Your Guide to GIS Strategic Planning

February 25, 2021

Sharing is Caring

If you watched the ROK Technologies’ presentation, “How to Design your GIS for Today and Beyond,” and the question you’re asking now is, “How do we create a GIS strategic plan that can serve as a living document for our GIS program as we navigate these types of transitions?” this article will help.

Obviously, for any document to be living it must be in constant use, but all too often, strategic planning is seen as a one-time event, or at best, an annual one. In the fast-changing world of technology, a more realistic approach is to see strategic planning as an ongoing process, one in which you evaluate your progress toward strategic goals weekly and monthly, and adjust your strategic plan every 3-6 months as new technologies and information emerges.

With that in mind, let’s get to the nitty gritty of developing your strategic plan. Many step-by-step templates suggest starting with an in-depth assessment of where you are today: what technologies you are using, and how well are they being used, by whom, for what, etc. However, starting where you are makes it far too easy to limit your idea of where you can be in the future. Instead, consider starting from the biggest vision you can identify for your organization, and ask what that will require of your GIS. At this point, don’t worry about cost, staff capability, equipment, time, etc. This is about defining an ideal situation.

For a GIS team in support of a larger organization, it’s critical to begin with the organization’s strategic plan. Where is the organization planning to be in five years? In three? In one? In an ideal world, what would your role – the role of GIS – be in that 5-year distant organization? What challenges are expected over those years? What obstacles are foreseen? What industry trends will your company be preparing to face, and how can GIS help navigate those waters?

Think about trends. Delve deeply into the trends being predicted for geospatial technologies. It’s clear you will need to move from desktop infrastructure to cloud-based GIS to accommodate remote offices and work-from-home employees, but what else lies on the horizon? Resources like “Future Trends in geospatial information management: the five to ten year vision, THIRD EDITION” created for review by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, are invaluable.

Also, be on the lookout for articles in industry magazines, like Geospatial Net’s “Four Major Trends in the GIS Market by 2024” and watch for information from product developers as well. (If you missed the livestream webinar, “Current Trends in Cloud-based GIS,” you can watch it on demand now.)

Read everything you can find on trends that may impact how you will play a role in supporting your organization’s vision.

Now interview everyone - the C level executives down to the lowest level of staff that interact with GIS. Find out how they expect their roles to change over the next one to five years. What role do they expect you to play in their success and that of the organization? Are they satisfied with the support you provide now? One of the best tips I’ve seen is to ask non-GIS staff what frustrates them most about their interactions with your current GIS products, services and staff to avoid those issues in the future.

Be prepared to be uncomfortable with the answers you get! You may discover that many people, even executives, don’t actually understand the way GIS supports the organization’s mission – at present or in the future. Consider these opportunities to educate departments about the many ways your team can help them achieve their current and future goals. Add an ongoing education or outreach element into your strategic plan.

Interview industry experts outside of your organization too; this is a terrific opportunity to reconnect with the people you’ve met at conferences or through LinkedIn over the years! Discuss future trends with GIS experts in other fields and see how they might impact yours.

At this point, construct an imaginary ideal future state for your GIS department and staff that aligns with the role you expect to have when the organization achieves its vision. Yes, you’ll be making leaps into the unknown, but at this point, that’s ok. You will use your review and realignment process to ground your strategic plan into present-day reality.

Now, you need to move from the ideal Big Picture to the reality of the details.

In order to get to that ideal state, what equipment would your team have to have? What skills would they have to possess? How many people would you likely need? What will your GIS need in order to handle the challenges that may arise?

Begin assessing where you stand now in relationship to these future requirements. You may immediately identify training needs, or realize that your new hires need different qualifications than ones you have hired for in the past.

If you expect emerging technology to revolutionize how something is done, make room in the plan for consistently assessing and testing new products and put a budget on it to make it real. Plan for employees to invest time in continuing education and training and add that to your plan.

As you get closer to the present day, become increasingly specific. If it is clear that the organization needs to have a cloud-based GIS system to accommodate growth plans and new locations, for example, plan to achieve that in that next year or two and map out the specific steps, budget and products you’ll evaluate for the transition.

Your strategic plan must have actionable steps, clearly defined, with deadlines and responsible parties for each step that need to occur within the next year. Then, as part of the regular review process you defined in the plan, evaluate progress and create new action items for the next set of goals as they approach.

I suggest spending time googling GIS strategic plans for industries similar to your own and using these a as templates. For example, this is a good one from Oregon’s Department of Transportation:

And, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading the URISA GIS Management Handbook. “It provides practical information on the development, implementation, and operation of GIS programs and projects—for a full range of public sector, not-for-profit, and private sector organizations and companies.”

Reposted from The DirectionsMag Geospatial Community Blog, an extension of Directions Magazine. Visit us for daily geospatial news, exclusive articles, geospatial webinars, and podcasts. If you are interested in contributing, please email


Sharing is Caring

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at