Certifications + Competencies: Anybody Listening?

Every couple years the GIS community perks up for one reason to revisit and debate the importance and worthiness of Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) certification.  And more recently there has also been discussion and outreach, albeit among a much smaller community of geospatial professionals, on Geospatial Competency/Maturity Models.  Such is the recent case as the NYS GIS community (as part of the NEARC listserv) were asked  to jump in and contribute to an online survey  intended to “to get some idea of how widely GIS certifications have been adopted and promoted within organizations that use GIS technology or services at any level”.   The listserv posting states that results of the survey will be summarized and presented next month at the 2014 GIS-Pro Conference in New Orleans.

Not the first time the GIS community has been asked to weigh in and offer opinions on the GISP issue and my bet is that the results will continue to vary greatly based on respondent criteria such as years of GIS experience, management and supervisory responsibilities, and even type of employer (i.e., public, private, nonprofit, academic, etc.).  A simple Google search on “worth/value of GISP Certification” will result in a long list of articles on the subject from both individuals and online trade magazines.  Most of the online discussion will support and speak to the value of GISP Certification.  Which should come as no surprise as many of the opinion gathering efforts on this particular issue have been surveys of GIS industry personnel.  (Isn’t this called surveying the choir?)  There is the occasional descending opinion though this is normally the exception.    As a long-time GIS manager here in New York State I see both sides of the debate.  And yes, I did respond to the recent online GIS Certification questionnaire.

There are also recent and ongoing efforts to solicit comments on the 2010 Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) which has been on the back burner for the last couple years.   And I’d be surprised there is much awareness of the model throughout the NYS geospatial community.  Originally proposed by the University of Southern Mississippi’s Geospatial Workforce Development Center, the GTMC concept was an initial effort in the early 2000s to define geospatial industry skills and competencies.  This work  led to the first draft of the GTCM which was peer reviewed  by the Spatial Technologies Information Association (STIA) –  around the same time  STIA received a $700,000 grant from the Dept. of Labor to “promote spatial technologies industry”.    Interestingly, STIA doesn’t even seem to be around anymore.

Work continued on the GTCM and in early 2009 members of the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GeoTech Center) became involved in the effort to complete the GTCM.  As it goes, a panel of geospatial experts were brought together to further define the many components of the GTCM model.    Public comments were sought and comments were addressed with a final GTCM draft submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (DOLETA) Geospatial Technology Competency Model.  The draft was approved by DOLETA in 2010.

Approximately during the same timeframe and to further muddle efforts to define  geospatial industry standards,  the University Consortium for GIS Science got into them mix by publishing the Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge in 2006.  It’s not real clear where this publication and effort went, if anywhere, in context of industry acceptance and promotion.  This publication was reissued in late 2012 by ESRI and the Association of American Geographers (AAG).   UCGIS is revisiting the book of knowledge as part of a 2014-2015 effort.

Since 2010 there have been focused efforts to promote the worthiness of the GTCM including David Debiase’s (ESRI) 2012 Directions Magazine article entitled Ten Things You Need to Know about the Geospatial Technology Competency Model.   The GTCM model is not for the meek and a challenge to work through for even the most experienced geospatial professionals.  I’ve been in the NYS geospatial space for a long, long time and I’ve never been involved in a GTCM focused discussion.  Or even aware of one.

Championed largely by GeoTech academics and DOLETA staff, GTCM was created to become an important resource “for defining the geospatial industry and a valuable tool for educators creating programs”.   The model specifies foundational (Tiers 1-3), industry-wide (Tier 4), and industry sector-specific (Tier 5) expertise characteristic of the various occupations that comprise the geospatial industry.   Descriptions of individual geospatial occupations, including occupation-specific competencies and job requirements (Tiers 6-8), are published in DOLETA’s O*NET occupation database (http://www.onetonline.org/).

URISA continues to make significant efforts to contribute to the GTCM concept.  In 2013 URISA published two documents:  (1) the Geospatial Management Competency Model (GMCM) and (2) the GIS Capability Maturity Model (GISCMM).   The GMCM focuses on just Tier 9 of the GTCM and specifies 74 essential competencies and 18 competency areas that characterize the work of most successful managers in the geospatial industry. It is not intended to be an exhaustive inventory of all pertinent competencies, such as those specific to particular work settings. Instead, the GMCM seeks to distill a concise list that is widely applicable, and readily adaptable to evolving industry needs.  The GISCMM was published as part of the newly formed URISA GIS Management Institute (GMI).

The GISCMM provides a first-ever framework for assessing not only the capability of an enterprise GIS operation, but also the process maturity of those who manage and operate the GIS. It includes 23 enabling capability assessment components, which include the sorts of assets that a GIS operation acquires. The Model also includes 22 execution ability assessment components, which include the key processes that are required to manage and operate an enterprise GIS. URISA states GISCMM will help organizations assess the development stage of their GIS and the process maturity level of their operations.  This assessment will help them target priority capability enhancement s and process improvements.  GIS staff responsible for operations and management will be able to use both the GISCMM and the GMCM to assess their own professional strengths and weakness and to identify training and other professional development priorities.

Honorable goals and intent, no doubt, but at the end of the day, a daunting concept for statewide GIS managers to get their arms around and champion in their respective organizations.

 So What’s All This Mean to the NYS Geospatial Community?

At this point, I think one would be challenged to find any real broad based discussion on the GISP Certification here in the Empire State.  Other than a show of hands as to who has GISP Certification at the bi-annual NYS state conference, the discussion doesn’t go much farther.  Instead of it being ongoing fodder for discussion among the choir at national conferences, perhaps in time, groups like the NYGIS Association Professional Development Committee could bring the topic down to earth and focus on what it really means here in New York.  Beyond discussion among my peers, GISP Certification has meant little to me personally in context of expanded professional recognition.  Though noted, this is just me – in the twilight of my professional career with Westchester County.

Inasmuch the GIS community wants GISP Certification to mean something, to cause change, to somehow better recognize or legitimize our work and services – little has been done in the institutional framework in which the geospatial community works and operates.  For example, or at least in government, one of the most meaningful and long lasting impacts will come when GISP credentials finally mean something to Human Resource managers and/or incorporated in civil service titles.  There has been only minimal progress in this regard across the state.

Unlike recognized professional credentials such as Professional Engineer (PE) and Project Management Professional (PMP) – ones that we most often run into in the geospatial arena – government attorneys and contract administrators will continue to be reluctant of adding new requirements to Request for Proposals (RFP) such as “GISP” when benefits of such are not clearly understood and recognized or do not have any financial or legal basis.   The model may be a little different in business and industry.  Yes, it may behoove consultants to show GISPs on staff to make their company credentials better than the next, but at the end of the day, organizations requesting GIS contract support want the most cost effective solution to get the job done – with or without GISP Certification.  Most likely until GISP Certification discussion turns into  institutional acceptance – by the organizations which hire and employ geospatial professionals – the banter of GISP Certification self-worth will continue.

Discussion – or actually the lack of – on Competence/Maturity Models in New York State is another issue.  Hard to explain given the broad publicity the issue has been given at professional conferences, URISA publications, academia, and uber expansive publications like ESRI’s ArcNews.  But it probably speaks to the point noted above the discussion continues to be within a very small audience.    Missing is meaningful and aggregated input from the grass roots level at all levels of NYS government.  Input is needed from GIS managers and supervisors who cannot afford to attend conferences.  Those who cannot serve on committees for one reason or another or simply do not have the time.  GIS administrators in 2014 publically funded, budget strapped organizations just trying to keep the lights on.  Yes, the new models speak to sustainability and revenue streams, but to introduce this discussion in 2014 in organizations which are constantly being asked to move programs to the Cloud, consider outsourcing or additional vendor support, or simply dropping selected program elements altogether, seems almost too much to ask?  In most local organizations across the state, there is very little context, or ability to start Competency/Maturity Model discussions.  Return-on-Investment (ROI) numbers are great to the extent staff and resources are available to prepare and conduct them; unfortunately I don’t see much of this across the NYS GIS landscape.   And given the complexity of the models and the need for administrative, management, financial, and  human resources to be included in the Competency/Maturity Models discussion, bringing these topics as  workshops or training sessions to the state conferences (bi-annual and/or Geospatial Summit) would only be scratching the surface towards institutional  understanding and implementation.  Finding the right conduit to bring all the right and necessary players the table will continue to be a huge lift.  For that matter, just who are the right people to bring to the discussion at the local and county levels?

(BTW, most wouldn’t know it, but the State of New York completed its own Geospatial Maturity Assessment (GMA) last fall.)


Both the GISP Certification and Geospatial Competency/Maturity Model discussions certainly have relevance here in New York State,   but considerable work lies ahead towards incorporating the concepts into the institutional and administrative frameworks before any meaningful “professional” acceptance and recognition will be realized as part of the business of doing GIS.     Until then, it will be business as usual.   Many good deeds have been done by both URISA and the GeoTech Center but the work and concept will fall short if not packaged and promoted in a user-friendly manner which is of consequential and realistic to resource-strapped NYS local government GIS programs.  There are no URISA Chapters in New York State, so both the GISP Certification and Competency/Maturity Models will need to be advocated through other means and partners.  For example the NYS GIS Association’s Educational and  Professional Development Committees are sponsoring and upcoming webinar entitled “Revitalizing GIST Community College Programs” part of which is relevant to the GTCM.  Other than this, the collective messages on both of these “GIS relevancy” issues are limited and probably in need of an extreme makeover.

Other webinars, email blasts, online surveys, conference workshops and announcements will surely follow on these subject matters.  And the debate will continue. The real challenge will be to see if the New York geospatial community will take notice and listen.  Or even have the means to do so?  Or even care.

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