The Case for a generalist gis consultant

A few months ago I read an excellent article by Angie Wang of Omnitek Consulting. In Generalist vs. Specialist,  Ms. Wang explored the relative strengths, weaknesses, and roles of a consulting from two  perspectives. One, the development of a “well rounded” education and experience portfolio
(a generalist approach); and Two, that of a Specialist; one who develops deep knowledge of a particular subject, through intensely focused work.

Three people around a laptop computer

Wang describes a kind of “life cycle’ to the career of a consultant, stages of which can have the effect of enhancing or limiting the career opportunities and success of their consulting career. She points out that early in our careers, we are told that being “well rounded” is most important.

“From the beginning of our educational journey, we were taught that ‘being well-rounded’ was the key to success. College panels and career advisors preached variety and rigor of courses taken, along with a diverse set of extracurricular activities, as the basic prerequisites to becoming a successful candidate.”

Wang details the common progression from aiming to be well rounded, or a “generalist” early in one’s career, to focusing at some point on becoming a “specialist” in a particular (often technical” area.  This is because in fast moving and complex industries, such as technology and information systems, technical specialists and Subject Matter Experts are in high demand, and often command higher salaries than other employees.  Thus, a constant tension exists between the benefits of being a well rounded Generalist, and a highly skilled Specialist.

“On one hand, we run the risk of specializing in a role that may eventually become obsolete. On the other, we may be branded a “jack of all trades, master of none.””

Finally, the Author describes how some consultants, having mastered a narrow skill area and worked as an expert in that area for some time, revert to a more well informed role as a generalist.  This may be due to market changes, the elimination of their specific skill area, or just the natural accumulation of skills and knowledge that comes with experience and age.  Whatever the reason, the generalist approach remains an important consideration in the career choices of a consultant if they want to remain relevant over time. Specializing is great, and can be lucrative, but is more easily made obsolete over time.

What Clients Want and Need:
As GIS Consultants, we realize that this issue also applies to our potential clients.  Companies, government agencies, and other organizations needing mapping, GIS and other geospatial services need to consider what type of consultant to hire.  The number and type of GIS firms can be dizzying, and finding the one that meets your organization’s needs can be confusing.  Some GIS firms specialize in particular industries, and many of these offer full service teams including specialized coding, modeling, and field science connected services.

Some GIS consultants, including independents and small firms, specialize in specific technical skills such as ArcGIS coding and customization, image processing, custom web interfaces, and other highly technical services.  While these folks are very good at what they do, they sometimes lack the perspective and overall vision to understand the complete picture of the client’s needs, and thus can end up working for many (expensive) hours developing elegant technical products that are not as useful to the client as they could be.  Some have described these kind of highly technically focused staff by the derogatory term “code monkeys.”  While I detest such demeaning terms, the point that too much focus on the technical aspects of development without a broader perspective is a problem in some cases.

Elements of the Consulting Relationship

That said, we at Synthos regularly make use of such talent, as they provide us with valuable resources to meet our clients’ needs.  In fact we rely on such expertise.  However, our focus is more on the Generalist model, as we believe it allows us to be more valuable to our customers.
We also have specific areas of expertise which we offer. Among these are high level GPS/GNSS survey, data verification, knowledge of Federal Government systems, and integration of historical maps in GIS projects.

Why Hire a Generalist Consultant?

The Geo-spatial services field is vast and incredibly varied.  My clients have ranged from the homeowner who wants to map out his garden or vacation property, to engineering firms doing light pole replacements for small cities, private school districts seeking marketing advise, site selection, flood risk assessment by real estate firms, to large clients like the US National Weather Service.  Their needs are unique to each of their missions, and often don’t fit and established industry paradigm. In most of my initial calls and interviews with clients, it becomes clear to me that they often have only a vague idea of what they need.  Many know what they want, at least in a broad sense.  Some are just looking for a “programmer” to set up a GIS application, but they often don’t understand the full complexity of what a good GIS System needs.  One quick example:

The Street Light People:
One of my first customers as an independent consultant was an Electrical engineering company that did energy saving retrofits of streetlights for small and medium sized cities.  They had a thriving business, but found that they were required by the State to report data on the exact position of each light pole, as well as a variety of attribute information.  Both the State and the cities required data in GIS format.  Not knowing what to do, they bought a sub-meter GPS unit, and sent a staff member to training.  They used the GPS unit, and gathered good data, only then to realize that they did not know what to do with it!  At that point, they realized they needed a GIS solution.  With little knowledge of the GIS world, they contacted Synthos, LLC for help. What the company thought they needed was to simply buy the right software to convert the GPS data and attributes to the correct format for submission to the clients, and meet State requirements, namely ESRI Shapefiles.  What they soon learned however, was that simply having the right equipment and software was not enough.  What they REALLY needed was a GIS System that would give them full control over the data, the ability to plan effectively, create map products, and develop a standardized method for integrating GIS into their engineering projects.

This is where Synthos came in.  Because we are well versed in all aspects of GIS projects, from initial concept through to final product delivery and evaluation, we were able to help them develop an in-house GIS capability unique to their company needs.  We helped them build a comprehensive and robust system, not overly complicated, that allowed them to make use of GPS/GIS technology within their standard business process.  This saved them money in the long run because they did not have to hire specialists to do complex tasks, trained existing employees, and delivered quality products without relying on outside contractors at additional cost.  Synthos helped them identify their needs, advised on hardware and software purchases, trained their staff, and developed templates and procedures for them to use going forward.
We helped them create a customized GIS system, including the full project life cycle, and made them the masters of their own system.  They only paid for initial hardware and software, training, and minimal consultative support.

In Summary:  While it might seem cost efficient and reasonable to hire a specialist or detail person to address a GIS need, often the better choice is to consider a more experienced Geo-spatial Generalist to assist your business in developing GIS capability.  As a professional with a broad experience, the GIS Generalist can help guide your business beyond the current need, on to a more integrated and comprehensive GIS solution, leading to better service to your customers and better profits.