A Retail Perspective

Jillian Elder, Senior Manager
Enterprise GIS, Walgreens

This interview discusses the challenges encountered in implementing an enterprise-wide location information strategy.

Jillian-Elder_Pic1astrickBACKGROUND Jillian Elder is not your average GIS Manager. She was a Geography major at the University of Illinois and was hired by Walgreens in 1999 to do site analysis, which had a GIS component to it. When the company changed GIS platforms, Jillian became the department expert. Over time her role would evolve into a dedicated GIS resource, and use of geographic or location analysis has become critical to achieving the company’s objectives.

Jillian sees GIS as another tool in a broader information toolbox that helps to solve a problem. As her team sits within the Market Planning and Research Group that reports to the CFO, she is charged with finding and accessing the best data from across the organization to answer particular questions. While many of her peers in other organizations and industries see GIS as just a software application, Jillian sees GIS as a tool – and one tool of many – to solve a problem. You have to ask a question, have an understanding of what the problem is, then you task the software, not for an answer, but for context to formulate the answer.

LBX Tell us about your Research Group and its objectives.

ELDER As a research organization, we support the market strategy and planning objectives of the company. Our department has specialized expertise in Market Strategy, Health Care Research, Daily Living, and our Enterprise GIS (EGIS) and Business Intelligence teams. For EGIS, our biggest customer is our internal market planning and research group and as such we look for the best data across the organization to support understanding our customer, the market, our competition, how to optimize existing stores, and new opportunities. We also keep our software and methodologies current and accessible for decision making.

Beyond our own organization, we support the company’s needs for spatial analytics, both by providing our software, data, and training, and by working on a host of research projects, big and small. It could be as simple as a map for a district manager’s territory or as complex as determining the right markets and stores to test new concepts.

We have five people on our team with a variety of skills who can slice and dice data to nd relationships to geography that would not otherwise be apparent, and that turn out to be the basis of key strategic assumptions. Our job is to support the organization in making the best possible decisions with the data available to them.

LBX Is the research group the best fit for a geospatial department?

ELDER  We thought about this a lot as we worked on our strategic plan a few years ago. It works, as this department is the gold standard for non-bias independent research and recommendations, and the EGIS team also works in that consultant capacity. What we were missing is a bit more visibility to the full organization so our colleagues could know we exist and seek us out. We are working to overcome that with branding and marketing e orts internally. We have a group logo and a one-pager that describes who we are and what we do and we are endeavoring to create User Groups throughout the organization to solicit feedback, o er training, and really create a community of users across the enterprise.

The other reason why we decided to remain within our research area is there is really not another more appropriate fit. We work hand in hand with our IT department to develop our applications, but we are definitely not IT, and our strategic services would be sought out there even less. Other divisions within the company would narrow our focus as they are mostly designed around one function. However, our company is constantly growing and changing in its organization, so there could be a different logical fit in the future.

ROI is the elephant in the room when it comes to GIS. Because our objective is to improve decision making, it is frankly very difficult to point to a particular KPI or quantify the benefit at each stage in the organization that someone tasks us with a question.

LBX Many geospatial vendors speak in terms of bene ts from deploying an enterprise GIS. What does this mean to you?

ELDER  Our goal is to reach this stage of maturity, which does not happen overnight. I think it starts with a group of dedicated GIS professionals working to build a flexible platform so that users in a variety of business areas can leverage GIS technology and spatial data. Ideally, you can create an environment where you can con gure purpose-driven applications and have them embedded in processes without needing a GIS expert in each department. Done correctly, we hope to have a hub and spoke network across Walgreens of people using spatial analysis in different ways, but ultimately keeping the governance of a central organization to avoid redundancies or accidental silos.

LBX What’s the biggest challenge in meeting your vision?

ELDER There are two enormous challenges in adopting an enterprise view of geospatial or location data. First is funding. By taking the holistic approach, you don’t have a single champion to support the project. For example we are in the process of building a new platform with the latest technology from ESRI and Latitude Geographics. This project involves a number of sub-projects including database optimization, security issues, data integration, connections to Web servers, and a myriad of requirements we’ve been waiting to implement. Once that foundation is built, the real ROI driving requests can be executed, but attaching the cost of building the foundation to any one project can be a funding killer.

So we spend a lot of time working bottom up, building alliances along the way, because for an enterprise vision to work, everyone needs to be on the same page and understand the long term vision. Lots of people have great ideas for projects that are relatively straight- forward and very beneficial, but the time lag for funding and having that base foundation in place is daunting.

LBX What’s your second biggest challenge?

ELDER The second biggest challenge is largely outside of our control. It has to do with finding the talent. In this down economy, it still took me six months to nd the right person for an open position. The problem is that there are not many GIS-trained professionals who have a business background. Most GIS professionals have a background in public works, agriculture and natural resources, urban planning or non-profits. These environments and business objectives are very different from the world of retail. It can still be a transition to come from a one-man shop type atmosphere to an enterprise approach
at a large company. Very few colleges are embracing the potential of geospatial thinking in any sort of systematic and practical curricula aside from learning how to use the software. Business-oriented GIS programs are rare, and geographers have to be evangelists about application of their knowledge; it’s not all states and capitals!

LBX  What’s your secret, in terms of your view of geospatial services, applications and technology?

ELDER Many organizations and consultant groups build “black box”-type applications for a single function. We have the bene t of a highly analytic department that dives deeply into the data and causal relationships so we can build applications with tools to get to answers, not just enter three parameters and hit a button and get an “answer.” This leaves our platform more exible to be open to solving many types of questions.

LBX What about the issue of tangible ROI? How do you address with that?

ELDER ROI is the elephant in the room when it comes to GIS. Because our objective is to improve decision making, it is frankly very difficult to point to a particular KPI or quantify the bene t at each stage in the organization that someone tasks us with a question. Our leadership and CFO clearly see the benefit of facilitating better decisions by other people. It is not a direct bene t, but we do work with other groups to determine how they use the data, the time spent/saved in answering a question, and the value of what happens at a store based on more informed decisions. We’d love to get better at capturing the ROI that using GIS generates; often we are adding value to an existing process or decision and it is difficult to carve out the ROI from our contribution.

We work hand in hand with our IT department to develop our applications, but we are definitely not IT, and our strategic services would be sought out there even less.

LBX  Is anything missing in the industry that could better support you in your objectives of scaling enterprise GIS?

ELDER It feels like, despite its maturity, the industry is still in hype mode. Surprisingly, it is still difficult to nd practical large-scale application examples at conferences. Often the focus is on adopting GIS rather than expanding it once you have it installed and have a department in place. As I mentioned earlier, I think what is really missing is an appropriate curriculum at the college level. There is shockingly little right experience out there for connecting GIS or geospatial skills with a business ecosystem.

LBX What advice do you have for your peers in other companies and in different industries who are trying to scale their existing GIS systems or bring location-based applications into their organization?

ELDER  The rst question to ask is, “What are you trying to build when building or extending a GIS?” In the retail industry, many are looking at purely creating a site location app, or a site location map, or a “give me an answer” app. And while that can be a great way to bring some spatial thinking to the forefront, we looked at building a location-based research platform. Now that platform is what informs everything we do from the types of vendors we work with, how we secure funding, how we hire people… GIS or any location-based application needs to be kept in perspective. It’s a tool.