This is the fifth and final installment of the series I began a year ago on how to develop a new GIS. In the preceding parts of the saga, we covered the importance of the data, staffing and equipment. We are now just about ready to put it all together, right? Well, maybe. But we may have given short shrift to another equally important element: training.

Classic GIS hierarchy pyramid.

This is the fifth and final installment of the series I began a year ago on how to develop a new GIS.

In the preceding parts of the saga, we covered the importance of the data, staffing and equipment. We are now just about ready to put it all together, right? Well, maybe. But we may have given short shrift to another equally important element: training.

The Training Plan

What are the organizational training needs? Once again, it depends. It depends on the choices we made in the areas of hardware, software and staffing. The return on investment (ROI) of any program has a great deal to do with how investments are allocated. Remember that old economic axiom “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? If that basket happens to be a new high-tech GIS that only a few individuals understand and utilize, its economic value is marginalized. The underlying theme of this series could probably be distilled into this single statement: Too many people who decide to get involved in GIS tend to put their entire focus on the technology. But these people rarely consider the group dynamics involved. This oversight will get exposed very quickly if training is not included in the overall GIS plan.

A common pitfall associated with implementing a GIS from scratch is known in GIS circles as the “knowledge gap.” This gap occurs when an organization’s technological capabilities grow at a faster rate than the ability of its staff to utilize them. One of the primary causes of underuse of a GIS is the lack of a good, integrated training plan for staff members. A good GIS plan employs a variety of training approaches to flatten the organizational learning curve.

The GIS user pyramid showing support relationships.

GIS Users

Training should be customized to the user to achieve maximum benefits. The standard GIS “blueprint” works with three levels of users: the end user, the standard/professional user and the GIS analyst. This is often referred to as the user pyramid.

Many organizations fail to get the maximum benefit from their training budgets because they erroneously assume all users need the same training. They clearly do not. To achieve maximum training benefits throughout an organization, one needs to visualize the user pyramid as inverted. The analyst must not only support all other levels of usership with data, he or she must also oversee how the data is being utilized in the program--and that includes recommending and developing training.

The end users represent the largest group. They require the least amount of formal training to effectively use the new GIS, but there are a lot more of them. The user group that typically has the heaviest formal training requirements is the standard or professional desktop user. The GIS analyst typically requires formal training only when a major paradigm shift occurs. The balance of the analyst’s time will more likely be spent acquiring Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and attending conferences and workshops on product updates. The role of the GIS analyst is more or less to develop the training plan, lead workshops and actively supervise the training plan.

The Three Paths to GIS Enlightenment

There are three basic approaches to GIS training: corporate training, academic education and self-guided online tutorials. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages

Sample ESRI Virtual Campus offering.

Corporate Training

Corporate training is provided by the software developers and their authorized, certified trainers. Corporate training is designed for groups who intend to hit the ground running and is the fastest method to get a staff up and running in GIS. The downside is that it can be a bit pricey. Corporate training is best suited to the users who will spend 50 percent or more of their time actually using GIS software products immediately following the training. The ROI for occasional and incidental GIS product users typically renders it cost-prohibitive.

Corporate training sessions tend to be very compact, very focused and very intense. They are also usually very fast paced. Vendors rarely vet attendees for prerequisites. The classes and workshops are usually labeled for beginner, intermediate and advanced students. It can be a waste of both time and money to send staff to workshops that have scopes exceeding their current needs and skill levels. So, the training manager (our GIS analyst) must assess the computer skills of his or her prospective students and assign them to the correct course levels.

Academic Education

Academic GIS training is, of course, more than training. It is GIS education. GIS courses at local junior colleges are often the best choice for those who really want to become proficient users of GIS software products as well as advance their careers in the field. The advantages of developing GIS skills in an academic environment are many.

The major advantage to the organization is that most of the learning is done during off-duty hours. This makes tuition reimbursement programs a bargain and a cost-effective method for organizations to improve the skill sets of their staff.

To the student, of course, the academic method provides an excellent opportunity for career development. The academic environment promotes learning by reinforcement. Meting out course materials evenly across an entire semester greatly enhances the learning experience. Learning about GIS in an academic environment is also holistic in nature. It gives the student a much better view into the theory behind the “button pushing.”

Sample Autodesk Map Webcast page.

Online Training

Many software developers offer online training tutorials for their products. For example, Autodesk and ESRI both offer online training for their products by making hundreds of Webcasts and screencasts available on their corporate Web sites. E-mail updates are also available to users with current licenses and subscriptions.

Some of the online training offered requires the user to do exercises. In that case, the software used in the lesson needs to be loaded on the user’s machine. Other tutorials use .avi and .wmv files. In either case, the student needs a quiet environment free of interruptions. Many of the sessions are audiovisual. A decent set of headphones is a good idea for individual training because it tends to keep the student focused and doesn’t disturb or distract others in the work area.


In addition to the three basic approaches to training, there is another component that many organizations employ to supplement a successful training plan. Professional user conferences as well as professional organization conferences offer the serious GIS user a tremendous amount of training opportunities. Many user conferences offer CEUs.

Conference training can also often be leveraged in an organization. Since it can be pricey to send large groups of staff to industry conferences, key personnel who are skilled at training internal staff can often impart much of what they learn in follow-up in-house training sessions. Brown-bag “lunch and learn” sessions can be an effective method of disseminating the latest GIS technology to end users throughout an organization. Using the industry conference as an adjunct training platform can often reinforce and energize your GIS or, for that matter, any organizational program.

Committing to Success

The importance of an adequately trained staff cannot be overemphasized. And I don’t think I could call this piece complete without adding a few personal comments.

When I first took the position of survey advisor for geographic information systems for San Diego County Public Works, to say I was not fully prepared would be a gross understatement. My supervisor understood this. So he asked me to start out by writing a plan to improve and expand the availability of GIS services across our department and to surveyors in the private sector. I spent six months writing that plan. And at the top of the priorities, I listed staff training and education. It took me more than two years beyond that to complete my own education requirements. The point to all this is that success without commitment is unlikely.

And there you have it. In five easy pieces, we have covered the basics of what is required to construct a working geographic information system. Is it everything you ever wanted to know about GIS but were afraid to ask? Of course not. But I hope it will point those who are interested in the right direction and, at the very least, convince them that there is more to becoming a GIS guy than buying a copy of ArcView.

To view all five columns of this series on Developing a New GIS, go