Why the Move to Cloud Office Systems is the Biggest IT Shift in 20 Years

Work is transforming: the way employees expect digital-native workplaces, the way work comes home with us and can go anywhere, the way new technologies are changing existing jobs and creating new industries. And as a result, the “office,” a combination of the physical workplace and the digital infrastructure that powers it, is forcibly changing, too.

The cloud office may be a new term, but the move to cloud office systems has been quietly happening for almost a decade. So what is it?

The cloud office is your day-to-day in the cloud. It’s a new platform for email and documents and messaging and calendaring, but more than that, it’s connectivity; it’s collaboration; it’s centralization; it’s having choices about where and when you work.

It’s difficult to separate the cloud office from cloud office systems—the most widely used being Google for Work and Microsoft Office 365—because while the systems provide the cloud-based infrastructure, by doing so they make this new way of messaging and collaboration possible.

Cloud Office Systems: A Brief History

As recently as two decades ago, offices barely had the internet, computers, or email. The daily work habits of every office worker in the world were 100% different, from the way they communicated to the way they documented and shared information, to the way their access to work was limited to the desktop from 9-5 PM.

So how did we break away from incremental hardware improvements to making a fundamental methodology shift? The cloud.

The Old Way, and the Rise of Cloud Office Systems

Taking a step (and a few decades) back, IT infrastructure has historically been dominated by Microsoft’s Exchange and Active Directory. The first Exchange mail server was introduced in 1996 to host email-based communications. Email was rooted in Exchange, where all communication passed through. For the first time, and in real-time, users were able to send out messages and data and documents, which were created on their local machines.

Desktop tools were dominated by Microsoft Office, an eventual suite of messaging and collaboration software including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel that was first launched in 1990. Exchange and Office, the infrastructure and the software coupled together, comprised the default work platform for 20+ years.

Both Exchange and Office required regular upgrades and updates, and Microsoft released new versions every year or two until 2010, when the company announced a cloud-based alternative: Office 365, which reached general availability in 2011.

After just 18 months on the market, one in five of Microsoft’s enterprise customers had purchased Office 365 licenses, indicating that organizations don’t have the predicted reliance on legacy systems. And, just a few months ago, the company estimated all of its cloud offerings to comprise a $6.3 billion dollar business this year—no small market share for a young platform.

Google, on the other hand, took a fast track to creating its own office platform, getting started in the cloud and building with the consumer/end user in mind. In 2004, Google released Gmail, which eventually would become the backbone of Google Apps. And over the next 4 years, Google launched one app at a time, starting with Chat, then Calendars, Spreadsheets, Docs, Presentations, and Sites to round out the Google Apps suite (launched out of beta in 2010) we know today.

Google Drive launched mid-2012, consolidating file sharing and storage across the suite. And as of 2014, over 5 million businesses use Google Apps contributing to around $7 billion dollars in revenue for all of Google’s cloud offerings in 2014—a huge win for Google and further proof that cloud office systems are sticking.

What It Means and Why We Think This is the Biggest Shift in IT in Decades

It’s clear this emerging market is growing—end user spending on cloud services is estimated at $180 billion by this year’s end and Microsoft is predicting $20 billion in cloud revenue by 2018—but how are the role of IT and businesses transforming as a result of this shift from deeply entrenched and integrated on-premises systems to the cloud office?

Messaging and Collaboration Platforms: Making or Breaking Success

Not long ago, users would create documents on their desktop, send them as email attachments (v1), get feedback (v2, v3), make revisions (v4_final), receive final edits (v5_final_final), and eventually settle on a finished project (final_for_pub). Multiply that feedback loop by several projects a day per user, and not only is this file attachment method hugely inefficient, but also huge in size, requiring IT to constantly add storage and servers to an already mammoth infrastructure.

And forget about working anywhere—the typical user was equipped with a desktop PC in an office or cube. Didn’t get everything finished during the workday? Users would have to rely on a VPN to remote into their work machines from home, or email work files to a personal account—the former inconvenient and latter insecure.
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Though messaging and collaboration platforms seemingly stagnated for years, the period between the old way and the new way—or, legacy on-premises systems and the cloud—actually saw several micro-movements that gradually introduced both IT and users to bigger technology changes to come. Over the past 10-12 years, trends like green IT, virtualization, and service-oriented architecture helped temper the idea of a different way of managing IT. And it’s likely that through these (and other) incremental introductions, IT learned more about change management, and end users became less change-averse—all setting the stage for the truly transformational movement to the cloud.

As a result of the move to the cloud, and compared with the old work style, now users can send emails, check their calendars, edit and reference documents, and do more from any location and on any device. Both office and deskless workers and internal and external users can collaborate in real-time on a single, living document. Attachments are obsolete and storage is nearly unlimited. In the cloud office, there are next to no limits on how, where, when, and with whom work is done.

The shift to cloud office systems affects everyone in the organization. And when messaging and collaboration systems work effortlessly, so do users.

The Changing Role of IT

What about the IT team tasked with researching, implementing, maintaining, and securing these systems? A decade ago, the role of an IT employee was highly reactive, managing servers, storage, uptime, and software. Today, IT has eliminated many of these routine tasks as components like email and document storage are becoming commodities, where the maintenance responsibility has shifted to platform providers.

3D architecture abstractWith the major infrastructure management and “fixing” offloaded, IT can instead focus on more strategic and business-minded tasks, like which applications are right for their users, how to securely integrate these applications, and how to increase adoption of cloud services. Now, more than ever, IT has the opportunity to be proactive about improving the systems and processes in place and truly drive organizational change.

IT appreciates a platform that just works and the newly freed-up time to focus on bigger-picture projects, and business leaders and organizations welcome IT’s increased bandwidth and more meaningful contributions to the company. IT teams are becoming the data gatekeepers, responsible for managing identities, securing the platform and the data, and enabling other business units to bolt into their parts.

Final Thoughts

As IT teams champion the move to cloud office systems and transition and transform their organizations, they aren’t doing so through rose-colored glasses—there are challenges and learning curves for IT and end users alike. Namely, IT needs new tools that are purpose-built for their environment in the cloud (solutions like BetterCloud fill these gaps), and end users need education and change management to learn to adopt and realize the benefits of a new way of working—with the end goal for both groups being more accessibility, flexibility, and collaboration (and less frustration) than ever before.

The cloud office affects everything about business, from the way IT departments are run to the way users work. And yes, with these changes come new dynamics and new challenges, but also new opportunities, solutions, and industries that will completely transform the landscape of IT.

What we’ve seen so far—and what is confirmed by numbers, projections, and adoption metrics—is just the tip of the iceberg. Ninety percent of organizations should be operating in the cloud in the coming years, and there’s no question that this new way of working will soon become the default.

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