Point of Beginning

Professional Topography

September 1, 2005

Much of the work surveyors and mappers perform is based on other businesses and business activities that are of a cyclical nature. Some of the business cycles are seasonal. For example, construction work, whether residential, commercial or industrial, slows in the winter and picks up in the summer. The demand for photogrammetric services tends to follow the pattern of the seasons, especially in temperate climates, to maximize flying when the leaves are not on the trees. Many real estate transactions occur in the summer because people tend to move more then, particularly if they have children in school. These same business activities can have economies that are cyclical over a several-year period. For example, forestry, agriculture and mineral exploration are cyclical industries that in turn intermittently affect the demand for surveying and mapping services.

These cycles can cause problems-or create opportunities-for small businesses. It depends on how the business is structured, and how its needs for cash, marketing, technical training and other factors increase or decrease overall resource demands. The annual and multi-year up-and-down cycles tend to have an adverse impact on surveying and mapping businesses. It is my belief that the cyclical nature of the business also compounds the problems facing the profession as a whole.

To begin with, the cycle of business activity obviously impacts cash flow. As we try to analyze the effects of this diminished cash flow, other consequential impacts appear that can be considered professional (not just financial).

How Cycles Affect People

The quality of the people employed by a geomatics company is perhaps most significantly affected by cyclical work. Most people prefer jobs that are constant and well-paying. If they have to choose between constant and well-paying, they must determine a balance between how constant and how well-paying the job can be. People ideally suited for geomatics (by their temperament, job skills, learning abilities, etc.) may reject careers in surveying and mapping if they think their income will fluctuate with the business cycles. Therefore, technically skilled people are often less likely to seek jobs that involve seasonal revenue.

Similar to the topic of income, business cycles have other impacts on personnel, including a negative effect on the technical quality of employees. When people do not exercise the same set of job skills continuously, there tends to be a lessening of their ability to function in their jobs. In addition, decreased cash flow often lessens the likelihood that a business will invest in training for employees. Furthermore, if the employee is seasonal, the business does not see that employee as an asset to be honed and improved by investing in the development of that individual's skills and abilities over time. And, sadly, the likelihood of developing skills and learning through networking with others involved in similar businesses tends to be reduced. Thus, outreach and growth is stunted because business owners view employees as disposable commodities. And worse, these employees do not tend to develop a high sense of shared professionalism.

The impact of less cash flow can also have a dampening effect on the business owners and managers who remain with the business during the low points of the business cycle. These people are less likely to invest in themselves, so their need to stay technically current becomes an optional activity. Many professionals have not invested in themselves and not kept pace with the developments in instrumentation of the last few decades. And the extra investment required to develop their abilities in such areas as finance, marketing and management becomes even more rare.

Through these and similar mechanisms, a process of self-selection is at work, pushing businesses that have managed to even out their business cycles to the top of the heap while moving businesses that are heavily cyclical to the bottom.

How to Break Cycles

For managers, understanding how to break these cycles can help them design a business that is less dependent on the economic cycles of other key business sectors. Rarely can one do something about an overall downturn in the whole country's economy, but strategies can be developed ahead of time to reduce the impact of downturns in certain sectors.

There are many strategies for striving to be cycle-independent. Two readily come to my mind. The first is to find business in a sector that is not related to the common industry cycles mentioned in my first paragraph. This is easy to say, but hard to do. It is best done by getting involved with the networking opportunities for business people in your community. The second strategy is to realize that many times a downturn in one sector can be a bonanza for another. The best example for this strategy involves my favorite growth area for a geomatics business: selling its geospatial consulting services to other companies. Most of the time this involves investment and expertise in geographic information systems (GIS). Recognize that billions of dollars are being spent by businesses large and small to find out more information on their current and potential customers. These billions therefore are mostly spent on products and services that leverage geospatial business information, including addresses and other attributes that could be used to populate a GIS such as buying habits, income level, educational level, occupation, etc.

Now it is unlikely that your corner coin laundry facility will become your most important client. But if you have already developed your business's GIS skills, it is well worth it to advertise this service to your community's businesses that only think of you when it comes to property boundaries and construction surveying. Designing databases, developing systems for populating them with the correct data, and developing analytical tools for businesses are all possible sources of new work and revenue for geomatics companies. For example, you could design a GIS for a plumbing or heating and cooling company with an automatic scheduling system and the tools to efficiently assign house calls to employees.

When the economy takes a downturn, a business must often resort to new technologies and business models to develop out-of-the-box ways of remaining viable. Increasing the health of a business can be achieved through using a combination of strategies to disconnect itself from a feast or famine cycle. It is imperative that geomatics businesses proceed in this direction for the sake of their clients, employees and the profession-as well as the business owners.