Embracing GIS Professionals and Data Expertise in Utilities

January 3, 2024

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In a world that has long been steered by engineers, GIS professionals are stepping up to the plate and asserting their presence in the utility industry. My journey to this pivotal point began with a simple encounter that set my mind racing – the struggle of being called “just a mapper" in a historically engineer-dominated realm. There is room for GIS professionals to find their place and thrive in this evolving landscape.

A Glimpse of the Journey

An intense scenario in the war room unfolds where critical power outages demanded immediate attention. For 18 consecutive hours, I was immersed in the stress of major power outages, dispatching teams, evaluating field damage reports, and strategically routing crews. This immersion made me realize the undeniable overlap between these tasks and the core principles of GIS. The moment of realization came crashing down. After hours of dispatching and tracking outages nonstop, an engineer casually walked in with a Starbucks cup, and a full night's sleep and nonchalantly requested that I stand up and let an engineer sit down. This interaction crystallized in my mind the need for a shift in the traditionally accepted hierarchy.

Shifting Landscapes

Over the past quarter-century, GIS and spatial technology have been revolutionizing the utility sector. Historically ruled by engineers, the industry is undergoing a remarkable transformation towards more technical and geographical approaches. While this shift has been met with resistance from some engineers, it is undeniably an era of change. It's crucial to emphasize that this shift isn't a dismissal of the contributions of engineers. Instead, it highlights the emergence of GIS professionals as vital players in shaping the future of utilities.

A Parallel Perspective

In over two decades of my experience in the utility industry, I've had the privilege of collaborating with engineers from diverse backgrounds and expertise levels. Engineers often have a distinct way of approaching challenges, characterized by a tendency to view matters in black and white. While exceptions exist, this inclination is seemingly ingrained in the engineering calling. Historically, engineers have naturally gravitated towards positions like General Managers and CEOs within utility companies, and anyone who challenges this is shunned or asked to stand up and let an engineer sit down.


Unveiling the Why

Unveiling the underlying causes of this phenomenon prompted a thorough investigation on my part. My inquiry took a focused look at high-ranking executives within the Tennessee Valley region, revealing an intriguing trend. A substantial proportion of these influential leaders historically had their roots firmly planted in engineering disciplines. This revelation serves to emphasize the industry's inclination toward elevating engineers into leadership positions, a trend I see currently shifting.

The trajectory of this trend, in many instances, was largely based on the widespread "good old boy" system wherein a majority, if not all, of the workforce maintained some form of connection to the utility sector before being hired, with little or no experience needed in the industry, usually days after graduating high school if not before. This established a natural pathway, propelling engineers toward the pinnacle of leadership and managerial roles. A fundamental link becomes apparent between this historical progression and the shortage of formally educated professionals within the utility realm. In the not-so-distant past, it was a rarity to find college-educated individuals within the utility sector, with engineers being the notable exception. Consequently, the situation often dictated that the next-in-line would naturally ascend, primarily occupied by senior engineers.

The Crossroads for GIS Professionals

Given these revelations, a compelling inquiry comes to the forefront, Where do GIS professionals stand within this shifting narrative? Is our trajectory confined to the realm of support functions, confined to administrative and trivial managerial duties? Or do the ranks of General Managers and even CEOs beckon us? The answer, rooted in the core of our distinctive approach, unfolds with distinct clarity. As spatial thinkers, we wield an extraordinary capability to fathom the world not just as isolated fragments, but as intricate layers of data woven together by context. This perspective holds the potential to utterly transform the landscape of utility management, injecting innovation, precision, and adaptability into its very core.

The power of spatial thinking lies in its aptitude to uncover patterns, connections, and insights that are often concealed beneath the surface. Our ability to interconnect diverse datasets, discern correlations that might elude linear analysis, and perceive the ripple effects of decisions across geographies and timelines endows us with an intellectual edge that transcends conventional roles. It's this unique vantage point that empowers us to envisage solutions that align seamlessly with the intricate tapestry of utility operations. It's not merely about creating maps or visual representations. It's about envisioning holistic strategies that harness the potential of both data and geography to navigate challenges and seize opportunities.

As the utility sector grapples with the complexities of an interconnected world, it's imperative to recognize the pivotal role that spatial thinking can play. The traditional boundaries that confined GIS professionals to supporting roles are dissolving. The transformational shift is marked by our ascendancy to strategic positions, where our ability to decode data and geography in unison holds the key to unlocking new efficiencies, predicting trends, optimizing resources, and driving informed decision-making at the highest levels.

Imagine a General Manager or CEO armed not only with a profound understanding of market dynamics but also with the capacity to visualize their implications across the geospatial landscape. This holistic perspective is a game-changer. It bridges the gap between abstract concepts and tangible impact, enabling leaders to navigate with unparalleled foresight. By recognizing that spatial thinking isn't a mere assistant to engineering or management but a dynamic force that enriches both realms, we dismantle the conventional boundaries that once confined us.

In essence, our journey is not one of a passive transformation from support roles to leadership positions. It's a paradigm shift that propels us to be not just leaders, but visionary leaders. Our proficiency in deciphering data's inherent spatial context opens doors to innovation, efficiency, and strategic insight that can redefine utility management. So, when we ponder the question of our destined role, the resounding response emerges we're destined for leadership, equipped with a spatial perspective that transcends conventional boundaries and illuminates a transformative path for the utility industry.

 Paving the Path Forward

By consistently producing intricate maps, compiling intricate data, and actively participating in discussions, we step out of the shadows and show how spatial thinkers should be in the discussion for the next round of leaders. The shift begins by posing crucial questions: Why is this data essential? Who will utilize it? In doing so, we not only carve a space for ourselves but elevate the accuracy and applicability of our work. As GIS professionals, we recognize the plethora of shades between black and white. Our expertise lies in navigating these nuanced terrains, enriching the data landscape with layers of context. As we progressively integrate ourselves into projects from inception to completion, we redefine our role. Our journey is not about competing with engineers, or other professionals in the process, but embracing our distinct skillset to create a dynamic synergy that propels the utility industry into the future.

The realm of utilities is undergoing a seismic transformation, and our unique spatial perspective is the compass guiding this change. As we challenge traditional norms and bridge the gap between data and strategy, we illuminate a path that not only paves the way for our growth but also steers the utility sector toward a future marked by precision, adaptability, and dynamic leadership. Stand Up! 


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