Choosing a GIS Consulting Firm - Part 1

By Marshall Payne

Choosing a GIS Consulting Firm - Part 1 - How do you know when you need one?

There have been many articles published about how to ensure your GIS project is successful. Typically, these articles focus in particular areas or are provided in a "top 10 style" list.They 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 the 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 is 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, before 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 jump-start 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, consultants can find a way for your organization to work more efficiently to overcome the budget and staff reductions.
  6. You are preparing to undergo organizational change where consolidation of your GIS department or departments with the Information Technology (IT) department 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, 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 are 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 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 is 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."

In part 2, we'll look at what to watch out for in "Choosing The Right Consultant."

Published Saturday, June 7th, 2003

Written by Marshall Payne

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