Business Geographics: Dead or Merely Evolving?

By Hal Reid

As we approach the middle of the 4th year of the 21st century, the convergence of a number of technologies is changing the way business processes and business analysis are conducted, as well as the way that "location" can be used as an asset of the corporation.

The outsourcing of business functions to distant locales is symptomatic of these changes.Examples such as call centers and customer service being located in India, Jamaica and other locations, are all made possible by the internet and better connectivity, as well as opportunities for white collar outsourcing.All of these symptoms, when viewed from the perspective of time and space, are part of what is becoming the virtualization of business geography.

The potential shift from traditional cell phone to WiFi, and other technologies means that the access point that is now your cell phone can move far beyond making calls, moving photos, and surfing the net (sort of today), into a much more flexible and expandable device -- one that really makes the Sun Microsystems view of "the network is the computer" much more of a reality.

These same technologies that are allowing for customer service to be accomplished transparently from halfway around the world is also making single-user desktop mapping obsolete.The seamless movement of data and processes from the desktop, to the web, to the PDA or cell phone can bring the answers required from the process down to the lowest common denominator (the user), in almost real time.Web services, data stores, key repetitive processes can all be accessed from multiple points, and if we believe the .NET concept, the accessing device becomes irrelevant.Most of what is done in the backroom can be moved out to the end user, a concept that geoVue has had for some time.

The "Power of Place"
The perception of "on the ground" business geography is changing.CoreNet Global has an initiative called Corporate Real Estate 2010.This program was developed not only to see where the nature and "power of place" is going, but what to do with all of the existing real estate whose highest and best use are past their peak.For example what do you do with all the closed K-Marts? If employees are being shifted to 1099ers (outsourced and contracted), what do you do with all those office buildings that are becoming vacant? Scott McNealy, in his keynote at the CTIA conference this year, said that one of his objectives is never to sign another office lease again.He said this in reference to his growing mobile and global workforce.Is Real Estate development of the traditional type, Malls, Office Buildings, Big Box Retail now moving to the 2nd or 3rd world as we outsource those functions that used to fill those spaces in the 1st world? It has always been this way with products and means of production, why not Real Estate development?

Not all, but a large amount of retail has moved to the web.Anybody who is anybody has a web site, even if it is just to let customers browse products.Now that an internet protocol (IP) address can be mapped, potential customers and some demographic attributes about them can be discerned. While not the same as a real address, it is close enough to create a map about market potential..Yet, with geography changing and becoming virtual, what tools will the "newly enlightened" business geographer use to query, analyze, and map this type of phenomenon?

Mapquest, ESRI, MapInfo, Microsoft and others, have extended well into the realm of the business geographer and are continuing to do so.The nature of mapping technology is becoming embedded technology, just like we said it would become back in the mid '90s.There is also, what I would call, "The Wessex Effect" on price.In the mid-90's, when Scott Elliott started Wessex (and later began publishing this magazine), he drove the pricing of street centerline data down to the point of affordability for desktop mapping.This brought about structural changes to the way we viewed the value of location-based information.What does it cost to get directions and a map from here to there? Today, it only requires access to the web.How current is the data? What is the data quality? In most cases, it is pretty good and fairly current , and probably better than you have on your desktop.

A simplistic approach might be to divide business geographers into two disciplines, the real and the virtual, but this is really more of the same in two different places.I think it is time to expand the role.

Location Intelligence
At the Directions Magazine/The Wharton School/IDC conference in the second week of May, the subject matter deals with Business and Location Intelligence.It is no longer enough to just have Business Geography because the world is much wider.The new world of Location Intelligence is encompassing both real and virtual geography and a number of new perspectives.

But if you are now in the backroom with your desktop mapping solution and wondering about the future, you may not be alone.Recently, at a conference on Competitive Intelligence, one of the vendors indicated to me that even in Fortune 500 companies, there were only one, maybe two people in the whole company dedicated to the Competitive Intelligence (CI) function. I'll bet that this is not too dissimilar from the distribution of labor of business geographers.The CI folks had large data sets, great visualization tools, some very advanced modeling techniques, but no maps.This is because they operate in virtual space.We have the maps, big data sets, models and geographic visualization, very little that deals with time and space.

The perspectives are different as well.We are typically only interested in how many competitors in a market, where they are, and how to out-position them - real geography.Competitive strategies are a secondary consideration to us, if pondered at all.When they are pondered, it is always a bemused, "Oh, they have a new product, it will never sell."

The CI officers of the company are interested in where the competition is going in terms of products, acquisitions, global markets, and technology development.They map relationships, not markets.As cool as their stuff is, their backroom position may be at risk.

Look at where we are today after how many years of using business geographics? Remember how business geographers we always thought that the marketing function should embrace geographic information system technology? Notice how we never made many inroads? Notice how the Strategic Planning Departments went away? Notice how much work is general being outsourced? Notice how we are over-stored.

So where is retail development going to come from? Will we be recycling the same geography with a new use? The question is: Are these symptoms of how location intelligence is becoming a new and evolving technology? I don't think so, at least not a universally accepted technology, most likely an embedded technology.

We need to expand into these other areas, CI, Strategic Planning, and Predictive Analytics and integrate the tools of location intelligence. Remember that as business professionals, we need to adapt to the existing, but ever-evolving geography in time and space.The need for the business geographer is still there, but the nature of geography has changed and expanded so we need to change and expand too.

Creating A Unique Set of Skills
I think we can create something better by merging these skill sets. We were business people first, and became business geographers by adaptation and experience; this is merely a new adaptation and expansion of skills to current conditions and technology.

We may be uniquely qualified because our frames of reference begin with a unique appreciation of "location" as an asset.Geographic information system technology allows us to use maps to understand and interpret what reams of a paper report can not.

Maps are a window on the "business" world; we can see and understand more than you could from any physical vantage point.There is no reason why this vantage point can not also be for virtual geography.In addition, we understand that everything happens somewhere."Virtual" space can also be mapped.

The key factor that competitive intelligence brings to the party is the understanding of relationships.If we can know, through insight, fact, modeling or other means, then we can comprehend the relationship of cause and effect, and discern location intelligence as well.

The business geographer role, the competitive intelligence role, and the role of Strategic Planning will still exist as a corporate function, but the problem for each is the perception that individually, their function may be diminished.If we can effect some consolidation, the sum would result in more dynamic and broader based entity.

If you doubt the need for change and that extension of our roles is fine as it is.Look at the image below.This is a combination of the virtual geography of data relationships; merged with GIS, show spatial relationships of data proximity and geographical (real) proximity.Is this a view of the future? I think so.

Image courtesy of (click for larger view)

The image at right has the virtual geography - the data portrayed in the upper left, (these are the spatial relationships of relative data events - in this case incidents of piracy), real geography with a traditional map and typical symbology linked to a high-resolution satellite image. Lines of coincidence tie all three elements together.The rendering is near 3D.

Can you do this with whatever mapping program and data source you are using now? I doubt it.

The era of Business Geography, as it has been defined in the past, is over.Perhaps our field has become closer to location-based competitive intelligence.

Published Saturday, April 24th, 2004

Written by Hal Reid

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