Moving to Google Apps for Business has allowed staff at marketing agency Imagination to communicate more effectively with each other and to strengthen relationships with clients. The cloud computing solution from Ancoris and training support from Cloud Skills have cut the cost of delivering accessible information to Imagination's staff that enables them to do the right things, in the right place, at the right time. At the same time, Imagination achieved its goal of shifting the focus of its IT team from running IT to becoming experts in exploiting IT to best commercial advantage.
Imagination is an independent global brand communication agency whose clients include household names such as Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Shell and BT. The company's main focus is on running specific events for clients or delivering a presence for them at larger events such as motor shows.
"Our work is about getting our clients messages across to their customers in specific locations," explains Matt Ballantine, Head of Imagination IT. "That means our core staff of around 450, who work out of 14 fixed locations around the world, are constantly on the move. We also regularly set up temporary offices to meet client needs for particular events, and our permanent staff are regularly supplemented with freelancers. That structure makes it a real challenge to provide IT-based services to users."
When Ballantine arrived at Imagination, the company's existing infrastructure and applications were proving a stumbling block: an idiosyncratic combination of a high proportion of Macintosh systems running design software, Microsoft Windows machines for account management and support staff, and a variety of open source software such as FreeBSD, Ubuntu and Red Hat on the servers. "The setup worked for us when it was first introduced and we were based in a single office," Ballantine points out, "but it wasn't scalable as we expanded. It needed people in each office to run it, and we couldn't find those skills." Meanwhile, the mix of open source email, Oracle for calendars, and no solution for managing contact information corporately made it hard for staff to collaborate effectively.
Ballantine's first step was to give everyone a Blackberry, ensuring they could be reached no matter where they were. However, he knew that simply introducing new technology wasn't the answer. If Imagination was to become a more collaborative, more innovative and more creative global organization, the IT team needed to shift from being experts in running technology to becoming experts in how the organisation can use and exploit technology to best commercial advantage. "It was obvious that the Software as a Service model was a cost-effective approach to take to achieve our goals of enabling staff to work more effectively and allowing the IT to make that shift in focus," he says.
Matt Ballantine, Head of IT
In September 2009, Imagination put together a businesss team consisting of staff at all levels and from all parts of the organisation, with the goal of identifying what the business needs from its collaboration tools. The answer, Ballantine says, is "accessible information distributed globally between team members which enables them to do the right things, in the right place, at the right time."
With the preference for any new solution to be delivered through a SaaS model, Imagination evaluated offerings from Google, Microsoft and Lotus, and quickly settled on Google Apps Premier Edition. "Google Apps stood out clearly as the best option to support all of our people, including the significant numbers of staff using Macs," Ballatine explains. "Unlike the other offerings, Google Apps had been developed from the outside to be delivered over the internet and in a cloud environment to users on diverse platforms, while it was also the most mature of the three toolsets."
The first phase of the migration has seen Imagination roll out email, calendar, contact management, task management, groups and video, with around 80 per cent of the company trained. A second phase will see the IT team work with each team within Imagination to understand how they can best make use of Google Docs and Google Sites.
To assist with the migration and roll out, Imagination chose to work with Ancoris, who were recommended by Google, "We were able to draw on the expertise Ancoris has gained doing migrations in other places, and give the majority of our own attention to communicating with users about the changes and working with them to ensure Google Apps meets their needs," Ballantine says. "If we'd done the migration in house, we would have had a to focus much more on the technology, but we were able to deliver Google Apps to 450 people across 14 locations with just one person from our side working on the technical issues."
The migration took less than three months to complete, and Ballatine has particular praise for Ancoris's flexibility in handling a switch away from the more unusual technologies used at Imagination. "Ancoris's standard migration package, which is based around moving from common platforms like Microsoft Exchange, wouldn't have worked for us," he points out. "But Ancoris was very flexible in shaping its services to suit our needs to make sure the migration went smoothly."
As well as working with Ancoris, Imagination engaged Cloud Skills, a partner company to Ancoris, to provide training. "The nature of our business is 24/7 and work can't stop," Ballantine explains. "Cloud Skills's mix of classroom and online training, including Cloud Skills Academy, has enabled us to deliver on a global scale." Cloud Skills also trained "Google Guides" in each of Imagination's locations to act as local experts providing training and support to their peers.
A key factor in the deployment was to be able to deliver training during March, despite having many staff on site at the Geneva Motor Show with customers and others working on a major launch for Shell. Imagination also needed to deliver training tailored to varied audiences, ranging from creative and marketing experts to engineers and architects. "Cloud Skills has impressed us with their ability to deliver in that environment and their level of focus on our specific needs," says Ballantine.
Imagination had three main goals for the move to Google Apps: to give staff the tools to strengthen relationships with current and future customers; to improve collaboration between staff in different locations; and to get maximum value from investment in technology for the company and its clients.
When it comes to strengthening relationships with clients, Ballantine says that even a simple thing like being able to issue and process meeting invites with people outside the organization, and share and view calendars, has had a huge impact, by making it easier and quicker to set up meetings, with fewer calls and emails required. Imagination can also create shared calendars for particular events that gather all the information related to the event into a single place where it can be accessed by anyone who needs it.
In the longer term, Imagination is developing its use of Google Apps to more effectively share information about customers across the company. "We're not big enough to need a customer relationship management system, but being able to share contacts and other information about clients will help us collaborate more effectively both internally and with clients," Ballantine says.
Imagination has also made significant strides towards achieving its second goal of deepening employee engagement. "By moving away from a number of instant messaging solutions to a single platform, we've been able to recreate 'water cooler' moments that people simply couldn't have had before because they're not in the same physical space," Ballantine says. "Presence settings also make it quick and easy for people to see whether colleagues are in the office and available or busy, no matter if they're two floors above or on a different continent."
Longer-term plans include exploring the use of video conferencing, once Imagination has reinforced its network infrastructure to handle the extra traffic, while Ballantine is particularly excited about the potential of the drawing tool added to Google Docs earlier this year. "For a visual company, the ability for up to twenty people to be able to view and all sketch on the same online whiteboard is very exciting," he points out.
Finally, implementing Google Apps has helped Imagination deliver on the third objective of achieving maximum value for the business. Ballantine estimates that using Google Apps compared to continuing to provide systems in house will save Imagination around £325,000 over the next three years, by cutting spend on staff, hardware and software, and consultancy from around £540,000 to just £125,000. "The cost story for the move to Google Apps has been compelling for us," he notes, "even though it's not been the main driver."
The most significant savings will be achieved by decommissioning around a quarter of Imagination's global server estate”some 35 servers”to deliver substantial reductions in the cost of support, air conditioning and electricity. The company has already paid for the cost of the first year of licenses for Google Apps simply by not having to replace an air conditioning unit in a server room that is being decommissioned.
At the same time, Ballantine says, individual users will become more productive thanks to Google Apps tools that help them do their jobs more effectively. "For example, being able to manage documents on the web will allow staff to cut down the amount of time they spend chasing colleagues for approvals, and reduce the issues we run into with version control," he explains.
Ballantine is clear that Imagination has taken only the first steps in getting the most out of Google Apps, and that Ancoris and Cloud Skills will be key partners as the company moves forward. "Ancoris is our first point of call if we've had technical issues, and both they and Cloud Skills have been extremely quick to respond when we have needed support. It's clear both companies are very knowledgeable and skilled at successfully delivering Google-based solutions," he says.