Google Apps on the job: The GCN Lab tries it out at NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s transition to Google Apps for Government took 11 months, but afterward, days became minutes, at least for some processes.

"We were working on a policy document, and we had 12 people across the country red-lining the document at the same time,” NOAA CIO Joe Klimavicz said. “I think it took about 20 minutes to get all the red lines in there. It was something awesome to see. If we hadn't been using the tools I think it probably would have taken three days."

Such war stories were one reason I wanted to visit the agency, which moved the last of 16,000 staff members to Google Apps in December, and see for myself how well the cloud-based productivity tools were performing.

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I had gotten a hold of Google Apps for Government last year for a GCN Lab review but now I was curious about how it would hold up in a huge, enterprise-level agency implementation. In the lab, we could test all of the features, but seeing those features in action would be something else entirely.

Soon enough, I was out the door, heading off to NOAA's offices in Silver Spring, Md., and thrusted into a world where everything isn't always drop-tested or benchmarked for CPU speed.

I was met at the gate by Stefan Leeb, NOAA’s Unified Messaging Service (UMS) program manager. The first thing he did was give me a NOAA log-in to the new system so I could follow along and actually use the functions that he was talking about. With my freshly minted NOAA credentials, Leeb went on to demonstrate the various Google Apps that were now in use throughout the agency.

First things first

He started with the most-used application in any office: e-mail. Gmail was as easy to get around as any other Web-based e-mail program, but there are definitely advantages to the way NOAA is doing it. For example, when I clicked on a person's name in the From or To fields, the person's contact info automatically appeared on the right. I could share files or even launch a chat session with the person by clicking on the appropriate icon.

In effect, the e-mail program became a personal Rolodex and secretary rolled up in one location. From the e-mail interface, the chat function drew me in almost immediately. It could be activated from the e-mail client or within any application in which I was collaborating with another user, including Google Docs.

Leeb also used his tablet computer to demonstrate the video chat function. With the webcam in place, he was able to callanyone in NOAA who was similarly equipped right from his e-mail. In a few seconds, he was introducing me via a videoconference to several other people.

Google Docs

We soon got to the heart of the whole operation: Google Docs. To give me a hint of its power, Leeb created a new document and invited me to collaborate in editing it. When I typed something on my screen, it showed up in less than a second as a change on his screen. I could even see who was typing within our collaborative space because all the cursors were labeled.

This feature would significantly reduce the time required to edit a document because everyone could put in their two cents at the same time instead of having to wait around for approvals and comments while constantly shuffling a file back and forth.

"We adopted Google Apps for Government primarily for the e-mail and the calendaring, but it also has an inherently extensive collaboration suite," Klimavicz said.

And the financial savings are nothing to sneeze at either. NOAA will soon be retiring 24 servers throughout the United States, which will save the cost of maintaining and supporting them. In fact, NOAA estimates that it has saved 50 percent of the cost of developing and maintaining a comparable in-house solution, which equates to approximately $11.5 million in taxpayer money.

Although it was important to get value proposition, I also wanted to find out how the average NOAA user felt about the changes, since they are the ones most affected by the huge Google Apps rollout.

The users' view

I embarked on a whirlwind of introductions to several employees. Although they each had different jobs, they all had to adapt during the past few of months to using the new desktop tools. Some, like Stephanie Herring, a climate analyst at the Office of Program Planning and Integration, had already been using some Google Apps for personal use. So using the software at work was a matter of applying already-acquired skills.

For others, such as Kelly Denit, a fishery management specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, Google Apps was an entirely new experience, and many tasks now presented her with a learning curve.

Everyone uses Gmail and Chat fairly extensively, though some departments such as NMFS are still waiting to activate Chat because of bandwidth concerns. But those that are able to use it find it a great way to enhance office communications.

Adoption of the software by NOAA's rank and file has been eased considerably by Google Labs, a one-stop destination for configuring settings for all of the applications. That allows users to customize their apps to perform as desired.

Denit found this especially useful. "The Labs allow you to tailor your inbox to how you think and how you want to do things; that is really better than the previous system where you had to conform to how they had it set up," she said.

Although some of the other apps have productive bells and whistles, Google Docs appears to be the single app that everyone is getting the biggest productivity boost from.

Most seem to have taken especially quickly to the live collaboration possibilities. Herring provided a bit of a comparison. "The way we used to edit documents was: They would send out a document and say, 'Stephanie, you get it from noon to 12:15. Go!' Now we put it on Google Docs and we say, 'we need to be done by COB today. Everyone, put in your contributions.' It is really handy."

"There are definitely some productivity gains because we're working on documents as a group. It's more of a free-flowing dialogue," she said.

Collaboration caveat

One downside of Google Docs seems to be in the document-generating applications themselves. The word-processing, spreadsheet and slideshow presentation programs that Google uses don't have all the features that their more robust counterparts do. As users explore the possibilities of more powerful collaboration, they have also had to do so without formulae or drop-down menu creation.

Of course, it would not have been enough to simply convert everyone's e-mail and documents to Google Apps and let them have at it. Since many users had no prior experience with the tools before the migration, extensive training was made available. Employees could sign up for classes, view video tutorials and read all manner of documentation to help them learn how to do things in the new environment.

Denit was pleased that the agency didn't leave the staff out in the cold. "I found the training that they did to be really helpful,” she said. "Just orienting myself to where things are and how to get to them was really useful. So when everything went live, I was in a better position to do stuff."

Because such training was in place beforehand, most of the staff was ready to face the new environment by the global go-live date in December. However, one regret — for the IT staff in particular — was that they didn't make training mandatory.

According to some IT staffers, this would have reduced the amount of initial support requests. “There were a lot of issues about how to use the apps, but very few issues about it actually working,” Klimavicz said.

One major advantage of having cloud-based applications is the ability to access them from anywhere. Herring finds this feature particularly useful.

“I have an office here and also an office downtown at the Herbert C. Hoover Building,” the home of the Commerce Department, she said. “I am also about to go work at NOAA’s Boulder, Colo., facilities for three months. Because everything is Web-based now, I can access all of that information, regardless of where I’m working from.”

NOAA mobile

That flexibility extends to mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones, which can use this platform from wherever they have Web access.

On Feb. 3, NOAA released its new Mobile Device Security Policy, which states that the agency will allow mobile devices that can be securely managed through its Unified Messaging Service. Right now, that includes Apple iPhones and iPads and conventional cell phones, but they will only support BlackBerries through the existing BlackBerry Enterprise Server through May.

Although the policy was not specifically prompted by the migration, it will be easier to implement because Google Apps can securely manage many types of mobile devices. NOAA recently announced that it would begin to offer its staff Apple iPhones and iPads.

"Permitting the use of other devices could improve our performance and allow us to move into a more paperless environment," Klimavicz said.

And that isn't the end of it. Many policy changes down the road will be made because Google Apps makes them easier to implement or even possible in the first place. "I've told our management that Google Apps for Government is the linchpin and will enable us to do other things,” Klimavicz said. “We implement Google Apps first and then build off of that.”

Overall, the migration to Google Apps seems to have been a good move by NOAA. The employees are taking advantage of its collaborative capabilities, and their productivity has improved in easily measurable ways. And NOAA saved money to boot. That’s a win-win-win.


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