What I Got Out of the ESRIUC

In times of small budgets and big tech, ESRI has invested heavily — not just monetarily, but in focus — on its Local Government model. They want to sell municipalities on out-of-the-box solutions to wide-ranging problems. In theory, it sounds great: the Microsoft Office of GIS. In practice, it’s a little more like the Adobe Creative Suite or even a Linux OS: on the surface, it looks deceptively easy, but without some skill and training, it’s probably better left to the experts. (And speaking of experts, there were several demos done by ESRI employees that still looked a little rough around the edges, which alone implies their point-and-click solutions aren’t as easy as they seem.)

For the record, the Local Government packages are cheaper than the older-model licenses, servers, and full-time staff required for a GIS department just a few years ago. That’s been a big part of the sales pitch, even for consulting firms partnered with ESRI to offer Local Government solutions. And GIS salaries have been falling lately, partly because of the economy, but in part — if the conversations I overheard are any indicator — because managers and municipal leaders are under the impression the newer model software requires far less skill to set up and support.

Except, the Local Government models aren’t as cheap as they sound. They still require licensing, setup, and support. And, if initial user experience is any indicator, these solutions can require a lot of setup and support experience. (Definitely more challenging than getting server-level MS Office up and running.) They’re just easier for end users such as parking or police departments and citizens.

This can be disheartening to GIS Professionals who have invested time and energy to stay current in their field. That may explain, to some degree, the increasing numbers of GISPs embarking on consulting and small-business ventures of their own or going to work for larger firms already in existence. And it may lead to a situation where municipalities find they can mostly hire only interns who later leave for greener pastures.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review discussed a small trend in hiring of late that may find roots in the GIS/Municipal Government industries. Companies, no longer looking for lifetime commitments from hirees (and looking to avoid the sometimes-massive cost deferral inherent in cycles of layoffs and rehiring), have started offering “tours of duty” after which employees may move up in the company or use mutual networks to find another opportunity.

Meaning, municipalities may, in the long run, be better off adopting a GIS hiring model almost like that of the publishing industry. Hiring outside consultants for initial setup and large-scale, intensive, or highly technical upgrades and support, while using in-house staff primarily act primarily as liaisons with contractors and user support.

Any way you slice it, ESRI’s Local Government model has the potential to change the industry. At the moment, though, the software is still too technical and expensive to be for everyone.

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