August 22, 2012

Culture in the Cloud: The Case of Great Books Foundation

  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Founded 1947
  • Serves more than 1 million students a year

Though the 60-year old Great Books Foundation is based in Chicago, about one-third of its staff works elsewheresome are remote employees, others spend a lot of time on the road as part of their work. The foundation embraced the Cloud, moving most of the tools there, which led to an unexpected result, said vice president Mark Gillingham.

Cloud technology has broken down silos rather than creating them, he said.

Staff outside of Chicagomostly trainers and salespeoplehad historically been second-class citizens to the rest of the organization as a side effect of their isolation, he said. But when the organization adopted Google Apps, the supervisor in charge of the sales force immediately recognized the benefits the tools could add to his interaction with his team, and by allowing him to communicate with more than just a phone callincluding screen-sharing documents and chartshe engaged his staff in a more valuable way.

His enthusiasm caught on, and staff began to realize that the tools for collaboration and communication went a long way toward erasing the distinction between on-site and remote employees.

Now I see people using an online tool that three or four years ago I would have to encourage them to use, Mark said. Thats been a noticeable change in our workplace culture. Some things are happening and theres still lots to do, and more collaboration could happen.

Other departments found that even within the Chicago offices, collaboration could be improved by Cloud-based tools. The Great Books Foundations editorial staff uses Google Docs to edit more collaboratively, which Mark said has made an enormous improvement over the previous combination of tracking edits in Microsoft Word and emailing documents to one another.

We are doing more things differently than ever before, he said. Some of it is marketfocusedwe have to change some of our products to be more technological and computer basedbut not all of it, and were changing noticeably.

While he cant attribute the cultural shift solely to the organizations adoption of Cloud-based solutions, hes confident the success of those solutions has made it easier for his IT staff to implement other technologies.

We use Google Apps for email, blogging, productivity and document sharing, and other apps run on instances at Amazon Web services, he said. Maybe because of social networking, or mobile phones, everyone on staff is more in tune with technology than they were a decade ago. Its not as hard a sell anymore.

In fact, staff are beginning to clamor for new technology.

One thing that content editors have asked for is use of a cloud tagging tool for research so they can have that information at their fingertips wherever they are, he said. Tools like the web-highlighting service Diigo, Evernotes internet scrapbooking, Instapaper and Delicious, which allow users to tag or save files to the Cloud for later reference, have made it easy to file and access their research.

Since the idea came from them, I figure theyve sort of turned a corner and the old way of putting a bunch of papers in a filing cabinet wasnt working, he said. And there really wasnt anybody on staff to do that anymore.

James Linday, Great Books Chief Financial Officer, agreed with Marks assessment that the Cloud has helped tear down silos that traditionally separated staff members. Each employees piece of the overall Great Books Foundation picture is now connected to one another, he said.

For example, when a school wants to buy books from us, we scan in a purchase order, attach it, and six months from now, when a sales or customer service person wants to know what happened, they can click on it and there it is, he said. You dont have to go into the filing system and look for it. Now its in the Cloud and everyone can look for it and track it and have all this info right down to the most minute detail.

Employees now file for expense reimbursements by filling out electronic forms and attaching PDFs of receipts, a Cloud system which replaced a cumbersome process involving physically mailing forms and paperwork.

Its a whole lot better than the old days, Linday said. Our IT professionals have embraced the Cloudand I know thats not the case at all places, because IT wants to protect their jobbut here, our IT people have been able to turn their attention to more meaningful things rather than care and feeding of servers and proprietary software and all that stuff.

Mark said the Cloud has changed the culture of IT in that staff now approach technology differently. By moving applications online, they no longer need to be concerned with care and feeding of software and servers anymorethe vendors handle that. He also finds IT spends much less time training staff on new technologies.

To the extent that everyone has an email account or a third of our staff has a personal Google account or a Hotmail account, all these apps are so similar that theres not a lot of training to do anymore, he said. I think Facebook is probably the number-one teacher of our staff, especially those under 35 or 40, whereas technology is so ubiquitous now and comes in the form of your telephone, and that in conjunction with Facebook and browsers on your phones and so on has gone a long way toward solving some of the issues we used to have to butt up against.

While he acknowledged a slight age gap, with younger employees tending to more quickly and easily embrace new technology, it is far from absolute. Linday agreed.

Im an old fart, one of the oldest people here, but I welcome it, he said. I dont think theres anyone, including the president, whos older than I am. He has trouble with basic file organization and where he keeps his emails and things like that, but he at least knows to be open enough to new technology.

In the past you always had to put on a different hat when you came to work, because the IT guys ran things differently at work than your computer at home, Linday said. Now, coming to work is just like being at their computer at home, or just like doing Google searches on their iPhone, and that makes it emotionally easier for them because they dont have to shift the way they think.

The technology may be different for people, but its not a whole lot different than what theyre doing at home, he said. Different is not proving to be the kind of obstacle it used to be.

Chris Bernard