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Training and Communications: Implementing Google Apps at Boise State University

Training and Communications: Implementing Google Apps at Boise State University

by Mark Fitzgerald ( and Shad Jessen (

In January 2009, Boise State University began moving email services for faculty and staff to Google Apps for Education. Novell GroupWise had been providing employee email and calendaring functionality for over ten years; we realized Google Apps would mean a significant change in the way we communicate and collaborate at Boise State. We had been involved with campus-wide email transitions at other universities, and were aware of the potential pain and difficulty such a change could cause for our customers if we didn’t do it right.

We decided upon a multilateral approach to provide communication and training. Our communication plan included campus-wide emails, flyers and pamphlets, newsletter updates, blog postings, website info, and meetings with departments. Training was initially provided via introductory group meetings, coupled with online information in both written and video formats, and later involved a series of presentations and training sessions to the campus at large.


We decided early on we wanted to communicate clearly and often, and through as many channels as possible. We knew no matter what we did, we would be criticized in some quarters for not keeping people informed, so communications transparency was a cornerstone of our endeavors.

Prior to making any announcement to the campus community about the planned email migration, our Executive IT Director took time over a span of several weeks to visit each dean, administrative council and employee association on campus to give them an opportunity to hear about why we believed moving to Google Apps was in the University’s best interests, what our migration plans entailed, and allowed those stakeholders to provide input and feedback.

We then officially kicked off our communications campaign with a campus-wide email sent jointly by our Provost and Vice-President of Finance and Administration. We felt an email from the top would help set the tone of the project and establish this was much more than simply another IT initiative. A schedule for department email migrations was developed, approved by administrators, and posted prominently on our Help Desk website.

Next, our Technology Support staff embarked on a series of visits to each department. About two weeks prior to a department’s schedule migration, we sat down with their entire staff, explained our planned migration process in detail, and set expectations. We didn’t mince words; Google Apps contained some significant differences as compared to GroupWise. We also used that meeting time to probe for unique business needs that would have to be recreated in the Google Apps environment, and answered any and all questions and concerns.

A day or two prior to a department’s scheduled migration time, we returned to answer any remaining questions and concerns, and ensured we addressed any specific workflows and requirements. The rumor mill on campus was alive and well (not to mention wild), and we spent a great deal of our time correcting misperceptions.

Rumors and half-truths were also addressed via a series of campus-wide sessions held during the migration period, which we called “Getting to Know Google.” Often held in a large auditorium setting, these presentations were a chance for people to see first-hand what Google Apps could do, as well as debunk the word on the street as to what Google Apps could and couldn’t do.

One of the biggest success stories of our communications plan was the reinvigoration of BroncoBytes, our online newsletter (what you’re reading right now). We had only recently converted this newsletter from a static webpage to a blog format; a blog was the perfect tool to satisfy the fervor for Google Apps information, and allowed us to quickly react to new and changing features. More importantly, the blog let us immediately communicate some of the issues and workarounds that came to light only after a department’s migration was complete. Because Google Apps is constantly changing, we determined early on that communications must never end. We developed a process to keep our customers informed of changes, and made it easy to find, easy to use, and easy to understand.

For certain information we deemed critical to present to the entire campus, we went beyond our blog and leveraged our relationship with the University’s Office of Communications and Marketing to communicate through their twice-weekly campus newsletter.

Communication and collaboration between the Office of Information Technology campus network administrators was facilitated via a Google Site specifically created for the email migration project. Google Sites provided all system engineers, college IT specialists, and desktop support analysts a solution for real-time project management and knowledge resources throughout the migration process.


During the time we used Novell GroupWise at Boise State, there was a constant clamoring for training. Over a period of 15 years, the GroupWise application had evolved into an “everything but the kitchen sink” email and calendaring application, and many of our employees (especially new ones) did not find it to be intuitive, which presented barriers to accessibility. We were often asked why GroupWise couldn’t be more like Outlook, Gmail, or any number of other email programs people had used elsewhere.

Year after year we presented several GroupWise classes that each involved eight hours of hands-on training just to cover the basics of the program. The class wasn’t meeting the needs of campus; people felt it was too long, too basic, too advanced, and/or too difficult to understand. In turn, teaching the classes was consuming too many of our resources. As a result, our migration to Google Apps emboldened our views of developing alternate training methods.

We began by developing and presenting short descriptive Google Apps videos on our website. These videos ranged from simple topics (e.g., how to login, how to create and send emails, how to create calendar items) to complex subjects like in-depth calendaring features, file sharing, and advanced search operators combined with filters. We coupled our videos with links to Google’s own videos and written documentation, as well as compiled a great deal of training info and frequently asked questions specific to our implementation at Boise State.

The results weren’t bad, but also not as good as we’d hoped. Many people complained they didn’t have time for a video, and instead required hands-on training. This did not make sense to us at first; how could they take 90 minutes out of their day for a hands-on demonstration but not seven minutes to watch a video? In digging further, we found many of our customers needed to leave their office (with its concomitant distractions), and learn in a unique environment allowing them to focus on Google Apps. It wasn’t the videos that were the problem, but rather time management and a desire for a specific milieu of learning free from interruption and interference.

By their very nature, videos were were a one-way method of training; nobody was physically present to ask questions of. As a result, customers felt they were on their own, and at times felt overwhelmed.

In addition, the frequent changes Google made to their applications (and continues to make) obviated much of the information contained in our initial videos. Items that were Labs were no longer, buttons were moved in the interface, mouse clicks changed, and new features were added to address initial workarounds and shortcomings, as well as enhance the product.

Our paper documentation, in the form of flyers, was not perceived as being of much value. On the other hand, the paper documentation was merely a replication of select information on our website, and our online content (website and blog) received high praise. In part, we feel this was due to the constantly evolving nature of our message as we continually modified our online content to address the changing questions and concerns of our customers.

The grand majority of users required little, if any, training. Many employees had prior experience with Gmail and quickly caught on to using it in the workplace. However, our surveys did find about 12% of our customers were struggling to learn the applications. To those 12%, this was a very big deal. We decided to tackle this customer segment by returning to hands-on training. We presented a series of one-hour long classes on various Google Apps subjects over a period of eight months. The initial classes were well-attended and enthusiastically-reviewed, and as time went on interest waned.

Google Apps is unique in that the software is constantly evolving. In other major email applications, updates occur within regular version release cycles. In Google Apps, updates may occur on a weekly (or even daily) basis. Continually keeping our customers informed of updates and changes is a challenge, but again we’ve been able to leverage our blog newsletter platform to educate and inform our users about the ongoing metamorphoses of Google Apps.

Lessons Learned

In hindsight, the initial meetings our Executive IT Director held with college deans and department heads represented a fundamental part of our communications plan, and should have been given even more weight and attention. An initial explanation as to why we were making this profound change was it would “save money.” Although that certainly wasn’t the only factor (nor even the most important) in our decision-making, the phrase caught on like wildfire through the initial months of the email migration, with certain individuals hammering on the misconception they were being given an unreliable, bargain-basement email and calendaring program purely to save the University a buck.

We should have begun hands-on training much earlier than we did. Presenting broad-level overviews in classroom settings and via video tutorials to overworked, distracted employees did not provide the sustainable takeaway knowledge many of our employees needed to dive headfirst into the unique features of Google Apps, such as conversation threading, Google Docs, and Gmail Labels.


If you’re thinking of implementing Google Apps within your own organization, decide upon a training plan that addresses all generations of employees, including making available multiple learning options for your constituencies. Do not assume everyone is going to pick up on how to use Google Apps without guidance, or based solely upon Google’s own documentation. In our opinion, any organization that migrates employees to Google Apps and simply points customers to Google’s documentation when questions arise is going to have a difficult time being successful. Provide users with tangible examples and concrete, step-by-step tutorials for those features and concepts that are endemic to Google Apps.

Finally, realize it may take some of your customers a long time to understand what Google Apps can do for them. Longer than you expect. They may not always be patient with you, but you must be patient with them. Keep communicating, and keep educating.

As 2009 came a close, a participant in a Google Docs training classes (who is an influential executive assistant to a dean in one of our colleges) came up to one of us and said, “You know, I was one of the original people on the ‘I Hate Google’ bandwagon that wanted to get rid of the tool and go back to GroupWise. But the more I learn about Google Apps, the more I love it and realize I can’t live without it.”

It had taken her eight months to come around to that opinion, but with our help she’d finally made it. And that’s when we knew we’d done it right.

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