How Google Apps let this parking lot company double in size overnight

Credit: Flickr user Kevin Krejci

Standard Parking claims to be contracted to manage a million spots in hundreds of cities across the US and Canada. When it adopted the Google Apps cloud collaboration and productivity suite in February 2012, the company was really looking for a way off the Microsoft Exchange licensing treadmill and a roadmap to greater agility.

But that value proposition was put to the test when, in the same month that the Google Apps rollout began, Standard Parking announced a merger with then-competitor Central Parking, giving Executive VP of Strategy & Process Keith Evans an eight-month window to prepare for the company's size to effectively double with another 2,000 or so employees.

Here's how his team took advantage of the flexibility of SaaS to come up with a solution that was so popular, they had to ask their 4,200 combined employees to slow down and give IT a chance to catch up.

Two pilots

Standard Parking originally turned to Google Apps in late 2011 as a cost-effective way off the Microsoft Exchange licensing treadmill. The $50/user/year price tag for Google Apps gave it a price edge over Microsoft Office 365, which at that time was still relatively embryonic and lacking in major functionality, Evans says. Even before you figure in the rest of the Google Apps suite, e-mail and calendaring alone afforded Standard Parking a 4:1 cost advantage over an Exchange upgrade.

An initial pilot failed to capture any kind of real value, Evans says, because they weren't sure exactly what they were looking for. A second pilot in September 2011 helped make the business case for Google Apps, and local Chicago-area integrator Maven Wave Partners began the process of migrating Exchange data in December 2011. By the time Standard Parking was ready to cut over from Exchange to Google Apps, it was as easy as "flipping a switch," Evans says. 

As you may expect, the biggest issues were cultural. Evans' team made the conscious decision not to allow the usage of Microsoft Outlook in an effort to force employees to rethink their relationship with email. When Google first came to Standard Parking in late 2011 to demo the now-standard collaborative editing functionality between Google Docs on the phone and a desktop browser, Evans says it blew his mind -- "it seems like not that big a deal now," but he could see how it would offer the employees in his trust a new range of freedom.

Basically, Evans was concerned that if Standard Parking's lot managers were checking their e-mail in the manner to which they had become accustomed, they would have trouble getting used to the idea that they could access the Google Apps suite from their phones, tablets, or home computers. (In fact, Evans says he now leaves his laptop at work entirely, a first for him.) 

Younger workers are more used to it, Evans says, and older folks who only ever had limited access to technology in the first place pick it up quickly. But employees in the middle, who'd had plenty of time to acclimate to Exchange, had the most trouble picking up Gmail and its focus on searching, rather than sorting, mail. Regardless, Standard Parking offered "Going Google" training to help employees bridge the gap.

The company noticed an unintended consequence as well. While Standard Parking originally adopted Google Apps primarily for e-mail and calendaring, and the training was focused in that area, Evans says that Standard Parking employees discovered Google Docs, Google Sites, and Google Forms all on their own.

Some facility managers started making customer satisfaction surveys. Others were using Google Docs to handle their employees' schedules. Territory managers were making sites advertising the facilities under their umbrella. It got to the point where Evans had to shut down access to the tools just to stem the flow of unauthorized, unofficial information. It's a huge testament to user evangelism and the potential of empowerment.

No-stress merger

Fast forward to the closing of the merger with Central Parking in October 2012. Where before, Evans and his team might be scrambling to prepare for the great doubling, he says it was simply a matter of cutting a check to Google to hit that scale. No drama, no pain, no fuss. Just another flipped switch.

Instead, Evans spent the six weeks ahead of the big day building a Google Sites page that would go live when the moment came, filled with all the up-to-date paperwork and field guides that the new employees would need to get up to speed. Before, Evans says, they would have tried to use a shared drive in Windows to disseminate this data, which would have presented a nightmare scenario of VPN wrangling and permissions management at garages across the country. 

The next steps, apart from a more formal reintroduction of Google Docs and Google Sites to Standard Parking's workforce, include a test run of Google Chromebooks, to further play up the mobility benefits afforded by Google Apps. 

This is a perfect example of how SaaS and cloud productivity suites offer an easy sell -- cheap, managed e-mail -- and end up offering a lot more value than a lot of CIOs seem to initially consider. Evans says that Google Apps has opened doors in collaboration and community building amongst Standard Parking's widely-dispersed workforce, and that building a traditional intranet of the kind they designed for the merger would have been a much more drawn-out, expensive process. 

In other words, add this to the growing stack of examples of how the changing enterprise software market is offering a way out of the management-and-maintenance trap and enabling IT teams to deliver business value, even as the business itself scales in unforeseen ways

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