Cloud collaboration and workforce mobility platforms such as Google Apps for Business and Office 365 have amazing potential to drive productivity improvements, collaboration and cost reductions – especially when paired with workplace redesign programs including Activity Based Working (ABW) and collaboration-centric site design.  

What most organisations discover very quickly about these transitions however, is that they are buying into a collaboration ecosystem, not a package – and this entails behavioural and cultural change, and sophisticated planning.

User transition and change management, and careful design – can make a massive difference to the success of the project.  Catalyste Managing Director, Gavin Ger explains how.


A new way of working

Just 5 years ago, there was a serious debate about whether the cloud (hosted application services) would be capable of displacing the entrenched organisational addiction to enterprise, email and document management systems.

Today, there are few who doubt it, with many organisations rapidly embracing cloud or hosted application services, and users demanding a more app-centric, user-friendly and alway-connected means of working – with collaboration at the core.

For many organisations, the often massive potential benefits – collaboration, productivity and last but not least – cost reductions – have made the transition irresistible.  The benefits from these 3 areas can be measured in the tens of millions per year for even a mid sized organisation, many times more for a corporate.

$5 per user per month sound appealing? And almost no infrastructure?  Plus a whole bunch of productivity and collaboration gains?  It’s hard to say no !


A new way of thinking

Most organisations start their cloud and workforce mobility journeys via an email platform change – moving from costly-to-maintain platforms such as Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, to hosted platforms such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps for Business.  What most discover very quickly though, is they are buying into a collaboration ecosystem, not a package.

What most organisations discover very quickly about cloud transitions, is they are buying into a collaboration ecosystem, not a package.

Google Apps perhaps best encompasses this paradigm shift.  Google Apps for Business provides an integrated suite of collaboration tools, centred around the ‘Messaging’ cluster of applications (Gmail, Contacts, Calendar, Hangouts, and Google+) and the ‘Drive’ cluster of applications (including Google Drive, Docs and Sites) – which handle content management and file integration/collaboration.  Not to mention Search, Maps and other applications.

So, an organisation implementing Gmail, will find that it is effectively also implementing at a minimum Google Contacts, Calendar and Hangouts (chat, videoconferencing) – and in most cases they enable Google Drive as well.  Microsoft’s Office 365 platform delivers a similar set of integrated collaboration tools.  So what?

These applications not only bring significant changes to the way work tasks are done (e.g. Google Drive is based on a distributed, shared paradigm – rather than the centralised, highly controlled folder structures many are used), they also bring significant process and behavioural changes, and they require a different approach to driving user adoption.


Transition to the cloud is similar to other technology transitions is some ways, but radically different in others.  Here why…


1. Design matters more than you think

The sales models for products such as Google Apps and Office 365 are slick, simple and follow the consumer app marketing paradigms many end-users are used to.  And it is often extremely simple to get started – even free to begin with.

But unlike traditional software models which brought their own barriers to stop end users installing them (servers, enterprise connectivity), many modern collaboration platforms need nothing more (at least to begin with) than a browser and an internet connection.

Google Drive – document visibility settings

Users and their teams can get up and running very quickly, and the ‘wizard’ style configuration processes can make it easy to ‘skip’ important design decisions, many with major enterprise or solution architecture implications.  A great example is Google Drive.

The wrong settings can expose the organisation’s confidential data publicly, but even simpler challenges lies in wait.  If the right folder permissions and process are not carefully implemented, documents can be lost through accident or when staff leave the organisation and their document ownership is not transferred.

Sure, there are utilities and processes to help with this, but we have found through several implementations that there are a handful of key design decisions (such as document management and sharing) that can cause confusion and even serious problems, if skipped or fumbled.

If you are trying to get your business to 'Go Google', then taking a decision to allow all but a handful of very special users to remain using the old Outlook client could be a recipe for disaster.

Then there is enterprise architecture.  If you are trying to get your business to ‘Go Google’ (by definition, “live in the cloud”), then taking a decision to allow all but a handful of very special users to remain using the old Outlook client (and map to Gmail) could be a recipe for disaster.

While this may seem obvious, because in many implementations these kind of critical enterprise architecture decision are ‘hidden’ within what appears to be a low-level configuration process, it’s easy to overlook key design decisions.  We’ve seen what can happen – can be ugly !  Design matters just as much in the cloud, just in a different way.


2. Familiar tasks – and even jobs – will change more than you think

One of the things we’ve found on our client implementations of packages like Google Apps, is that the users who struggle the most with transition are often the most capable and productive.  This makes intuitive sense, yet it’s often ignored, and the change management implications are potentially very serious.

Almost anyone aged 35 or over in an organisation today probably cut their teeth on Microsoft Outlook.  Many are ‘power users’.  We have seen entire process models (and even identities) built around Outlook in our clients’ businesses – not just macros and toolbar integrations, but entire ways teams, their managers, and their manager’s PA’s all working together around an accepted Outlook-driven process.

Even if some of these ways of working are inefficient (often we are able to help clients dramatically simplify team sharing/collaboration tasks on the cloud), they may have built up over years, and so there is a golden opportunity to re-design the way the organisation works (see more on staff involvement below).  Yet many organisations ignore this opportunity, and instead choose to replicate old ways of working with the new tools.

One of the things we've found on our client implementations of packages like Google Apps, is that the users who struggle the most with transition are often the most capable and productive.

Speaking of the tools themselves, one of the facts of cloud transitions is that the web-based collaboration tools often lack a lot of the feature richness of their desktop equivalents.  Gmail is often portrayed as particularly lacking in terms of the UI richness compared with desktop Outlook, but it’s not just Google – Outlook for the web is similarly less rich.

In both cases, their HTML based interfaces provide a lower degree of support for complex embedding and formatting the way desktop packages can.  The cloud versions of Microsoft Word, Google Docs and other web based productivity apps all have similar limitations – a fact acknowledged in the sales literature, with Microsoft users being told that they will likely still need the desktop apps for the more complex tasks.

Once they transition, many users realise just how little of the higher-end functionality they actually use, and in many cases we find that with some creative user involvement, users will develop new, more efficient and creative ways to work.  Another reason to get users on board.


3. User involvement pays back hugely

As we’ve highlighted above, cloud transitions fundamentally change the way teams and individuals work. If the change seems minor, then it’s likely the business is not getting the collaboration benefits or leveraging what the platform can do.

The changes are at the workgroup and org unit level – requiring a local or team solution.  And here is a golden opportunity to leverage one of the most powerful organisational change management tools available – user involvement.

On one client site, the Finance team used the introduction of Google Drive to re-engineer the way budgets were produced.  Instead of emailing a budget spreadsheet to 50 department heads and GMs, they created a single budget spreadsheet using Google Sheets, and then added the users as ‘collaborators’ to the document.

This meant that the users could all make their edits – even at the same time, and there were no more revision integration ‘nightmares’.  This same team embraced Google Apps fully – moving all their core internal processes and documents onto Google Drive, and even established shared ‘to do’ lists to help manage critical tasks at period end to ensure nothing was missed – dramatically cutting down on meetings and email.

The key is to foster a sense of ownership amongst the staff, and to provide enough support and autonomy to ensure they develop the right solution for themselves.

The key here was to foster a sense of ownership amongst the staff, and to provide enough support and autonomy to the group to ensure they could develop the right solution for themselves.  The tools themselves can be configured by savvy end-users – to a point (see ‘design matters’ above) – but they can certainly build within a framework.  And because the default paradigm with a tool like Google Apps is devolved/decentralised/sharing based, the challenge moves more to designing suitable controls and safeguards – and letting the users design their own environment.

As with all good user involvement strategies, get users involved early, give them proper accountability for design decisions, and support them well with access to experts, so they know what the tools can do and can exploit their full features.


4. Leadership matters – a lot

Of course it does, you say… but how many past Outlook upgrades did you see your CEO sponsoring?  Given the scale and breadth of the impact these tools can have in an organisation, one of the key lessons we have observed with cloud migrations is that the transition needs to be championed by the CEO and exec team.  It touches everything, involves so much subtle change, and impacts everyone from the admin clerk to the CEO.

Cloud transitions need the ‘governing coalition’ – the CEO and exec team – to maintain an iron-clad will to succeed, and unbroken ranks.  Think I’m being dramatic?  On one client assignment, I was personally asked by the Chairman to investigate if the business should simply ‘roll-back’ to Outlook (from Google Apps), following howls of protest and alleged problems in part of the organisation. Yet other parts were quietly getting on with adopting it – in some cases with much enthusiasm!

Leaders not only need to maintain unanimity, but they themselves need to lead from the front, and be seen to be visibly using the tools.

In this case there were several factors at play – including problems with mailbox conversions and a few architectural issues which were underestimated – however one of the main factors which drove this potentially disastrous situation was that some senior managers simply dug their heels in and stonewalled the project, aided by a decision to allow users to maintain access to  Gmail via the old Outlook desktop client.

This combination held back their organisational units from fully adopting the solution, with some staff working secretly to get on board with Google so that their boss didn’t catch them using it !

Leaders not only need to maintain unanimity, but they themselves need to lead from the front, and be seen to be visibly using the tools.  Nothing turns heads faster than the MD dropping in on a Google Hangout !  And for this to happen, these most senior of users need personalised transition support, discussed further below.


5. Forget training – focus on learning and personalised transition support

OK maybe not ‘forget training’ but certainly it’s better to focus on learning rather than training.  Cloud transitions do not lend themselves well to formalised classroom and CBT training programs of the kind many organisations are used to running.  The learning content needed is much shallower, but also much broader, and it needs to be contextualised in the user’s actual work environment, not some fictional scenario.

We have found that tools like Vimeo and YouTube (private channels), plus newsletters and intranet sites – are far more useful than classroom training for mass awareness and basic skill building. Almost everyone uses either Gmail, or Hotmail in their private lives, and these ‘mass communications’ channels can be used to cater for a wide variety of skill levels and progressions.

It's better to focus on learning rather than training. Cloud transitions do not lend themselves well to formalised classroom and CBT training programs.

The most effective learning and transition strategies we have seen deployed are those that combine:

  1. User involvement approaches (see above) to give users actual design tasks to complete around how they will use the platform.
  2. Pre go-live training delivered by expert users within the workgroup (e.g. clusters of 3-8), and contextualised to that user group (e.g. train the PAs together, train the sales team together), focusing on the actual tasks they will perform and the actual tools they will use, in real life scenarios.
  3. Combining  1 & 2 above just prior to and following go-live, to design more extensive and complex aspects of their implementation (e.g. shared folder structures, workflows). In some ways this can resemble the Agile method (with good reason – it’s iterating designing, learning, implementing, mastering).
  4. Ensuring that there are genuine experts on-site at each location at go-live (at the very least advanced and expert trained users), with at least one platform technical specialist available to each major cluster of users, plus the ability to escalate to a product specialist on the vendor side.  Simply having roving ‘floor walkers’ who are not experts will likely make things worse and contribute to a chaotic feeling.  The expert users will focus not just on training, but on helping users configure their inboxes and other apps to use the most optimal settings (e.g. labels, filters and advanced settings) – which can transform the user experience from average to exceptional.
  5. Support for ‘special needs’ users – busy execs or traveling staff who either work from remote locations or don’t have time to bring their laptop and phone in for conversion.  One of our most successful approaches was to establish ‘VIP kiosks’ situated in the building lobby – where anyone could drop off their laptop or phone to have it expertly converted and configured, with a bookable private room for very senior staff or those who are shy about appearing inept, so they could receive some expert pointers behind closed doors, and resume the ‘champion’ and ‘expert’ identities many of them had held as Outlook users.
  6. Identifying the ‘top 50′ most critical and influential users – many will not be senior, but their opinions will help set the tone for everyone else’s experiences – and ‘hand transition’ them (give them the gold treatment).  Get them involved early, ensure their data is transitioned perfectly, and ensure their configuration settings are perfectly tuned for their jobs.  But there’s a catch, because this is not cheap – the deal is they need to act as a point of reference (dare we use the cliche Ambassador?!) for others in their area, and need to proactively help their colleagues.  Certainly the executive team should be on this list, but so too should be key PA’s, and other key influencers.



While the above may seem costly or difficult, it’s not when you consider the cost of fitting out training rooms for thousands of users, and the even greater costs of poor productivity and morale, or worse still, lost client emails, organisational chaos or even an abandoned or delayed go-live.

It doesn’t need an army – but it does need some real expertise, especially in the areas of Change Management and Architecture.  Get experts on board who have done cloud transition before.  These investments will dramatically reduce risk, and accelerate benefits delivery – and make the difference between an enjoyable and challenging experience, and one which is chaotic, risk and infuriating.

We find that most systems integrators who specialise in this area have a solid approach to managing the transition, but most large scale implementations (1,000 + users) simply need more time, more tailoring of the approach, and more complex organisational change management and user transition than the package budgets typically cater for.

We find when we partner with the integrators, and the client, that the combination is fantastic.  Also, most cloud transitions are part of a broader productivity, platform or cultural change program, and sometimes these linkages need more extensive change integration (which is where Catalyste specialises).

Transitioning to the cloud can be a great journey when planned and executed well.  Good luck with your journey, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you need some advice.

Gavin Ger
Catalyste MD


Interested in learning more?

Click here to contact the article author – Gavin Ger.

Click here to read a case study from one of our Transition to the Cloud client projects.

Click here to read about Catalyste’s Organisational Change Management capabilities.

Click here to view further Catalyste Insights and articles related to this article.