While both the benefits and the risks of moving IT infrastructure to the cloud have been widely debated, most of the emphasis has been on cost savings and security issues. But a 2010 Forrester Total Economic Impact study has uncovered another key consideration for companies considering moving to cloud apps for communication and collaboration: productivity gains.
The study, commissioned by Google and focused specifically on Google Apps, included a survey of more than 600 enterprise IT and end users, and looked at the total economic impact and expected ROI for enterprises that had moved their messaging and collaboration tools to cloud-based apps.
And the results were staggering. While 93 per cent of those surveyed indicated positive ROI (307 per cent was the composite risk-adjusted level) and a payback period of only seven months—impressive numbers in their own right—productivity gains from cloud apps came in at 2.5 times the value of costs savings.
“We’ve seen the primary driver be cost savings—traditionally on e-mail infrastructure,” said Jeremy Milo, product marketing manager for Google Apps. “We didn’t expect this level of impact on productivity.”
But, he said, the ability to work together across a team on documents or spreadsheets produced simple efficiencies that added up to productivity gains of 30 per cent. “Google Docs is a powerful application that saves people more time than any other application,” he said. “The ability to share a single URL and allow others to access it at the same time and make edits in real time turns the whole process on its head, compared to traditional legacy software.”
Another task that benefitted dramatically from the use of cloud apps was meetings—both in person (12 per cent productivity gains) and virtual (16 per cent gains). “Traditional information workers spend a lot of time in meetings: prepping, taking notes and keeping the info after the meeting for reference. Google Apps streamlines these three aspects by making sure info is distributed before the meeting. Then, during the meeting itself, a team can project a Google Doc and allow participants to make notes that others can contribute to while the meeting is taking place.”
Other apps with a high impact on productivity include site creation tool Google Sites, “a flexible canvas where everybody—whether techie or not—can consolidate info easily to share with people they work with,” and Gmail, both of which allow efficient information distribution within a company (18 per cent productivity gains), sharing and processing of feedback (12 per cent gains) and project tracking (11 per cent gains).
“One of the myths of technology is that it is complicated and that a user transition period is required,” Milo said. “But the benefits rack up quickly. Change management costs are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This is not new tech. People use this technology in their personal lives. They don’t need to learn anything new.”
It’s due to that familiarity with the tools that Google typically recommends starting with e-mail during a switch to cloud apps. But Aquent, a global staffing company with headquarters in Boston, decided to start with a Google Docs pilot implementation when it switched to cloud apps last year.
The company had experimented with video conferencing and Skype as it grew from a locally focused firm to a global agency, but found it needed a more robust solution as it worked to source talent from around the globe. “We needed to figure out how to collaborate globally, not just in the office,” said Larry Bolick, Aquent’s chief technology officer. “Rather than have talent come into an office to see an agent and be interviewed, we wanted to span a broader geography—to have talent in LA, for example, be interviewed in Boston.”
In a staged implementation with an identified group of early adopters, Aquent started with Docs and Sites and gave the test group six months to adjust. “We wanted to let it bake in, Bolick said, “but that was possibly too long. Google is innovating so quickly that by the time we rolled it out they had actually changed what we assumed was the environment. We actually had to roll it back and recalibrate.”
Despite the setback, the implementation was successfully adopted and was eventually followed by the addition of other apps like Gmail. “A big productivity gain for us was putting the browser in place of client software. We were using Exchange, and the client software was Entourage, and there was a lot of dissatisfaction,” Bolick said.
Colleen Woods, Aquent’s director of marketing, who is admittedly “not a technical person,” agreed. “I’ve seen gains in my team. Logging in is no longer an overwhelming chore—it’s very quick, and we now have the ability to access documents more easily without having to log in to a VPN,” she said. “We’ve also had gains in communication with field staff. There’s the benefit of not missing an opportunity because you missed one spreadsheet when you’re getting 40 of them from different people.”
Bolick also emphasized the gains on the IT side. “We made a conscious decision to move to Google Sites, which removed the bottleneck of the internal webmaster. Folks can now make their own updates quickly and easily. And we also have the ability for individuals to manage their own archiving and spam filtering, which means huge time savings for the IT people.”
The crowded cloud
While Google Apps may have been one of the first comprehensive cloud offerings to penetrate the business market, it’s recently been joined by numerous other players in the race to the cloud, including the likes of Oracle and Microsoft, which recently released Office 365, a suite of existing productivity tools—including Office, SharePoint, Exchange and Lync—optimized for the cloud.
“It’s a portfolio brand taking all of our communication and collaboration applications and delivering them over the cloud,” said Bryan Rusche, product manager for Microsoft Online Services, who emphasized that Office 365 is not just about the cloud, but about the best productivity experience from any platform—whether PC, phone or browser. “Customers can deploy these tools on their own terms,” he said, “whether it’s on-premise on servers or in the cloud or a hybrid. For example, Coke has 100,000 users in the cloud, whereas Starbucks has a hybrid model with stores in the cloud and corporate on-premise—with both managed as a single infrastructure.”
But Rusche maintains that productivity will be the same for the end user whether working from the cloud or on-site servers. “There’s no difference in productivity gains for the end user,” he said. “You can get e-mail on a mobile device, access documents from wherever—all that remains true whether in the cloud or not.”
He cites the example of Lync 2010, which gives users a single phone number. “When someone calls them their desk phone, PC and mobile phone all ring at the same time. If they miss the call, the voicemail appears in their e-mail inbox, on their desk phone and on their mobile device, and they can choose to access that anywhere.”
For its part, Google is helping to soften the switch from Microsoft to Google Apps by launching Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office, “a plugin that brings collaboration and editing abilities,” Milo said. “We want to help customers using legacy programs. Cloud Connect is good for people familiar with Microsoft Office (who want to switch) without making drastic changes. We’re still in the first generation of companies moving over, but it’s becoming more mainstream and it’s only going to move faster. Next year will be a watershed year for Google Apps.”
Back at Aquent, Bolick said it’s the uniformity of the collaboration tools that is the real power behind productivity. “The key for field staff is having collaborative services under one roof,” he said. “All of our offices are now operating with cloud computing, of which Google is a key component.”
Read the full Forrester study
Illustration: Jon Berkeley
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What cloud computing and social media tools bring to corporate Canada
Steam Whistle nets significant savings by moving to cloud-based solution
Cloud Computing Supplement: Soaring upwards with cloud communications
VoIP Supplement: Moving to modern cloud-based communications
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