Six things you should know before you roll out Office 365

It's all in the planning

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Let’s discuss some of the reasons for embarking on an Office 365 project.

You might have found yourself at that particular point in your Microsoft upgrade cycle. Or maybe you want to allow staff to work just as efficiently away from the office as at their desks and like the collaboration tools offered by SharePoint.

Regardless of how you get to the start line, you don’t want to find yourself six months down the road with all the cool new collaboration technologies you have invested in lying fallow, with a bill for services that no one is using.

Tim Wallis, founder and CEO of Content and Code, a Microsoft consultancy in London, has a six-step plan for clients embarking on an Office 365 implementation that helps them get the most out of the technology. The key to success, he says, lies in planning well.

Take it away, Tim.

1. Strategic base. Business drivers are all important, so you need to know why you are doing it in the first place. If it is a cost-based decision that's fine, but don’t forget to cycle back around and see what else might be beneficial. If you are just interested in an Exchange upgrade, perhaps Lync would also be useful.

2. Preparation and scoping. We have worked with about five organisations so far who have started doing this themselves. They needed to replace their mailboxes so they went out and bought 6,000 licenses from Office 365, for example, to directly replace their on-premise version. But if you work with a contractor you can get advice on what licences you actually need and how the deal might be better structured. It helps to put boundaries round the project.

3. Planning. This is the technical planning phase. How many servers do you need, how many licences, how much bandwidth, should you do a risk assessment for any content that might be moving? You should also start thinking about the human impact. Active Directory, for instance, needs to be dealt with in the planning phase because it is the source of user information. The first thing is to tidy the staff directory: extract the latest human resources data, tidy it by deleting users that no longer exist and so on.

4. Migration and transition. Once a plan is agreed, you might run a pilot. This is a great way of doing it, especially if going from Lotus Notes. It is a good way to test the system on a small group of users before going all out and investing in a large volume of licences. A free 30-day trial of Office 365 is available for those who want to try before they buy.

5. Communication. A huge amount of internal communication will be needed at this stage. The IT department, especially, needs to engage with the users and have a comms plan put together for the rollout. IT people don’t necessarily fully understand the human impact. That impact can be positive, even if it is unanticipated. We have two clients who came to us for email upgrades and now say Lync is the best IT spend they have ever made. Putting it in has changed the way they work.

6. Adoption. There is no such thing as perfection, which is why you need to keep on top of user adoption and get feedback from people on how they are using the new tools. Have your consultants go round making sure people really use the new functions.

There comes a point, though, where strategy can only do so much.

“With SharePoint especially, it is possible to spend too long on the planning phase," says Wallis.

"You can't know all your requirements in advance, and people often don’t know exactly what they want until they have had a chance to play with the technology. Instead, put in a decent enough system and let people work with it.”

He uses the example of creating a taxonomy to work with. Really, this is just a structured corporate way of naming things. Wallis says many clients – especially government clients – come in with a 3,000-word taxonomy that has taken months to compile, but then find people don’t use the words they thought they were going to.

“You can think of it as gardening. You put in the basics and let people plant their own flowers”

Better, he advises, to start with a couple of hundred terms and use the folksonomy – people’s tendency to tag things – to let it build the taxonomy up through use.

“You can think of it as being like gardening. You put in the basics and let people plant their own flowers,” Wallis says.

Steve Marsh, director of product marketing at Metalogix, a content infrastructure software specialist headquartered in Washington DC, echoes Wallis’s emphasis on planning.

As a specialist in moving content in and out of SharePoint, Metalogix believes the key is asking the right questions at the start of a project.

What content are we putting up? Who will we be sharing it with? In the long term, do we need to bring it back down again? What legal or regulatory requirements are there? What will things look like in six months’ time?

“The first thing you have to do is ask yourself is why? What is it you are trying to achieve?” says Marsh.

“It comes back to the business needs. Once you work that out, you need to look at who will be involved, how they work, the flow of people as well as the information that is served up.

“Don’t forget to have a plan for the rollout, too. You can’t just switch it on and expect people to use it. You have to promote it internally to get good adoption. You have to come up with ways of measuring your project’s success. It is a false economy to just go ahead without thinking it all through.”

Turn down the volume

Marsh observes that quite often companies might be running an on-premise version of SharePoint and then want to do a single project in the cloud. In other cases, companies have moved to the cloud version of SharePoint only to realise that they need to bring some of their work back on premise.

“It is not just where someone has gone fully to the cloud. As you would expect, if someone has opted initially for a hybrid of cloud and on-premises then there is often a need to move some of their content from the cloud to their on-premises farm,” Marsh clarifies.

“It is very simple to create Office 365 accounts, fill them with content and end up with a broken user experience. Making a plan to get into the cloud and a plan to get out again go hand in hand.

“For us, SharePoint is SharePoint, and we have the tools to migrate content – in context and with all the metadata – back from the cloud when it is needed.”

However much planning is done, you also have to be able to adjust as you go. Take, for example, the case of Douglas and Gordon, estate agents in London.

In 2011, the firm was running email on an Exchange 2003 cluster, and Michael Reed, head of IT, was worried about its long-term stability. He was also concerned about the sheer volume of mail the company was having to store to meet legal obligations.

“Mailbox sizes have grown so quickly and giving everyone a massive mailbox is just not practical in-house. Backing up the mail every day for 200 users was becoming a nightmare,” he says.

Instead of rebuilding in-house, Reed opted for a hybrid deployment with data shared between Office 365 in the cloud and an upgraded in-house setup of Exchange 2010 servers.

Staying single

It was vital, he says, to maintain a single email domain and single sign-on because the solution’s calendar sharing features were essential to daily life at the firm.

The Office 365 deployment means staff now have email access on the move, on a variety of devices – no bad thing when there are 200 staff spread over 19 locations, visiting many properties.

Although Douglas and Gordon was initially just looking for an email upgrade, Reed says that since moving to Office 365 its employees have been using the Lync communications tools to resolve things in real-time chat rather than in long drawn-out email exchanges. The company now plans to roll out SharePoint for file-sharing and collaboration.

One of the major selling points of any cloud deployment is the one-size-fits-all nature of the beast and the economies of scale that this allows.

But that doesn’t mean you can just buy the licences and hope for the best. Keep your business needs in mind, determine how much of your business you want to move to the cloud and make sure you buy the one-size-that-fits-you. ®

This article was produced in association with Microsoft.

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