August 22, 2012

Culture in the Cloud: The Case of FivePaths

  • Chico, CA
  • Nonprofit Technology Consulting and Development Firm

As emerging technologies continue to shift traditional IT functions from the data closet to the Cloud, IT consultants are finding the nature of their work is shifting with them.

I cant speak to larger shops, but for smaller shops, I dont know one that isnt pretty deep into the Cloud, said Eric Leland, a partner at FivePaths, which provides internet strategy, website development and database services. Some of that is out of a perceived sense of necessity. It wasnt necessary when we didnt have it, but now that we do, its quite easy to spin up operations with very little money and time investment.

Shared email, calendaring, group communications, project management, Cloud-based billing, data managementin a day you can spin that up and have the infrastructure of a large company but be a single person, he said. Thats pretty profound.

Culturally, hes seen the Cloud change the way his clients think about their organizations. Theyre no longer defined by their brick-and-mortar locations, and theyre no longer limited by them.

It really is the case that you can work remotely and be as effective as you were in the past, or nearly so, he said. That takes some cultural evolutions, though. For some people, working remotely is a door that is hard to walk through until you realize that as soon as you get up and get on the computer, people know youre thereits sort of the equivalent of entering the office.

Video-conferencing applications like Skype and Google Hangouts make it possible to communication face-to-face, and share-screen applications make presentations and collaborations possible over disparate locations.

Showing things no longer requires the same presence, Eric said, and your office starts to become a bunch of people who work together instead of the place you all show up to every day.

Hes found organizations that are physically prominent, like colleges and universities that have a lot of money invested in facilities, seem to have a more difficult challenge adapting to the cultural shift.

Theres a long tradition of showing up at the office and being at work, and what you find is it takes a tremendous cultural shift in those environments to see the quality of work as being the same as whether youre in the office or not, he said. Theres an assumption that if you show up its better than if you dont. Whats good about the Cloud is that it forces you to think about the work thats being done and not focus on whether youre physically present. A lot of companies are biased like that, you cant really be effective if youre not here.

Thats not just true of how some organizations approach their own staff, but consultants, too.

Well have lots of clients that will ask questions like that, Where are you and when will we see you, and its important to the projects success that you jump out of the Cloud and onto the ground, Eric said. But even those organizations build confidence and let you spend more time in the Cloud, eventually. I think the shift of bias around what physical presence really means is hitting folks differently at different times. Existing nonprofits that are more traditional feel a high value toward personal presence.

Among nonprofits, hes seen those that are less-physically based and more travel-oriented, or that have multiple office locations, more readily adopt Cloud-based solutions that allow for distributed staff. They tend to find those things more compelling as soon as theyre exposed to them, he said.

Hes also seen a change in how his clients viewand understandtechnology. He attributes that in part to the increase in exposure to consumer-targeted Cloud-based solutions. As more and more people use social media and begin to adopt Cloud-based data backup and storage for their home computers, Cloud-based software, and other applications, they develop a better sense of how technology works and what its capable of.

When we go into clients offices and have meetings, some of the folks will see a problem and want to throw three or four Cloud solutions at it, Eric said. People come with more ideas because of the Cloud solutions they may have at hometechnology is becoming less foreign, and now youre much more likely to be in a room full of non-techies thats full of ideas that are a lot closer to being right. In the past, they had no idea about IT, and were depending on you to tell them what to do.

But just because a Cloud solution works on an individual scale doesnt mean its appropriate for an entire organization.

We can just use this, theyll say, but the solution needs to work and work well in their environment, he said. You do need to come in as a consultant and understand that youre dealing with folks that know more about technology. In the past it was, I need a computer, and thats as far as theyd go. How it worked, where it was located, all that stuff was really foreign. Now, you have conversations where its, Hey, Ive heard of these three tools, or my executive director wants me to look into this one, and as a consultant your job is to move those actions into place.

Eric said that, when he first started in consulting, even small nonprofits had an IT staffthey were very server-dependent and wanted to have that guarantee that theres someone they had their claws into to immediately respond to things, someone to do their bidding, he saidbut thats changing, and more organizations are replacing IT position with more mission-related positions.

Because everything can be installed and managed somewhere else, they just need to know how to use the service and not know the technology behind it, he said. The answer to every question they have is to call the vendor and complain.

The Cloud has not only changed how he manages and meets client expectationsits also changed the way his own firm manages its capacity. FivePaths has three staff members, two in an office and one telecommuting, and regularly works with a handful of contractors.

Just because Im in San Francisco doesnt mean I have to hire all the hot shots in San Francisco, he said. Now I can hire lots of just as smart people in other parts of the country who have less opportunity, because you dont have to be in the same place to work together anymore. Thats how a lot of small shops are doing that.

Chris Bernard