There is more to learn from a university than what comes from a lecture hall and visiting the library. Lessons in strategy come from the athletic field, in management from the school’s administration, and in communications from leveraging the cloud. Today I’m sharing what I’ve learned about implementing email at a university through Office 365 for education.

Georgia State University had implemented Novell GroupWise for email, back in 1996. By 2011 its faculty and staff faced several email concerns with GroupWise, including insufficient support for mobile devices, low mailbox size, and even difficulty in providing reliable services. They needed to deliver email to staff in another way. The university now provides them with email services through Office 365, and is making news with Campus Technology’s publicly-available webcast, It’s Easy in the Cloud - Communicate and Work Together. The university also provides Microsoft Live@edu email and collaboration services to its 32,000 students.

Learning from their experience, five lessons stand out in migrating to cloud email in a higher education setting.

#1: Get support from the top for a nimble provider 
As email issues loomed for administrators, Georgia State University welcomed a new president whose first question for his CIO was “When are we moving to Exchange?” In asking this, the president prioritized the email transition and empowered IT, freeing his CIO to focus on the implementation that best-suited the organization. Naming Microsoft Exchange meant that the CIO had a choice of deployment methods for email. Unlike Google, Microsoft provides a choice of delivering services on-premises or via the cloud.

The university was considering on-premises delivery to be an attractive option, because it would allow IT strict control of resources and administration, unlike their experience had been with GroupWise. Then, their economic impact study revealed that implementing email in the cloud would be $1M less expensive over 5 years, and would allow them to deliver much larger mailboxes than the 1 Gigabyte mailboxes they were prepared to deliver on premises. They chose Office 365, which includes Exchange Online email services. 

#2: Showcase your trustworthy selection  
Sig Behrens, General Manager for US Education at Microsoft captures the customer point of view well when describing universities’ early adoption of Office 365: “Customers are choosing Office 365 over competitors for our deep expertise in developing productivity tools with world class security, privacy, compliance and accessibility features.” After all, unlike Google, Microsoft provides customers with data privacy assurance, and is transparent about where your data is located, who has access to your data, and what we do with your data in the cloud. --Learn more through this video.

In particular, when email issues dictate your choice of a new solution, you may receive lots of questions, especially when your users have not used cloud services before. That was true at Georgia State. According to a GSU IT leader speaking in the webcast, faculty had email privacy, ownership and uptime concerns, and making the legal folks happy was one of the most difficult things. GSU found that locating email in the Microsoft cloud was as secure as having it on campus. They reassured internal customers by communicating the trustworthiness of Microsoft online services. Microsoft sets the standard for security in the cloud, and GSU sees the Office 365 Trust Center as a focal point for those with concerns about ownership of private data. 

#3: Plan your execution well
While Office 365 for education email services presented no recurring costs, the university recognized that there was work involved in learning about Microsoft IT technologies which were new to them, and in planning a transition that would serve their customers well. In particular, they learned about Active Directory and PowerShell technologies in working with the Microsoft partner, B2B Technologies, and they created a strong cutover plan with the enlightened Microsoft partner, Quest Software.

A strong selection and transition are important in the technology sector, as well. CIO, Ken Grady comments on his selection of Office 365 for New England Biolabs: “Never underestimate change management. It’s at least as important as the financial considerations. Email, calendar and document collaboration are fundamental to how people work.”

#4: Focus on the customer
In choosing Office 365 the university had selected an email solution with a stronger user experience than Google offers its Gmail customers. Microsoft provides integrated email, tasks, contacts, calendar, and presence within Exchange. They were delivering a customer-focused, enterprise-ready email solution.

In the webcast, the university’s two Information Systems and Technology leads, Bill Gruszka, Director of Production Services, and Keith Campbell, Director of Technology Engineering, spoke about their focus on serving clients. For example, they hosted a mobile day as part of their Office 365 rollout. Assisting 200-300 users in one day, they were so effective that a second mobile day was not needed.

Should they have chosen a Google solution they would not have been able to be as customer-centric in helping users be productive. --In choosing Office 365 they had implemented something highly valued by their user community, single sign on access with the same password to other on campus applications. Given Google’s ‘nothing but the web’ approach to delivery, without third party tools, single sign on to other campus tools is not available.

#5: Share knowledge within the organization
A great way to keep your customers happy is to exceed their expectations. GSU’s internal customers, its faculty and staff, attended town hall meetings with IT and with Microsoft before the Office 365 transition, surfacing many questions. GSU IT then captured their learning for internal customers in tutorials as they built their expertise with Office 365. Collected on a Getting Started with Office 365 101 web page, not only is this knowledge a resource for internal customers at GSU, Microsoft recognizes and shares this work with other Office 365 customers, as a best practice.

Congratulations go to Georgia State University for choosing current tools to help their community succeed, for their customer-centric approach to adopting them, and for their first NFL draft pick!

For more details about Georgia State University’s migration, hear from their IT leaders and Microsoft education sector specialist, Michael Icore in the Campus Technology webcast.