Finish Line completed the migration of thousands of employees from Microsoft Office to G Suite in two months, as part of a major project to improve workplace collaboration at the sportswear retailer.
The Indiana-based company has more than 14,000 staff, including executives at its corporate offices and sales personnel at 1,000 store locations around the U.S.
According to Warren Lenard, vice president of technology and operations solutions at Finish Line, staff communications had previously been siloed across the organisation, while many employees relied each day on an ageing intranet to access information needed to support them in their roles.
Having previously been a Microsoft shop, Finish Line is now using a range of Google tools, from productivity apps such as Gmail, Docs and Sheets to Hangouts Chat and Meet collaboration platforms.
This has helped improve communications between executive teams, as well as in-store staff.
“In the short year that we have been live, we have probably had about two million files up on Google Drive, and the amount of documents that are shared is starting to approach 100,000,” said Lenard.
The move to Google coincided with the deployment of LumApps, a cloud-based “social” intranet platform that is tightly integrated with G Suite - the LumApps platform is the basis of Finish Line’s employee information portal, Finish Line Connect.
In combination with G Suite, the intranet rollout has helped reduce emails between executive teams and in-store staff by 90 per cent.
“We have tremendous adoption of Finish Line Connect, something in the order of almost two million connections, as well as a lot of people utilising Hangout Meet for their meetings and collaboration,” said Lenard.
Raul Castanon-Martinez, a senior analyst at 451 Research, said the Finish Line project is a good example of how businesses are using cloud applications to connect disparate workforces with digital tools.
“Finish Line is a particularly interesting case study because of the challenge they have for enabling collaboration between executive and in-store staff," he said. "This is one of the main benefits that cloud-native collaboration products like G Suite provide.”
He added that the benefits realised by Finish Line are applicable to most organisations regardless of whether employees share the same location or are spread across multiple geographies.
“In the case of Finish Line, it is particularly relevant given the nature of the work that frontline workers do and the challenges this represents when interacting with executive staff in a central location,” he said.
Office document ‘version roulette’
The driving force behind the project was a desire to improve collaboration between staff, something Finish Line had struggled with in the past.
“When I came to Finish Line, it was fairly obvious that, like most organisations, we were not very collaborative,” said Lenard. “We might have thought we were collaborative, but we really weren’t.”
There were a number of areas where this was evident.
“You have the misuse of email and utilising email as a storage platform, you have incessant printing of documents and distributing them before a meeting, only to have those documents end up in the recycling bin on the way out.”
Collaboration processes were convoluted and time-consuming, and colleagues working together on a single document could generate 60 or 70 emails.
This led to what Lenard describes as “version roulette,” with multiple copies of documents and no definitive version. There were also inefficient processes, which could result in hours and days of wasted time. “It adds up, and if you multiply that across the organisation, it is significant,” he said.
Digital team ‘goes rogue’ with Google accounts
Initial aims to improve collaboration and communications centered on the replacement of the firm’s aging ATG version 5 intranet.
This goal happened to coincide with a need to supply G Suite accounts for the company’s digital team — Finish Line’s fastest-growing business unit.
Staff at the digital team had “gone rogue,” said Lenard, and set up personal Gmail accounts to create documents and communicate with one another.
"They had gotten fed up with the poor performance around our collaboration; even getting to files on our file servers that were internal would take forever,” he said.
While Lenard was reticent to force the team to use Microsoft tools, security staff were “doing backflips” at the prospect of staff sharing corporate data on personal accounts. A temporary solution was to procure paid G Suite accounts with full compliance and admin features.
Up to this point, the assumption had been that Finish Line would migrate to Office365 over time and build an intranet on Microsoft’s Sharepoint.
However, a conversation with G Suite integration partner Onix raised the wider issue of workplace collaboration and the prospect of a wider rollout of G Suite. It would also involve a switch from ATG to LumApps.
“There was no RFP involved,” said Lenard. “We were hook, line and sinker, and I found myself with a deck going into the executive leadership team for approval to move forward with the migration to Google and LumApps.”
Business case for collaboration
Lenard said Finish Line’s CEO was won over by the G Suite and LumApps migration plan and the prospect of improved collaboration and communication between staff.
Lenard also makes the point that getting funding for collaboration projects is often a tough sell. “It is never the thing that rolls off of people's tongues, to address collaboration,” he said.
“Everybody is concerned — and rightly so — about supply chain, and ERP and merchandizing systems, because those are the things that are right there in front of your face: How do we build our business? How do we increase revenue? How do we increase margin?
“There is never a ‘good’ time to address something like this.”
Although cost was not the only factor, Lenard said that the move to G Suite resulted in “significant” cost savings compared to its Microsoft enterprise agreement, which was due to end a year after plans were being discussed, at the end of 2016.
Furthermore, a move to Office 365 would have resulted in increased expenditure.
“As it turned out, this whole migration would actually result in a cost savings for us,” said Lenard, and senior executives were unanimous in agreement to push ahead. “So we put together a migration plan. End-to-end on the G Suite side took us two months for the whole company,” he said.
G Suite migration
The project was a major undertaking that required buy-in from the wider business, involving representatives from communications, HR, learning and development, and procurement teams.
Change management was a major aspect of implementing the project. “Our big success, a lot of it we attribute to our marketing capabilities. We did not make this a silent or a stealth type of migration at all.
Not all users were keen to make the move, however. “We had some folks at that point expressing concern: 'I have used Excel my whole career. You are going to ask me to use Sheets now?'
But switching from Microsoft to Google apps has, for the most part, been straightforward.
Mail and calendar conversion was “seamless,” he said, and the process of converting Word files to Docs presents few challenges.
Some processes were more difficult, however. “PowerPoint to Slides, some things convert well, some things don’t, so you work with it. And quite frankly, Excel to Sheets is really not that bad; it all depends on the level of complexity — formulas are fine, but things like pivot tables [are problematic].”
Despite the migration to G Suite, Microsoft Office will still be present within Finish Line for the foreseeable future. “That was always going to be a slow roll out the door,” said Lenard. “You are still communicating with outside organisations, and you can’t expect that everybody is going to be on Google.”
Castanon-Martinez of 451 Research said that G Suite has evolved to the point where large migrations are relatively straightforward from a technical perspective. Managing the organisational — and human — aspects of major projects is often the most significant obstacle to overcome.
“Technical challenges are not a topic that comes up, I assume because Google has worked to make it easy for companies to switch without it being a major hassle for users and IT staff,” he said.
“Change management and getting used to a new way of working for employees that are used to the conventional Microsoft desktop productivity tools seems to be the key challenge for organisations.”
Having completed the migration, Finish Line now has 3,000 Google mailboxes set up, while all in-store staff have been supplied with a Google account and access to the Finish Line Connect intranet. Store managers now have their own email, rather than relying on one email address assigned to each specific store.
One of the main benefits of the project has been to connect executive and in-store staff.
“We have a thousand [store] locations with store managers and store personnel in each one of them, and very often our stores operations team needs various different emails and documents filled out,” Lenard said.
“The amount of work that went into doing that prior to Google — to compare to what it is today is beyond belief. You can see a 90 per cent email reduction from store ops to the stores and back. That just speaks for itself.”
There has been a reduction in the number of documents — such as store action planners — being printed, which would run into millions of pages annually, the equivalent of 144 trees.
There are also advantages from a risk reduction perspective. “We don’t have to worry anymore about locally stored files, and that plays a major role in our efficiency, because now we don't have to worry about version control.”
Having moved to G Suite, Finish Line is busy implementing more Google services. It has begun to deploy Google’s Jamboard digital whiteboards in executive meeting rooms and plans to roll out Pixelbook and Chromebook devices.
Meanwhile, the Finish Line Connect employee portal is being built out with new departmental pages to further encourage information sharing.
Although there is still room for improvement, the project has boosted collaboration and information sharing across the company. “We are meeting seamlessly, we have a frictionless environment to work in,” said Lenard. “We are now what I would consider a collaborative organisation.”
Castanon-Martinez said that the Finish Line project shows how IT can support a large workforce of deskless employees.
“This scenario illustrates how the future of work will evolve,” Castanon-Martinez said. “IT will increasingly need to think about supporting employees in multiple locations.
"This goes beyond simply providing access to company resources (applications, databases, files) from different locations; it also involves how employees work together."
For Finish Line, the requirement is to support frontline workers, but for other organizations it could be remote workers, mobile workers or contractors. “For IT the challenge will be creating a ‘virtual’ work environment that provides the same experience for all employees, regardless of location.”
(Reporting by Matthew Finnegan, Computerworld)