Tolerating Ambiguity in Geospatial - 03/08/2015


There is ambiguity all around, says Adena Schutzberg. The trick is recognizing it, choosing a way forward and not being frightened to fail.

Jeff Selingo, who writes about education, shared a terrific article on LinkedIn titled Wanted in College Graduates: Tolerance for Ambiguity. He argues that the “killer app” in today’s workplace is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Said another way, it’s unlikely a new employee will get a clear set of expectations from a supervisor for a specific project, nor a recipe for how to get the work done. Instead, the employee will need to figure it out. That’s a valuable insight for students, job seekers and hiring managers in the geospatial marketplace.

Students are unsure whether to major in forestry and take a few GIS classes or the other way around. They are unsure which programming language to learn. They are unsure where to move to, to start their careers. They are unsure about taking an unpaid internship. The best news about this group is that they know they are unsure! I see their questions regularly on social media and in sessions devoted to GIS careers at conferences.

Employers might have one task they know a new employee will do, but the rest of the job “depends.” If the position is in government, it depends on if the budget is available to purchase the new server or software license. If the position is in consulting, it depends on if the company wins the big (or small) contract and if the scope of work changes. If the position is in software development, it depends on the speed of development and if the selected development platform will still exist or be supported next week or next year. I suspect all this ambiguity pushes hiring managers to list every possible skill (GIS or otherwise) in each new job description.

The biggest players in our industry, the ones everyone has heard of that “do mapping,” also live in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity. These companies’ executives are watching the unpredictable hardware, software and services markets rise and fall even as they launch new products and services, acquire companies and shut down efforts that don’t pan out. Just this year Google announced that Google Maps Enterprise would be phased out and Microsoft agreed to sell its imagery collection assets to Uber. Those decisions in turn cascade down to business and consumer customers, creating even more ambiguity and uncertainty.

Dealing with Ambiguity and Uncertainty

I like to think GIS education provides students with at least a taste of the ambiguity they will face. The quintessential example is “the GIS project.” It might be the first independent effort in a GIS 101 course or it might be a capstone project for a degree. Students sometimes panic as they take responsibility for selecting the topic, defining the final product and creating the workflow.

How do we as professionals deal with this uncertainty? How do we mentor less experienced colleagues? How do we calm students? Taking a step back and gaining perspective can help.

First off, everyone involved in a project is unsure of at least some aspects of it, what Donald Rumsfeld would call “the unknown unknowns.” Realizing that there is ambiguity, and that others are in the same boat, can bolster one’s confidence.

Second, tackling a project completely on your own is the exception, not the rule. The students crafting a GIS project who look for input from classmates and instructors or on social media are reaching out to help deal with ambiguity. Colleagues asking one another or other experts are doing the same thing. Gathering input (data or opinion) can lessen ambiguity.

Finally, at some point, despite the ambiguity, a student or staffer must choose a path forward. Some paths will be more successful than others. Diving in and “going for it,” even if it turns out to be a disappointment in the end, is always better than being paralyzed and doing nothing. The student or employee who tries and succeeds is lauded. The one who tries and fails should be lauded, too. The one who fails to try is unlikely to pass the course, get the job or keep the job.

This article was published in GIS Professional August 2015

Last updated: 22/08/2019