The First Church of Christ, Scientist, had an email problem.
The organization's IT staff was swamped with work trying to keep its Microsoft Exchange email system up and running, and costs were mounting. With more than 600 users at 170 branch locations in more than 80 countries -- including the Pulitzer-prize winning Christian Science Monitor newspaper and its staff -- the task of handling a global email system was becoming unmanageable.
"What we needed to do was to be able to provide the organization with the ability to use mail here and around the world," says First Church CIO Curt Edge. "This is a service. We needed to find a service that provides mail, provides it to people on different devices and in a simple and easy manner."
So Edge and First Church decided to migrate the organization to Google Apps and use Gmail, contacts and calendar in the cloud. It worked directly with Google and Google partner Cloud Sherpas on the migration, which launched November 17, 2010.
Choosing to use a partner to deploy the platform helped the process go smoothly and kept the IT staff from becoming bogged down in the transition. It didn't hurt that Cloud Sherpas was willing to listen to Edge and his concerns about moving to the cloud.
"They were considerate of just how important this was, for us. This was an enormous thing. It was the entire organization. It was our first enterprise foray into the cloud, so it had to go well. They were really intent on listening to what we thought the problems were and where we thought problems would come up," Edge says. "There could be no bumps along the road. We had some pretty serious discussions on the importance of this going well -- it affected everybody from the board of directors down through the organization."
To smooth the transition, Cloud Sherpas provided training for users -- Google Guides -- who were part of a group of early adopters. They were able to help colleagues learn how to use the new platform.
"Not all of our users are great users. They all try and they all do well, but there were going to be some problems. There were going to be some folks who were not going to have fun with this," Edge says.
"That we had a training plan and a backup plan was important," he says. "If this did not go well, we would probably not be able to move more things to the cloud. This was the first attempt at it and it had to go smoothly. It was awesome."
While the switch from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps took about three hours, managing the change took longer. Certain features, like moving recurring meetings from Outlook to Google Apps, had to be transitioned by users, and some less computer-savvy staffers needed more training.
While the initial deployment focused on moving to Gmail, calendar and contacts in Google, IT manager Matt DeJohn says many users have managed to deploy Google docs on their own.
"We chose not to promote Google docs. The staff has organically embraced Google docs just by finding it," he says. "To date we have 7,000 to 8,000 Google docs out there, and each doc is being shared on average by about five-and-a-half people."
The move to Google Apps should see a return on its investment in less than a year, Edge says.
"It's a no-brainer when it comes to the financials when you add into that the productivity increase, the ability for people to share and collaborate on things. The value of that is high," Edge says. "We're using enough of the Google Apps that we have discontinued our Microsoft enterprise agreement."
Getting the project approved, in light of the financial gains, was an easy sell, Edge says. "The board of directors was unbelievably supportive and the senior managers, my peers, were all very supportive of it because when you look at the financial aspects of it, it makes sense. If you look at how consumer-level technology is making its way into the corporate world, and if you look at the need of mobility around the world ... I can't imagine anything makes more sense than using Google for mail and the other apps."
For other CIOs looking to transition to Google Apps or other cloud-based applications, Edge advises not to underestimate the impact this will have on your IT staff. "I don't mean this disparagingly -- it's a cultural thing -- your internal staff are likely going to be the hardest people to convince that this is a good idea. For some it could mean their jobs," he says. "We were up front right from the very start that this was the intent. This was where we are going to go. You have to be transparent to the users, but most importantly to your staff."
He adds: "Everybody likes to sell all the high points, but there are going to be things that change that will not work. Make sure you communicate what will work, what's not going to work. This was not an IT project, this was an organizational project."
This article was originally published on 07-26-2011