In the last episode of the ACME E&L story, we left the CIO, Colin Black, musing how he was going to explain Cloud-Native “Unicorn” thinking to the Exec Board. After a few moments of reflection he decided a two-pronged approach would be best: a) Gradually introduce new concepts such as “Safe Fail” b) Demonstrate he could deliver business-relevant outcomes quickly. Pragmatically, he reasoned focusing on the latter was his priority. The current highest priority for the Board was the impending merger with ACME’s second largest competitor. The newly merged company, MACME Plc. would be launching in just a few weeks – and the Board decided it needed to establish a new corporate identity and culture from day one. The CIO suggested this would be an ideal time to move all employees to a new email and office tools platform. He reasoned that email addresses would change under the MACME brand anyway and it would also be a good opportunity to create a MACME Branded intranet portal to help build the new culture. This episode of the story is an interview with the Project Manager, Mr Olivier Gris, leading the transition from Microsoft Exchange to G Suite at ACME E&L Ltd. Olivier has worked with the CIO in the past and is regarded by him as his most trusted PM. In this interview, with a technology journalist, Mr Gris explains how he led his team to get 10,000 employees to a single instance of G Suite in 10 weeks. He discusses the ups and downs of the project, and most importantly the lessons learnt. He also explains, right up front, why this project fits with the CIO’s “Think Like a Unicorn” mantra and how emerged as a trust-winning strategy for the CIO with the entire business. This story is a real company and a real project. The company identity and the character’s names have been changed. Why did the CIO decide to use Google G Suite? “Several reasons; The CIO wanted to ensure IT was in-line with the retail Entertainment and Leisure business, where revenue directly proportional to service availability. And, in increasingly ‘Digital World’, he knew IT had a strategic role to play”. “The CIO has a bias towards Cloud (and Google’s G Suite, in particular, due to earlier successes). The firm was heading for a merger, and the CIO wanted to make sure the new merge-co (MACME E&L) would be ‘born into a Digital World’ from the get go. The company being acquired already used Google G Suite, yet ACME E&L, the acquiring company used Microsoft Exchange. So he felt it was a no-brainer to follow the one that already ‘lived’ in the Cloud”. “He favoured for SaaS on the Cloud for 3 main reasons;
- The software is constantly updated – no massive change plans required, instead, lots of small increments; little triangles of risk as opposed to one big one.
- People were increasingly working from home and they wanted a consistent experience.
- Online collaboration would be far easier – anytime, anywhere”.
“The company being acquired already used G Suite, but had actually created three separate instances. This turned out to be a questionable decision for a number of reasons:
- They outsourced a problem; a troubled service, taking its troubles with it.
- Unfounded security fears; Head Office was concerned that the shop staff might take a more cavalier attitude towards security and compromise the whole business.
- Not fully appreciating that G Suite was built with strict security policies in mind, which could be configured to prevent cross-contamination between the shops and the Head Office.
- Not believing that Google’s DC level security was likely to be far more robust than anything the could implement in their own DCs. This motivated by the fact that a hack into Google would be a very newsworthy event compared to a hack into their DC.
So, with those points in mind, he felt it was a ‘given’ go for one instance of G Suite for the whole MACME E&L business”.
Was there an ROI calculation for this project? “No, there wasn’t a formal benefits case. Things were moving quickly,; the business had bigger-fish-to-fry with the impending merger. The merger was costing money on a daily basis, largely to do with the sale of real estate and conditions set by the regulator. So there wasn’t ROI per se. What convinced the Board was that running two different platforms would be crazy, and that deployment Cloud was low-risk for office tools. And that, combined with ‘The Sword of Damocles’ of day one of the merger, meant something had to be done fast. They also saw the value of one platform bringing staff together after the merger. For those reasons, the Board was happy to support the CIO’s recommendation without doing a formal ROI”. What were the steps and how long did it take? “The steps at a high level were a bit unusual, mostly due to complications imposed by regulator – we weren’t allowed to share any corporate data ahead of the merger as the regulator deemed they may be a risk of competitive advantage. So nothing between the two pre-merger firms could be shared before day one of the merger. They did, however, allow us to set empty email accounts for the company being acquired within ACME E&L. That meant running a mirror instance then switch to single instance later, and then merge two Google G Suite instances. This all took a while to agree with the regulator and resulting the final decision on how to handle the two firms data was made just 7 weeks before the merger. This created a challenging set of constraints on both pace and approach. In the end, we managed to transfer most of the data (held in a dormant state) in batches over 4 weeks”. Is there a long-tail of users yet to adopt? “We were close to 100% users set up and running within 8 weeks. One or two people might’ve been missed due to Maternity leave, or similar. But we think we have caught those by marrying up Active Directory entries with HR records”. “We’re planning to fully decommission Exchange early in the New Year (around 10 weeks after go live). We need this extra time to recreate distribution lists, transfer archived mail, and deal with automated email-based workflows”. “So, in summary, we went from zero to 98% of our users up and running on G Suite in 5 weeks – and the remainder 4-5 weeks later”. “We now have around 10,000 users on G Suite since the merger. Around half of these transitioned from Exchange whilst the other half were consolidated onto a new G Suite instance. Interestingly, the Google to Google transfer was more technically challenging in some ways; the tools available for Exchange to G Suite are very mature, however, this wasn’t the case for G Suite to G Suite, so the latter was more ‘hand-balled’”. What were the biggest hurdles?
“We had a few unusual issues to contend with; for example, someone in Asia had hijacked the domain name we wanted for the merged company. This meant we had to work with our legal team to get that fixed, and that added pressure to the schedule. But, I’d say the people related issues were the biggest. We had underestimated how fond people were of Microsoft Exchange email. It’s very mature and people like it. For many, Google G Suite was seen a step backwards; email is what they see every day and, at first, many didn’t like the switch to browser-based email. On top of that, they didn’t see the advantages of the move to G-Suit in things like collaborative and home working. To tackle this, we took a viral approach to adoption; we sought-out enthusiastic supporters and helped them spread the word. We ran ‘Right-Fit’ workshops with the users where we discussed the pros and cons of G Suite and shared ideas and use cases (from previous workshops). It was important to hear the user’s voice and, then help them get the most from the tools; these were not training sessions – they were interactive workshops“.
“Probably the most compelling use case for the shops was around Google Forms & Sheets; for example, data sets for performance, schedules and promotions could be shared with the Head Office & other stores, faster and more accurately using Forms and Sheets. This resulted in many hours of saved at the retail outlets”.
What was the user feedback?
“The user feedback from retail area managers has been superb. We conducted a few sample surveys after we’d run the ‘Right Fit’ workshops – the results speak for themselves: ratings rose from a mark of 1 to 5 before the workshop, to between 6-10 afterwards. Workshop attendees were asked to rate Google G Suite pre and post training (1 being ‘Poor’ and 10 being ‘Awesome’)”.
Figure 1 Feedback from area managers across two regions of the U.K.
“Feedback from Head Office staff was less enthusiastic at first. However, many are now seeing the benefits of collaboration and remote working.
We had to be realistic, not all users would like the change; for example, an Executive Assistant who manages multiple diaries finds this harder to do in Google calendar than in Exchange. Google Slides lacks functionality compared to PowerPoint, some complained about this, but others saw this as a good thing; they can focus on writing great content rather than be distracted by too many features and options. And then, there are some people, who just don’t like working in the Browser”.
What’s the best feature?“I’d say Hangouts for Head Office, and Google Forms/Sheets for shops. Voice & video meetings on Hangouts becoming the norm. The users already understand the power of collaboration – both collaborative document building, and data sharing”.
What’s the least popular? “The least popular app is Google Slides compared to PowerPoint and the management of multiple calendars. Other than that, spreadsheets with complicated rules and macros can be a challenge to recreate in Google Sheets. Having said that, some users are beginning to see advantages in using Sheets; for example, one recently built a spreadsheet that made use of easy access to other Google data to calculate the distance between two postcodes”. “Uncovering large ‘Spreadsheet Apps’ was an interesting spin-off. We were looking deeper into the use of complex spreadsheets; these are the powerful spreadsheets, built by users, which have become important ‘Shadow IT’ tools that are now critical to the business operation. There’s probably a good argument to say these should be brought under more rigorous support as bona fide apps in the future”. How does it fit the overall “What Would A Unicorn Do?” strategy?
“The retail industry has gone digital; our digital products are our lifeblood. This means the role of the CIO is more important than ever – and the Board is listening to the CIO. The CIO has made it clear that our move to the Cloud is key to improving service automation. The IT team must refocus on delivering outcomes for competitive advantage: ‘Build for Competitive Advantage – Buy for Competitive Parity’ is the mantra. In other words; ‘Don’t re-invent functionality that can be provided by commodity services’. Moving to Cloud-based offices tools is directly linked to the CIO’s strategy; He asks the question; Why don’t we manage IT services in the way the likes of that Amazon Netflix do?”.
From the CIO’s perspective, moving to G Suite was a tangible, and pragmatic step; a first move to digital without putting revenue generating systems/services at risk. This was his chance to show how his Cloud-native strategy will deliver results quickly. He could demonstrate tangible value, he believed he would show that: everybody in the firm would like the collaboration features, the shop staff would save time when sharing data and, for everyone, wasting time travelling to meetings would become a thing of the past. It turned out he was right”. Did you feel the sense of strategic importance at the project level? “Absolutely, we knew we needed to make new CIO look good, and it did the trick! Initially, there was a question about the wisdom of switching to G Suite in the midst of the merger, but we explained that we would be going through the pain anyway, so why not get it over with from the get go? We also helped make the case to take the opportunity to rebrand the merged company from day one of its operation; to access G Suite, users logged into to a new look & feel that told the MACME Plc story and the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues old, and new”. Which of the CIO’s principles did this project support?
“The main principles we followed were:
The move to Cloud SaaS meant no more massive upgrades and, at the same time, providing services any time any place – at the desk, at home or elsewhere. The IT teams were not spending time on software upgrades and hosting of commodity services; the focus was on offering more differentiated services to our internal and external customers. We choose a tried-and-tested service from Google, and by Clouding rather than Outsourcing, commodity services were made much simpler to deploy and upgrade; we simply trust the provider to new helpful features and services incrementally, with no need for massive retraining programs”.
What were the IT savings?
“The IT headcount savings were minimal; a saving of around 8 outsourced FTEs. Rather than headcount reduction, people have more interesting jobs to do. In terms of assets, the Exchange infrastructure will be decommissioned in a few weeks time and we will reduce our CAPEX storage cost as we move away from shares on hosted disk”.
What has the project cost? “The cost of transformation was about £1million. If you set this against roughly comparable yearly OPEX costs between the Microsoft Licensed model and the Google Service Fee model, and take into account the time saved across 5,000 retail outlets, the cost benefits case stands up. Not to mention the intangible benefits of improved collaboration, and anywhere working”. Why Google G Suite over Microsoft Office 365 Azure? “My last client was in Local Government, in their case they decided to switch to Microsoft Office 365. Both the Google and Microsoft Cloud offerings stack-up against each other. The important point is, that in either case, software maintenance is simplified, as is the deployment of new functionality. We chose Google’s G Suite because the CIO had deployed it successfully before and was impressed by its simplicity and the rate of user adoption (particularly around collaborative working)”. Are there organisations that should avoid SaaS office tools and if so why? “Not many in my opinion. Organisations with highly sensitive data in – I’m talking ‘State Secrets’ here – would probably need special features and deployment models not available in commodity SaaS products. However, I believe, for most commercial organisations, their security concerns around the Cloud simply don’t stack up. Let’s face it, Google’s, Amazon’s or Microsoft’s Data Centres are going to be among the most secure in the world; they probably do a much better job of securing them than your company – a breach of security for them would be a much bigger headline!”.
“For a small business, it’s no-brainer! However, at the other end of scale, companies with a lot of legacy ‘Shadow IT’ in complex spreadsheets and email-enabled workflow, might find the journey to SaaS more complicated and longer than ours. For them, I’d recommend: the risk assessment be done scientifically, rather than emotionally, plan to implement in incremental steps, and listen and act on, user feedback at each increment”.
“Perhaps paradoxically, the tight time constraints imposed by the merger on our project was an advantage. The value of a single platform for the new company gained the attention of the Board, and that put pace and weight behind the project. I would recommend that any CIO thinking of moving to the Cloud find similar Board level support early on”. “In summary, I would argue going Cloud is a much better way for delivering and managing IT services, and that a move to SaaS office tools is a relatively low-risk way to start that journey”.