Case Study of AJWS: Organizational Culture in the Cloud

Director of IT Rose Fremery said there was always a disconnect between staff expectations about the implementation of new technology and the reality of implementing new technology at her organization, the American Jewish World Service—and that disconnect persisted once the organization started moving toward Cloud-based solutions.

With the advent of Cloud solutions, which are often “invisible” to staff, in that they’re offsite and don’t require physical boxes and cables and software installations, that disconnect widened. The time involved in implementation may no longer involve physical setup, but it’s no less demanding than on-premise solutions.

“Even before the Cloud, there was the expectation that IT could just make the magic happen,” she said. “People don’t understand the amount of labor required behind the scenes to implement, and that doesn’t change with the Cloud.”

Rose joined the international human rights organization in 2003. Though it had already been around for 15 years, it was a very small organization at the time with a dedicated few staff members working with volunteers to effect change in the developing world through grass-roots grant-making, service learning trips and advocacy, as well as rallying resources for emergency disaster relief and other humanitarian issues, like the genocide in Sudan.

Now, it’s grown to 130 staff members, and as the organization has evolved, so has its approach to technology.

In 2008, Rose helped introduce the organization to Cloud-based services as a “somewhat hasty” response to a growing need for a way to manage the volume of applications being submitted for an upcoming service learning program, she said. That particular solution involved modifying a Salesforce database to allow staff at the organization’s multiple offices and program leaders in the field to review and manage the applications.

“It was a classic IT problem,” she said. “We need to get this done, you can make this happen. Obviously, providing some kind of connectivity issues to those folks in the field is critical, but it was being phrased as ‘We can just give them an Access database.’ I said it was more complicated than that.”

Working with a consultant to create and customize the Salesforce database, AJWS acted quickly, and was able to achieve the goals it set out to accomplish.

“I felt that we were lucky to pull this off so fast,” Rose said. “But that’s not how we should be doing things.”

The successful implementation encouraged the organization to consider seeking Cloud-based solutions to other needs—one of its leaders even wondered aloud why they were still using any premise-based solutions, Rose said—but in the process, it also raised staff expectations about what’s normally involved in implementing a new service.

Non-IT staff see the Cloud as a cheaper solution that’s also less time-intensive. “That’s not the case,” she said. IT professionals should have a methodology for an implementation process, whether it’s taking place on premise or in the Cloud. Cloud solutions may shift maintenance and installation issues away from IT and onto a vendor or consultant, but they raise new issues not associated with premise-based IT, she said.

“There’s more due diligence you need to perform,” she said, “because your eggs are now in someone else’s basket.”

A few months ago, the organization launched a hosted version of the Microsoft Lync instant messaging client that includes video conferencing, white-boarding, screen-sharing and other features to facilitate collaboration. The move was a response to a growing chorus of requests, but one that IT took the time to find and implement more thoughtfully.

“IT was getting more requests to set up videoconferencing, working with telecommuting staff in addition to our domestic offices,” she said. “We were definitely responding to a growing organizational need. We’re getting reports now that people who used to collaborate on documents over the phone, now they’re able to collaborate on documents over Lync.

“We’re riding high on a wave at the moment,” Rose said. “A lot of people were really happy with what we could do with Lync—if we’d left them to their own devices, they wouldn’t have known what was available to them. This changed the perception of IT. I really believe that it was a demonstration of a case in which IT perceived and digested a lot of the feedback we were getting, understood the increased need to collaborate, a solution to a growing organizational need. We came back and said here’s what we can do to allow you to collaborate.”

The Cloud-based solution allows the organization to function in a way it could not before, but it also demonstrates the role IT plays in such implementations—their diligence may be focused on different aspects of the implementation than with on-premise solutions, but it’s no less vital.

Editorial Note: This case study is part of the research project in 2011-2012 conducted by NTEN with the help of Idealware. See the State of Nonprofit Cloud report for more information about the rate of adoption of cloud solutions, as well as the several case studies documenting specific organizational practices and challenges, and the impact of cloud software on organizational culture, infrastructure management, and every-day-work.  This case study was originally published in August, 2012, online here.

Chris Bernard