This week I attended a meeting with a group of faculty and staff who were providing feedback regarding the three major cloud collaboration vendors: Google, Microsoft, IBM. Each vendor had been invited on campus to present their product strictly from the user’s point of view. The presentations were not meant to be technical in terms of how the systems were to be administered or managed, nor were they to include any specifics regarding pricing or contracts.
Needless to say the summary meeting was very interesting. I rarely think of myself as an end user, but perhaps in the case of moving to the cloud I should. What system would I prefer as a user? Would I get the “go to the web” concept or would I still want a desktop presence? For my own personal email account I do use a web-only email system. But if I were switching gears and trying to rely totally on a web-based system would one of them get the job done? Could I manage all my contacts or all my calendar appointments with ease? And what if I didn’t like the interface in general – would I install a desktop or IMAP client to access my account?
When asked, one faculty member said that no system had all the features he desired. But that each had their own unique features he preferred – “perhaps a combination of all three?” I’d probably have to agree. Each vendor had some sparkly, flashing objects that would be nice to combine into one system. Perhaps a “IB-Mi-Go” dashboard?! The primary discussion however, still was on email. Not social networking or apps. They were definitely interested in sharing documents and the mobile aspects of each product. But it was very evident that they are still email-centric in how they work and think about collaboration.
Faculty especially use email as a means of record keeping, either for correspondence with colleagues, grant-related discusions, tenure-related materials, and of course the daily banter with students. In some cases their collective email correspondence may represent a large chunk of their academic history. This is historically valuable. Imagine if we had all of Einstein’s daily corresponence or for that matter for any of the great discoveries made prior to the advent of electronic correspondence! [“Are you ready to go to lunch yet?” “No – I’m working out this little EMC equation. Let me get back to you.”]
Will the cloud bring about a change in “IT culture” here? Will the faculty and staff tap into the social aspects of the cloud and harness those for their projects? Can they find a colleague easier or share ideas, plan a project and receive grant funding any faster because of the cloud? Will they be able to extend their knowledge to the students? And can staff interact more effectively to support these groups?
IMAP. Yes it was discussed. And I have a better understanding now of why it is so critical from a faculty user’s point of view. They are familiar with IMAP and how it works, how to set it up, and most importantly how to set up multiple accounts in an IMAP client. For a faculty researcher juggling several accounts or managing a large project, the ease with which they can combine all email into one inbox is critical. And that ease transports to mobile devices as well. I see why they are hesitant to give up this kind accessibility.
The result of the meeting was that the faculty and staff recommended that the university take the next steps to move to the cloud. These next steps will involve meetings, management decisions, and ultimately an RFP. As we prepare for this change in culture – I have to continue to wonder — are the faculty and staff ready for the cloud and is the cloud ready for them?