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  • Choosing a GIS Consulting Firm

    By Marshall Payne, Principal GeoNorth, LLC (Printer Friendly)

    There have been many articles published about how to ensure your GIS project is successful. Typically these focus in particular areas or are provided in a top 10 style and are authored by consultants and project managers citing personal experiences. Rather than provide tips for a successful project, some articles will provide a list of common mistakes leading to failed projects. Some of more common reasons for project failures include unplanned budget reductions, poor expectation management, scope creep, inadequate staff or flat out missing the targeted business need. Tips commonly mentioned for successful projects will range from having an influential project champion, realistic expectations, developing a good scope, having an adequate budget and schedule, and one of the more important ingredients; making sure that users are in agreement as a successful application or system is one that gets used. But perhaps the most important factor for a successful project often comes down to choosing a good GIS consultant.

    For many GIS projects people will hire a consultant to implement technology, provide a total solution or help manage an internal development project. But how do you know when you need a consultant and more importantly how do you choose one that’s going to help make you and your project successful.

    Knowing when you need a GIS Consultant

    There are many reasons to choose a consultant to help with your GIS projects. Obvious reasons include not having enough staff, the size or complexity of project is one that requires certain expertise not internally available, or specialized technical skills are required to supplement internal staff. However, prior to hiring a consultant you need to first understand your goals and objectives even if your objective is simply to help determine your needs or direction. Common GIS consulting projects will start out as needs assessment, cost benefit analysis, implementation plan or an application design.

    There are other signs to look for when you may need a GIS consultant. The following describes some scenarios when having a GIS consultant can help make all the difference and at the same time make you and your organization successful even during the worst of times.

    1. You have a particularly challenging or large application project where a consultant can provide the necessary specialized programming skills and direction. This could include a project where GIS needs to be integrated with other enterprise business systems. Using a consultant that has extensive experience with both GIS and other systems can help expedite projects and provide diversity of skills that will be needed on large complex projects.

    2. You simply need data development, conversion, or mapping services. Consultants specializing in these areas that are more tedious or laborious can often provide very cost effective solutions and deliver results in a much more timely fashion.

    3. The growth of GIS in your organization has stagnated. Often after a GIS program has been established the organization in unable to move beyond data maintenance and map production work resulting in failing to capture or realize the return on investment. A consultant can help move things forward to achieve the full potential and benefits of GIS. A good GIS consultant can help overcome political barriers, build consensus, has outside perspectives and knows what has worked and failed in other organizations. A good consultant will have lots of diverse experience and can bring many ideas to the table to help jumpstart your GIS program.

    4. Your organization is at risk of loosing its GIS program because management or elected officials consider GIS as project rather an on-going system. A consultant can help provide education to officials and lay out a plan to make GIS an integral component to an organization’s overall information infrastructure.

    5. Your budget and staff have been cut and you need to work smarter and be more efficient in order to sustain your GIS program. Consider project based contracted services as a solution to help with loss of staff. Often times consultants can find a way for your organization to work more efficient to overcome the budget and staff reductions.

    6. You are preparing to undergo organizational change where consolidation of your GIS department or departments with IT will occur. A consultant with experience in this area as well as has the technical expertise in both the GIS and IT areas can assist in the reorganization. A good consultant with experience in GIS, IT, organization development and communications can act as “translator” providing education, etc. to help overcome the cultural differences.

    7. GIS technology is rapidly changing and becoming more complex and has more dependencies on system resources and infrastructure. A consultant can help with selecting, migrating to or implementing this new technology. A consultant can introduce the technology in a way that is both practical and implemented at a pace that’s conducive to the organization.

    8. You’re tired of building applications in-house only to have the application programmer quit before the project is completed or documented. Sometimes it may seem like a good idea to build your applications in-house but it can be difficult finding the time to maintain and support them. It can also be difficult turning GIS Analysts into Visual Basic programmers. Using a consultant to help develop and maintain applications may save you time, money, and could be less risky.

    So I need a consultant…now what?

    If you are a private company seeking services the decision of when and who to choose is much easier than if you are a government organization bound by procurement policies. For government entities there are many ways to hire a consultant. Some examples are described below.

    1. If you have purchased software and need consulting services for implementation, customization, or training it’s typically a simple decision and services can be purchased in conjunction with the software procurement.

    2. The most common way for a public entity to hire a consultant is to develop a scope of services and initiate a Request for Proposals or RFP. In some cases, typically with larger projects, a Request for Information or Qualifications (RFI and RFQ) will be completed as an initial step before conducting a RFP. With a RFP consultants will provide proposals describing themselves, services, experience and costs. From the proposals a short list is determined and interviews are conducted to determine the consultant with the most appropriate qualifications and cost-effective solution.

    3. An increasing common approach is to hire a pool of preferred consultants for a 2-3 year contract period. This is typically done also using a RFP process where experience, services, and rates are evaluated to select top firms. Once contracts are signed it greatly simplifies and streamlines the public organization’s ability to procure services or products. The organization can choose amongst the firms on services and estimates provided using a task order process.

    As previously mentioned there are many types of consultants to choose from and selecting the one that fits your needs best will partly depend on the type of service you are seeking and partly on the type of relationship you want to have with your consultant. This sounds funny but it’s true. Once you determine the “what” and “how” you need to determine the “who.”

    Choosing the right consultant

    There is literally a sea of GIS consultants and consulting firms out there so how do you choose the “right” one? Well first you need to understand the many types of consultants and services they provide. Consulting firms will range from a person working out of their house to small firms to large corporations. Some consulting firms are more traditional while others only offer outsourcing services. Some firms specialize while others offer diverse services. Some are software vendors that offer consulting services centered on their products.

    So how do you choose? Well there are the obvious things to look for such as the depth and diversity of skills, years of experience, costs or rates, and references. But what about things that aren’t so easy to describe like “does it feel right” or are they “trustworthy”, “dedicated”, “creative”, “fair”, “honest”, and “hard working.” Keep in mind that when you hire a consultant you are not only entering into a contract but also a relationship. Often time consultants are “fired” not because of their skill or qualifications but simply because there is too much friction or because “it didn’t feel right”. There are countless situations where firms far superior on qualifications and experience, competitive on cost, etc. have lost projects because they did not have a previous relationship with the client or failed to create the right “spark” with the client.

    When hiring a consultant, make sure that they have what it takes to be in a relationship with your organization. Will the consultant’s staff mesh well with your staff? Will the consultant be responsive and understanding yet fair? Is the consultant dedicated to seeing your organization successful? These are all important questions to consider when choosing a consultant.

    When selecting a GIS Consultant you should choose one that has the breadth and depth to meet your organization’s needs. These days GIS is becoming elevated in organizations and plays more of an integral part in enterprise and mission critical business systems. Having a consultant that not only has excellent GIS experience but also has experience with database and internet applications as well as network and security skills will be invaluable. Many firms are specialized and don’t have these skills so it is important to choose wisely depending on your needs.

    Some things to watch out for

    There are many pitfalls to watch out for when hiring or working with a GIS consultant.

    1. Beware of consultants that are vertically specializing yet promise “full service” GIS. Many claim that they offer “full service” GIS, but use this definition very loosely. For example, firms specializing in infrastructure management systems may not follow through on the “full service” GIS promise. Typically firms like this will do one thing really good and other things will be marginal at best.

    2. Beware of consultants that are constantly reinventing themselves. Chameleon consulting companies like this are usually unstable; constantly chasing the latest trends, and are usually very distracted and unable to provide a decent level of service.

    3. Beware of engineering companies providing GIS applications, software, and claiming to provide Enterprise GIS services. More and more, engineering companies are attempting to provide various level of GIS services from applications to enterprise GIS solutions. As they stray from their core business they become risky propositions for GIS services. Some are legitimate and provide GIS data development, analysis and mapping services as a value add service with their engineering projects. More often than not GIS services in engineering firms are considered support services and every attempt is made to keep them constantly billable when engineering work is slow. If you are a Public Works Manager for a City you probably should think twice before using your contracted engineering company for GIS application services. The old adage of using the right tool for the job still holds true.

    4. Beware of the endless needs analysis and strategic plans. Many GIS firms are all form and no substance. You may have a great relationship with the GIS firm you selected but one day you look up and notice that you’re staring a bookshelf full of cost benefit analyses, needs assessments and fairly useless reports. You have just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and have no system or a single application to show for it. Good plans are used plans. If you are not using your plan you need to ask why? Are you suffering from paralysis by too much analysis? Are you getting value from your consultant?

    5. Beware of the scare tactic and “science” project. This is a very common strategy used by consulting firms in general. Consultants will sometimes use fear of the unknown as means to keep you codependent on their services. This is usually done in a subtle way when a consultant will imply that a particular technology or approach is risky or unknown. Usually statements will be made such as “we’re puzzled too yet we can struggle together and get this figured out.” Accepting this means you have just become a participant in a process where the GIS consultant gets to learn or “struggle” on your nickel. More importantly, by the time you have figured what has happened and realize that nothing has changed, except for an increasing stack of change orders on your desk, it’s too late. A project that starts out as a R&D or prototype effort is one thing but when defined application or data modeling project becomes a “science” project you better start asking some serious questions. When things get out of hand you can either fire the consultant, take the blame and embarrassment or you can end up digging yourself a deeper hole and continue to throw money at the problem in hopes that it will go away.

    6. Similar to the above, you need to beware of scope creep. Nothing will cause project failure faster than scope creep. Unfortunately scope creep does occur and can be initiated by the client or consultant. A good GIS consultant can mange this or better yet prevent this from happening by staying true to the project specification, having good change control management, or just doing a good job of managing expectations. Beware of consultants that can not manage project scope well or have a history of change ordering their projects.

    7. Beware of outsource companies. There are some really good high caliber people out there that like working through outsource companies. However most of the time you may not end up with the best person but rather one that happens to be available. It’s not uncommon to have 3 or 4 people rotate on and off the project with limited or no continuity. When you use outsourcing you often are really renting a person rather than hiring a firm. Staff that get outsourced are typically transitional and are looking for work elsewhere. With a GIS or IT outsourcing firms it can be difficult building a relationship with their staff. You also have to wonder how a person feels about the company they work for when they spend all their time at your site.

    8. Beware of you. Sounds odd, but often managers hiring consultants feel that they can relinquish complete responsibility to the consultant. Over time you may find that you are no longer a project manager but instead have become so dependent on the consultant that you are in essence a virtual employee of the GIS firm. This typically happens gradually over time and is a result of the business relationship becoming more personal. It is good to have a well balanced relationship with your consultant but don’t get too cozy. If the relationship becomes too personal it will be hard for you to stay objective and make sound decisions. This is dangerous place to be and you may be risking your career.

    This list can go on and on. Some of you reading this may recognize or know someone that’s had to suffer from these situations. Perhaps the best advice to selecting a good GIS consultant is to simply find one that you like to work with and can trust. Find a GIS consulting firm that is professional, performs well, and has a great skilled and innovative staff. Find a GIS firm that has a good track record and has been in business for a while. Find a GIS firm that is willing to listen and spend time working with you to solve problems, build solutions, and make you successful. Find a GIS firm that provides the best possible value and service for your budget. If you have never worked with a GIS consultant before, you can start with a small project. Do your research and always check references!

    About the Author

    Marshall Payne is a Principal with GeoNorth, LLC., a company specializing in GIS, Internet and Database application development and enterprise GIS integration. GeoNorth, with offices in Anchorage, Alaska and Portland, Oregon, is and ESRI Strategic Business Partner. GeoNorth, LLC is a full-service software solutions provider dedicated to helping organizations become successful, more efficient and effective through the practical, strategic, and innovative use of GIS, database, and Internet technologies. GeoNorth develops database-driven solutions for integrating and querying GIS, database, and document management systems in desktop and web environments. GeoNorth specializes in planning and developing a wide range of integrated solutions for government and utility customers.

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