implementation team is best staffed by non-data processing types. The specialized skills of the 'GIS analyst' are required at this stage. Reliance on conventional EDP personnel who lack these skills will ensure failure.
Failure to consider technology transfer. Training and support for on-going learning, for in-house staff as well as new personnel, is essential for a successful implementation. Staff at the three levels should be educated with respect to the role of the GIS in the organization. Education and knowledge of the GIS can only be obtained through on-going learning exercises. Nothing can replace the investment of hands on time with a GIS !

The Learning Curve

Contrary to information provided by commercial vendors of GIS software, there is a substantial learning curve associated with GIS. It is normally not a technology that one becomes proficient in overnight. It requires an understanding of geographical relationships accompanied by committed hands-on time to fully apply the technology in a responsible and cost effective manner. Proficiency and productivity are only obtained through applied hands on with the system ! GIS is an applied science. Nothing can replace the investment of hands-on with GIS. The following figurepresents the typical learning curve for GIS installations.

The learning curve is dependent on a variety of factors including:

the amount of time spent by the individual with hands-on access;
the skills, aptitude and motivation of the individual;
the commitment and priority attached to GIS technology dictated by the organization and management;
the availability of data; and
the choice of software and hardware platforms.

A critical requirement for all GIS implementations is that adequate education and training is provided for operational staff, as well as realistic priorities are defined with which to learn and apply the technology. This is where a formal training curriculum is required to ensure that time is dedicated to learning the technology properly. Adding GIS activities to a staff member's responsibilities without establishing well defined milestones and providing adequate time and training mechanisms is prone to failure. A focused and properly trained operations staff that has consistent training will result in greatly reduced turnaround times for operations, and ensure consistency in quality of product.

The threshold point of the learning curve is typically around the two year time frame. However, this is dependent on the ability of the organization to establish a well defined and structured implementation plan that affords appropriate training and resources for technical staff. The flat part of the learning curve can be shortened if proper training is provided, data is available for use, the right software and hardware is acquired.

The typical learning curve reflects a long initial period for understanding spatial data compilation requirements and database architecture. However, after data models are well understood and sufficient data compilation has been completed the learning curve accelerates. Once a formal application development environment is established and user needs are well defined an infrastructure exists for effective application of the technology. Building operational applications based on formal functional specifications will result in continued accelerated learning. The data hurdle is often a stumbling block for many GIS users.

The Productivity Curve

GIS is a long term investment that matures over time. The turnaround for results may be longer than initially expected. The establishment of a formal implementation strategy will help to ensure that realistic expectations are met. Data is the framework for successful application of GIS technology. In this respect, the investment in establishing a solid data platform will reap rewards in a short term timeframe for establishing a cost-effective and productive GIS operation. The availability of quality data supplemented by a planned implementation strategy are the cornerstones of achieving a productive and successful GIS operation. A robust database should be considered an asset !

However, even with a well defined and systematic implementation strategy GIS technology will not provide immediate benefits. Benefits and increased productivity are not achieved overnight. GIS technology is complex in nature, has a generally steep learning curve, and requires a complement of skills for it to be applied successfully. In fact, most organizations realize a loss in overall operational productivity over the short term while the GIS platforms are being installed, staff is trained, the learning curve is initiated, and data is being captured. This is common of all office automation activities. The following figure presents the typical situation that occurs with respect to comparing long term productivity with, and without, GIS technology.

This graph represents the typical situation that occurs with respect to comparing long term productivity with, and without, GIS technology.

Depending on the unique circumstances of the implementation process, the status of data compilation, and the organizational climate, increased productivity is normally reached between the second and fifth year of implementation. This is identified by the threshold point. Again, this is dependent on a variety of factors including:

the skills and experience of the staff involved;
the priority and commitment by the organization;
the implementation strategy; and
the status of data compilation.

The primary issue with implementing GIS is to achieve the threshold point of increased productivity in the shortest possible time frame. In other words, minimize the time in which a decrease in productivity occurs. Of course, the issue of productivity is typically of greaterst concern with private industry, e.g. forestry companies. Nonetheless, the significant investment in hardware/software, data, and training necessitates that a structured approach be utilized to achieve the threshold point in the shortest possible time frame.

A GIS acquisition based on well defined user needs and priorities is more likely to succeed than without. A major pitfall of most installations with GIS technology, e.g. particularly forestry companies and government agencies, is the lack of well defined user needs on which to base the GIS acquisition and implementation.

The Implementation Plan

Implementation can be seen as a six phase process. They are:

Creating an awareness GIS needs to be sold within an organization. The education of staff is very important. Depending on the way in which GIS technology is being introduced to the organization the process for creating an awareness may differ. Technical workshops are often appropriate when a top-down approach exists, while management workshops are often more relevant when a bottoms-up approach exists. Education of the new technology should focus on identifying existing problems within an organization. These often help justify a GIS acquisition. They include :

spatial information is poorly maintained or out of date;
spatial data is not recorded or stored in a standard way;
spatial data may not be defined in a consistent manner, e.g. different classifications for timber information;
data is not shared between departments within an organization;
data retrieval and manipulation capabilities are inadequate to meet existing needs; and
new demands are made on the organization that cannot be met with existing information systems.
Identifying System Requirements

The definition of system requirements is usually done in a user needs analysis. A user needs analysis identifies users of a system and all information products required by those users. Often a prioritization of the information products and the data requirements of those products is also undertaken. A proper user needs analysis is crucial to the successful evaluation of GIS software alternatives.

After user needs have been identified and prioritized they must be translated into functional requirements. Ideally, the functional requirements definition will result in a set of processing functions, system capabilities, and hardware requirements, e.g. data storage, performance. Experienced GIS consultants often play a major role in this phase.

System Evaluations

Evaluating alternative hardware and software solutions is normally conducted in several stages. Initially a number of candidate systems are identified. Information to support this process is acquired through demonstrations, vendor literature, etc. A short listing of candidates normally occurs based on a low level assessment. This followed by a high level assessment based on the functional requirements identified in the previous phase. This often results in a rating matrix or template. The assessment should take into account production priorities and their appropriate functional translation. After systems have been evaluated based on functional requirements a short list is prepared for those vendors deemed suitable. A standard benchmark, as discussed earlier, is then used to determine the system of choice.

Justifying the System Acquisition

The proper justification of the chosen system requires consideration of several factors. Typically a cost-benefit analysis is undertaken to analyze the expected costs and benefits of acquiring a system. To proceed further with acquisition the GIS should provide considerable benefits over expected costs. It is important that the identification of intangible benefits also be considered.

The justification process should also include an evaluation of other requirements. These include data base development requirements, e.g. existing data versus new data needs and associated costs; technological needs, e.g. maintenance, training, and organizational requirements, e.g. new staff, reclassification of existing job descriptions for those staff who will use the GIS.

System Acquisition and Start Up

After the system, e.g. hardware, software, and data, is acquired the start up phase begins. This phase should include pilot projects. Pilot projects are a valuable means of assessing progress and identifying problems early, before significant resources have been wasted. Also, because of the costs associated with implementing a GIS it is often appropriate to generate some results quickly to appease management. First impressions are often long remembered.

Operational Phase

The operational phase of a GIS implementation involves the on-going maintenance, application, and development of the GIS. The issue of responsibility for the system and liability is critical. It is important that appropriate security and transaction control mechanisms be in place to support the system. A systematic approach to system management, e.g. hardware, software, and data, is essential.