Pick-and-choose model ‘powerful,’ B.C. CIO says

Over 100 public sector organizations, including school districts, health authorities, crown corporations, agencies and municipalities have signed up for the same Microsoft toolset under an umbrella agreement between the Province of British Columbia and Microsoft Corp.

“Well in excess of 100,000 desktops are covered by that,” said Dave Nikolejsin, CIO of B.C. Government in a virtual roundtable discussion on how government organizations in Canada are using innovation and technology to cut costs and improve services to citizens.

B.C. entered the broad Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft Corp. for advanced communication and collaboration toolsets in March 2009.

The intention was to make a commitment to a toolset that would be standardized across the broad enterprise of B.C. public service, find a way to do this cost effectively and accomplish all the business outcomes at the same time, explained Nikolejsin.

“The results have been pretty amazing,” he said. “We went from a complete ad hoc environment where everyone was doing their own thing to pretty much most of the broader public sector in British Columbia.”

The agreement includes full licensed versions of Office 2007, Office Communications Server, Groove and SharePoint (MOSS). MS Exchange was not included in the package. The toolset is coupled with the broad distribution of tablet PCs equipped with Wi-Fi and 3G wireless, noted Nikolejsin.

“The other thing we did which was very transformative and very revolutionary is we don’t meter it out … in the old days, we paid for everything a la carte,” he said.

As we refresh, everyone gets the full toolset, whether they use it or not, which allows end users to make the decision over what to use, when to use it and how to use it, he explained. The approach is proving “an incredibly powerful business model,” said Nikoljesin.

Allowing employees to pick and choose from a package of tools is opening new avenues for innovation and a lot of workflow redesign, according to Nikolejsin. Employees are finding ways to transform their own work using a rich set of tools, which isn’t innovation designed at the Office of the CIO or IT headquarters, but innovation coming from the front line, he pointed out.

Nikolejsin pointed out success with Groove, which allows users to collaborate outside their organizational boundaries and without extensive aid from IT. The online collaboration tool also provides a more secure method of sharing than faxing or e-mailing, which are methods employees will use to get around firewall obstacles, he explained.

“We use a lot SharePoint like other organizations do and have had an extensive SharePoint infrastructure for quite some time, but one of the problems with doing that type of collaboration is the IT group is in the middle. You have to have someone to configure it and set it up … it takes time,” he said.

OneNote is proving valuable for tablet use, he noted, and contributes to paper reduction. “It’s also searchable so people can organize themselves much better and because it’s well linked to things like Exchange and the mail system, it’s a fantastic way to link the notes you want to take at a meeting to the meeting event itself,” he said.

The Live Meeting videoconferencing tool is supporting government efforts to reduce travel, according to Nikoljesin. The B.C. Government is planning to save roughly $10 million in travel-related expenses this year, he pointed out. Savings are coming in the form of reduced expenditures on airfare, hotels, per diems and a significant area often overlooked – cabs.

But instant messaging platform Office Communicator is the top tool in use, according to Nikoljesin. “That has probably been the one thing we’ve been congratulated on the most,” he said.

The broad licensing agreement is inspired by Being the Best, a corporate HR plan for BC public service first issued in 2006 by Jessica McDonald, deputy minister to the Premier and head of BC Public Service.

The plan encouraged government to look forward, think about how to change the way we collaborate and “stop just talking about being innovative but do something innovative and try to change the game,” said Nikolejsin.

Tim Hickernell, associate lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc., anticipates Microsoft will continue to offer special deals to government entities that resemble enterprise buy-outs. But he doesn’t expect the trend to spread outside the public sector. “We do not see a tremendous push towards adopting these tools in the market in general,” he said.

The public sector is extremely competitive right now, Hickernell pointed out.

“You’ve got alternative office providers as well as Google out there really putting pressure in the public sector on Microsoft to cut better deals. We’ve already seen Microsoft offer, literally in some cases, their online services for basic e-mail and document collaboration basically for free and heavily discounted to academic organizations,” he said.

But having an all-you-can-drink model doesn’t necessarily mean that government should give everything to every desktop, Hickernell warned. “Adopting the build-and-they-will-come mentality is very dangerous whether you are public sector or private sector,” he said.

“They are still going to have to do their work in defining end user roles and who needs what tools because you could really just create more harm than good by saying well it’s all free, let’s just roll every desktop tool out to every single user,” said Hickernell.