I spent the past three months talking to Google and Microsoft professional services partners, as well as Google Apps and Office 365 clients, to better understand how cloud collaboration and productivity suites are implemented and the value clients get once they move into these environments. One word that came up quite a bit during these conversations was "simple." As in "We think moving to [Google Apps or Office 365] will simplify our [costs, IT management, user experience, etc.]." This got me thinking: Should CIOs think moving collaboration workloads to the cloud actually simplifies their job? Well…yes, but there's a but. Simplicity in these environments comes with costs. Business and IT leaders must be sure they're willing to pay them as a condition of getting the benefits of the cloud. So what does this mean?

  • These platforms simplify contracting if you can live with the standard service agreement. One Google client told us one of the reasons they rejected the incumbent players was because they felt the licensing agreements were "convoluted." Yes, cloud collaboration and productivity suite providers have straightforward per user pricing for clearly defined feature/function tiers. But the devil's in the details. These players are able to deliver highly efficient, low-cost services because they do not permit a lot of deviation from the standard service agreement. So, healthcare clients looking for business associates' agreements will not find a willing partner in Google.* And smaller enterprises that require a dedicated collaboration environment will find that Microsoft enforces a minimum seat count on Office 365's dedicated SKU.
  • These platforms are simple to implement if you're willing to cleanly break with the past. Many of the successful Google Apps and Office 365 deployments we studied have a common thread: IT leaders decided against migrating years of content to these services. One Office 365 client told us they were successful because, "We kept the migration as simple as possible. We didn't complicate things with complex migrations and use cases." When clients attempt to replicate their on-premises environments in these cloud offerings they often require a lot of custom development work, third-party applications, and integration remediation. This can slow the implementation and create sub-optimal user experiences.
  • These platforms simplify running collaboration infrastructure if you don't require lots of customizations and on-premises integrations. We talk to many IT leaders intrigued with Google Sites or SharePoint Online as a place to offload their on-premises SharePoint implementations. How viable this plan is depends on how they intend to use these tools. Many SharePoint Online clients tell us that they still maintain on-premises SharePoint farms because the cloud environment cannot accommodate their custom integrations, applications, and workflows. This creates a hybrid scenario in which simple workloads, such as team pages, move the cloud and IT departments maintain on-premises servers to run the heavily customized applications.
  • These platforms simplify the employee experience if you're able to convince workers these changes are merited. The vendors position their collaboration tools as, among other things, enabling mobility, enhancing internal dialogues, and facilitating external collaboration. These capabilities often seduce business and IT leaders who jump at the chance to use these tools to improve their organization's operations. This often misses one key factor. As one former Google Apps client whose organization recently moved off the platform, "We saw that the change to Google was too great for our employees." These new collaboration systems require a lot of heavy lifting on the change management front, particularly in businesses that weren't generally displeased with the old collaboration tools.

* Google recently began entering into business associates' agreements with clients handling patient data. See details here.