The grocer is an early adopter of Google's suite of Web-based enterprise apps.
Bi-Lo has Googled its operations. This reference has nothing to do with an Internet search, although that's typically what someone means when they use the Web giant's name as a verb.
In this case, however, we're saying that the Mauldin, S.C.-based grocery chain with more than 200 stores has replaced most of its enterprise application and productivity software — e-mail, scheduling, intranet development, forms and document management — with “cloud-based” applications developed and hosted by Google.
While cost was the initial driver of this move, the switch to Google Apps has enhanced Bi-Lo's internal communication and collaboration, streamlined its operational processes, and empowered its employees to contribute to the company's growth.
“It actually started out as a cost initiative,” says Carol DeWitt, Bi-Lo's CIO. “We had an old version of Lotus Notes that was basically out of support, so we needed something new anyway. And whatever we deployed, we expected to have a huge impact on our business as far as change. So we decided to look at what was available and see if we could do something that adds value and reduces costs.”
And they looked at everything. Jason Breazeale, Bi-Lo's manager of enterprise architecture, evaluated offerings from Microsoft, IBM, Lotus Live and WebEx Mail, to name just a few, starting with a feasibility study on price, and from there diving deeper. Both Google and Microsoft had cost-effective cloud-based solutions, explains Breazeale, noting that Microsoft offered hosted versions of its Exchange and Office productivity solutions, while Google had its Enterprise Apps suite.
And although they're Web-based solutions, both are very secure. “Understandably, we were concerned about the potential risk of hosting our data outside of the company,” says DeWitt. “But Google and Microsoft had such exhaustive research on that, and we realized that it is really as secure as what we have.”
Additionally, both solutions easily extended to mobile devices, which was important to Bi-Lo. “This would let us take advantage of all of these SmartPhones, iPads and Tablets we have in the field, in a secure way.”
What led to Bi-Lo's decision to go with Google has more to do with the consumerization of technology than the vendors themselves. Consumerization of technology basically refers to the development of applications originally for consumers, and then later extending these applications to the enterprise itself.
Microsoft Office, for example, began with the enterprise (hence the name “Office”). Consumer versions followed. Google Apps, however, took the opposite route. Google e-mail led the way, and was quickly adopted by consumers, followed by Google Docs, and then sites. Enterprise versions of these came later.
According to Breazeale, many of Microsoft's office applications must be managed by IT, while Google's, being essentially end-user products, are primarily managed by the users themselves. And most users are already familiar with Google's products. “We were initially concerned with how well the apps would be adopted, and whether or not there would be training issues,” says DeWitt. “But I was surprised by how few training issues there actually were. Thirty-five to 40 percent of our users were already using Gmail for their personal e-mail, so they were already familiar with it. The rest were using Yahoo! or Hot-mail or other Web-based e-mail, so Gmail was not a huge jump.”
This is not to say the system is one big user free-for-all; while users can customize the various apps up to a point, they're still monitored and bound by set policies. “When I look at Carol's account, I can see the last time she logged in via the Web, the three devices she has sync'ed, and so on,” says Breazeale. “I can remote-wipe that device from my Google Apps administration. We still oversee everything from IT.”
Moving to Google's cloud-based solution meant that IT could focus on more value-added initiatives that make a difference to Bi-Lo's customers. “Previously, e-mail was supported by one group within IT, intranet by another group, and we were developing our own applications,” notes Breazeale. “We had a resource spend a bit of her time doing nothing but maintaining a home-grown forms system. But we're not a software developer. We're a grocer.”
Now DeWitt and her staff view these cloud-based applications as utilities. “We turn the power on and off, we turn the water on and off, we turn the e-mail on and off,” says Breazeale. “That's the way we have to start looking at these technologies.”
Collaboration and Communication
In addition to freeing up IT resources, Google Apps freed up time for executives and managers by making collaboration easy and efficient. Each of Google's document types, such as forms and spreadsheets, can be read and/or edited online by a team of collaborators, boosting the speed of projects and reducing errors. In the case of a mistake, each revision is archived and stored on Google's servers. Adding collaborators is accomplished via e-mail invite.
“In the past, we would spend hours trading spreadsheets and Word documents back and forth, only to find out later that we missed something,” says DeWitt. “Now we do that together. Our entire budgeting process this year was done through shared spreadsheets instead of multiple copies of multiple documents that were sent around. And these are not small spreadsheets.”
Google sites replaced Bi-Lo's corporate intranet, and its ease of use has driven “increased communication within the company,” notes DeWitt. “That's been a very big success here, because our other, original Intranet for our corporate office was hard to use, and it wasn't a good place to communicate,” she says. “You only went to it if you needed to download a policy or something like that. It was a .pdf repository for the most part. Now it's a communication channel.”
The main page is set up as a kind of a user dashboard, with links to the user's Google mail account, calendar and other applications. “It's very intuitive,” says Breazeale. “Our users were able to very quickly learn how to do their posts and updates, and we feel they will soon easily begin to manage their own page, the look and feel of it. We didn't have to do much training on sites. And they are using Docs the same way. With just a couple of instructions they are building their own forms — which we often use for surveys of various types — and collaborative documents and sending them out.”
Google Talk — a chat function built into Google Mail — has become a sort of de facto help-desk tool, which employees use when they have trouble with an application. They shoot a quick instant message to one of Bi-Lo's “Google Geeks,” its in-house experts on the platform, who often resolve these issues within minutes, without leaving their desks.
And all of these apps can be accessed from virtually any mobile device, as Google automatically scales any Web page it hosts — whether a site, document, form or whatnot — to whatever mobile device is accessing it. “We've gotten to be big iPad fans here because of the mobile flexibility,” says DeWitt. “That's the best thing about Google Apps: Because they have 500 million consumers using them, they are already there on the mobile side.”
As with any hosted solution, upgrades and new features are automatically added by the host. Google is always adding new tools, features and apps. “In the beginning, there were only a few apps available to the @bi-lo.com ID, but now it is open to just about everything they do,” says Breazeale.
Nuts and Bolts
The Google Apps suite comprises several document and office productivity applications. Here are some of them, as well as their features:
e-mail, IM, voice and video chat
- Each user gets 25-gigabyte e-mail and IM storage
- Mobile access via apps or Web
- Sync with Outlook and BlackBerry
- Google search for finding e-mails
- Easy appointment scheduling
- Send invitations, manage RSVPs
- Integrates with most e-mail systems
- Shared project calendars with sharing permission controls
- Mobile access
- Invite guests on mobile devices like the BlackBerry and iPhone. Receive calendar notifications via SMS
- Publish calendars to Web
- Web-based documents, spreadsheets, drawings and presentations
- Works in the browser on PC, Mac and Linux computers
- Supports popular formats such as .doc, .xls, .ppt and .pdf
- Upload, share and collaborate. Multiple revisions archived
- Administrators can manage file-sharing permissions systemwide, and document owners can share and revoke file access
- Create dynamic Web pages as easily as writing a document — no coding or HTML required
- Centralize documents, spreadsheets, presentations, videos and slideshows
- Build collaborative sites with templates for project workspaces
- Anytime, anywhere access
- Works across operating systems
- Administrators can manage site-sharing permissions across the business
”Things like Ad Sense, Google Blogger, Reader, Voice, all of that stuff is now available,” he adds. “With our old systems, we were never giving our users anything new. Every year, they would maybe get a couple of new features. Now, when something new comes out, they just read Google's blog and learn about it themselves.”
What's more, Bi-Lo's user community is even adding value to the IT department since the deployment of Google Apps. “Our users are discovering new ways to use Google apps to enhance our operations, which we never thought of,” says DeWitt. “This is the real benefit of the consumerization of technology. They are all part of our extended IT family now.”