In 1958, Chairman Mao’s impatience with the pace of development in China resulted in a decree known as The Great Leap Forward – an attempt to jump-start economic progress almost overnight by transforming China from a backward agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse.

History revealed this decree to be a disaster – causing a great famine and shrinking China’s productivity until 1976.

… unless you have invested in the fundamentals, it’s hard to deliver transformation.

We see much the same happen on a cyclic pattern in complex IT environments, and legacy GIS environments are no different.

In the enterprise IT world, a characteristic of large organisations with complex systems is that of technical debt – a metaphor defining the gap between the things we know are wrong, incomplete, or not fit-for-purpose, and the minimal optimal operating state.

This concept is not only restricted to things like software code or features, but impacts all elements of people, processes, and technology.

Identifying technical debt in your organisation

Technical debt is creeping and insidious by nature and its contributors can exist both inside and outside an organisation. 

In any large enterprise, base operational assets – including IT infrastructure, software, and the workforce – must be maintained, fixed, enhanced, trained, adapted, and monitored consistently for necessary modifications and updates.

This is equally as true for an enterprise geospatial capability, especially if that capability is under the control of the IT function. Although they may not recognise it, decisions are constantly being made that contribute to technical debt.

For example, deferring a code change, patch, or upgrade in a critical application to future release cycles because of cost or complexity is – in reality – kicking the proverbial risk tin-can down the road and adding technical debt to the ledger.

… there will be a direct correlation between GIS technical debt and business value.

For new, greenfield GIS customers, developing a business case that quantitatively demonstrates the business value and ROI of deploying enterprise GIS to automate, streamline, or provide faster time to insights – is pretty straightforward. 

But consider another perspective…

So your organisation previously accepted the business case to invest in GIS technology – no doubt for a specific outcome – and you now need to pivot to a new approach to generate greater value. How do you deal with your accumulated technical debt?

If you have GIS technical debt, that delta must be costed into the updated, value-generating business case. This headwind will either limit ROI for the business case or negate the project’s value entirely.

It's also important to consider that GIS technical debt – just like financial debt – has a very high (and increasing) interest rate. For technical debt, interest accumulates in the form of:

  • The delta between the cost of change now and the cost of change later

  • Loss of market share through lack of agility to respond to market shifts

  • Productivity losses

  • Stakeholder confidence in organisational capability

  • Staff morale

And like financial debt, if not checked – you can find yourself reaching a tipping point where your technical debt levels take you into technical bankruptcy.

Payback time

You may be wondering at what point GIS technical debt demands repayment. 

Simply put, this occurs when an organisation reaches GIS technical negative equity, whereby the cost of the changes required to pay down the technical debt exceeds the potential benefits gained. 

This is common with organisations who have a long-term GIS capability as it becomes so deeply embedded into BAU, that they simply can’t envisage how this fundamental value generator can be something other than it is. It’s at this point companies start to question the cost of supporting and maintaining the status quo.

But ‘set and forget’ is never a good strategy.

Breaking the cycle – avoid debt

So how can organisations avoid technical debt? The key lessons are simple, but the approach requires constant vigilance:

  1. Keep the GIS function as close to the business as possible. Moving the infrastructure of GIS to IT is fine, but the practitioners and analysts must remain in close proximity to deliver business value.

  2. Stay up-to-date and be ready for change. Sound IT infrastructure and application governance should not be considered ‘trivial’. And as per the previous point, staying closely aligned with business strategy will ensure the GIS capability actively contributes to shifting business goals.

  3. Consider if maintaining and supporting enterprise GIS is for you. The value generated by GIS is self-evident, but it may be that implementing an agile GIS capability ‘as a service’ is a more effective path.

If you’re part of an organisations weighed down by technical debt borne from a legacy ‘set and forget’ strategy, there are a range of options you can investigate.

Among the more easily accessible options that will ensure your operation remains at the forefront of innovation without impacting business value is outsourcing. It’s not the only option but it’s one that has moved from being a short-term solution to a long-term plan.

To learn more of your options, reach out to our specialists for an obligation-free chat.

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