A GIS Visionary

A Meta-Model for Business: Executive Interview with Geoff Osborn
By LBx Staff | Published January 31, 2012

This diagram illustrates the different user tiers for GIS information, how those users are interacting with GIS data and how they can be more empowered. Graphic courtesy of GeoSynergy.

LBx: At the GeoGathering conference, you presented an innovative systems framework for integrating GIS with business objectives that was developed at the BG Group. Can you explain how it works and what problem you are solving?

Osborn: The framework is a meta-model for alignment with multiple and complex business processes. Think about this as an example: GIS departments in large gas companies can annually create 5-10,000 maps. Over a relatively short period of time, that builds up into massive map libraries. What’s even more impressive, if you think about it, is that each map represents a dialogue around a business question.

The challenge arises when you try to use the map libraries or activity logs to model the enterprise business architecture, user groups and workflows. The framework synchronizes GIS with business objectives from an enterprise business model and workflow perspective. It then personalizes the spatial information environment based on the user’s profile and roles in the model. In other words, it provides the necessary information tools that the individual user profiles need. So think of it as a personalized spatial decision support engine.

LBx: Tell us more about how this user profile-based system works.

Osborn: It’s really very simple in concept. A user belongs to a defined group that needs to do something. Let’s say they need to “review current field design.” The system knows this from the quantitative business model, and thereby can personalize the information environment based on tasks and workflows associated with that user or group. The information required to support the “review current field design” task, such as changes from previous designs, conflicts with regulations, permits or business rules, and existing or alternate designs, are all displayed to the user. Non-relevant information is not.

We developed a central meta-database that captures knowledge about the organization, a list of different groups, decisions to be made, business objectives, and how decision support can be affected. This business model approach creates clarity for the actors/players, clarity around activities/interactions, and alignment with business objectives.

There are two main user camps: surfers/casual browsers who just need to find stuff on an ad hoc basis and need technologies to improve findability, and actors who are power-users who have structured goals/objectives. Figure 1 illustrates the user tiers and the focus on empowering the casual browser/self-service user.

LBx: Can you give us an example of a business query so we can envision how it all works?

Osborn: Another example is the classic site selection problem (Where should I put…?). If a user gives you descriptions of where proposed facilities should be located, it’s possible to encode these rules against a spatial database, and tailor a profile type for that user. Reusing and refactoring profiles, tasks, and dependencies allows you to keep improving your enterprise models – satisfying the user and improving the positioning of GIS within the enterprise information management framework.

LBx: If the concept is simple, why hasn’t this approach emerged sooner?

Osborn: Well, I think it still sounds a little abstract to some people, but the core reason is that GIS and IT don’t really understand each other or traditionally work well together. They are their own silos, their own cultures, with their own expectations and priorities. There really isn’t a good home for GIS and BI (business intelligence), which forces you to color outside the lines. The GIS people are smart and under-utilized within the organization. They want the technology to extend beyond making maps and they want to solve problems. However, they are not trained in business models, business assumptions and the value of their business understanding. IT people are equally smart but are overwhelmed by making budgeted IT projects work in typically risk-adverse environments, and have little time to think about spatial nuances and what may be deemed as non-priority IT projects.

The GIS professionals are stepping strongly into business but they need the right tools and skills to ensure they hit the sweet spot of adding value to both the enterprise information value chain and grassroots user experiences.

It is not very intuitive for these silos to work together, nor to have profitable discussions around the value of enhancing “boring” GIS mapmaking environments with concepts from the gaming world to deliver a really useful, practical and engaging user experience.

The core reason (this approach has not emerged sooner) is that GIS and IT don’t really understand each other or traditionally work well together. They are their own silos, their own cultures, with their own expectations and priorities.

LBx: Why is there such a gap between GIS and IT?

Osborn: There are different terminologies between the two disciplines – different cultures, different education and objectives. Enterprise IT has become synonymous with isolated metrics around its own efficiency and productivity. While GIS and spatial analytics are technology-hungry and ultimately save time and money, GIS and spatial professionals are fundamentally about problem solving horizontally in many places within the organization.

LBx: How is your approach different from a data warehouse?

Osborn: A data warehouse is often implemented as just the place where data is stored. It’s the repository but not where you make sense of it. Similar to that, a GIS provides access to often complex information, but not the environment for complex (and often collaborative) problem solving that you find in games and game design. Mental models from the gaming world are better suited for creating engaging problem solving spaces.

LBx: Unlike classic systems integration, your approach seems to be focused on integration with business objectives. Can you comment on that?

Osborn: You are correct. We put a lot of structure around traditional GIS, for example. We developed models to synchronize the GIS with a rapidly changing business and to integrate a number of models to ensure alignment with the business objectives, including: organizational framework and structure, data models, and information supply chain models.

We approach it from enterprise architecture, social network analysis and gaming perspectives but the end result has to be rigorous, encodeable business logic.

LBx: What’s the discipline that makes sense out of this enterprise and spatial information?

Osborn: The best answers come from a combination of disciplines, but I would have to say particular expertise in informatics. GIS people unfortunately get stuck on the wheel of mapmaking and bulk cartography roles. Business execs should see GIS people as trusted advisors – but this is clearly a cultural change.