The General Services Administration (GSA) is an organisation that supplies many of the core things that are required to run the USA’s federal government - everything from buildings, to professional services, to IT.
Speaking on day three of Dreamforce this week in San Francisco, enterprise lead Akanksha Sharma said that the GSA acts as the “economic catalyst for the government and for the American citizens”, as it also promotes management practices and efficient government operations through the development of policies.
Sharma was speaking at Salesforce’s annual conference to explain how the GSA is using the cloud company’s SaaS to re-platform away from its legacy infrastructure, with the aim being to create a 360 view of its customers.
The GSA began using Salesforce in 2009, which was a small implementation of 25 licences and was centred around the core CRM function. However, since then, the organisation’s Salesforce use has grown dramatically and it now has approximately 300 users across a variety of applications. Sharma said:
This was right around the time the GSA’s drive to the cloud initiative got started, and we realised the power of the platform. It wasn’t just a tool for CRM, we could actually use it to modernize a lot of the legacy IT systems. That’s exactly what happened and that’s a big reason why we established an enterprise licence agreement with Salesforce, which we just renewed in July.
That was a defining moment for us. And once we had that ELA in place, we were able to migrate off of Lotus Notes. We were able to implement enterprise Chatter. This was around the same time we were implementing Google, so that whole collaboration piece became the forefront of the conversation. We were able to re-platform a lot of our legacy applications.
GSA managed 9,600 federally owned or leased buildings throughout the US, which have approximately 1.3 million tenants occupying them. It’s entire management portfolio - when you take into account the buildings and the federal acquisition services - accounts for approximately $500 billion. It also has 12,000 employees scattered across 11 regions in the US.
Simply put, the GSA is a large and complex organisation with a diverse set of needs. Which is why it is attempting to modernise its systems within the Salesforce platform, with the hope that if it can organise its data better, then it can provide a better customer service. However, Sharma warned that other organisations doing the same should be wary of lifting and shifting their previously bad processes when moving to the cloud. She said:
We got the ELA in place and we started modernising a lot of the legacy systems. One thing that we didn’t have at the time, that we realised a little bit down the road, was a change in the way of thinking. A lot of the re-platforms that we ended up doing were lifts and shifts. And that’s a problem, because there was never a conversation around whether the business process was important or not.
Is it aligned with our mission statements? Does it provide the value we need? Is it being driven by insights? That was the key piece that we started realising was missing, was looking at the business process and the applications that we were re-platforming - and almost realising that we can’t just take what was old and put it new.
Because otherwise you will just siloed systems within Salesforce, where the data doesn’t talk to each other and you’re still not able to get that 360 view that most people re-platform to Salesforce for.
That realisation was a big reason why now when we are making decisions, whether it’s around re-platforming, or adding enhancements, integrating different solutions, data is the key point. And those data points are really important before we reach a decision.
Understanding the customer journey
One of the ways in which the GSA is working to improve its processes, is by the work it is doing in close coordination with the newly created Chief Customer Office. The GSA is working with the office to try and understand its customer journeys better and to see where it can create more efficient processes that create a better service for American citizens. Sharma said:
It’s been great. We partner with them really heavily and they’ve been one of the crucial pieces that has helped the progress of a lot of the core concepts that will make CRM ultimately successful. So, helping the federal acquisition service, the public building service, draw out their customer journey.
Asking them - what do you want to ask your customer? What do you want your experience with them to look like? And then to say, we want to make sure that we are doing this now at an enterprise level, so that there is not a very different experience to someone who goes and talks to someone in San Francisco versus if you talk to someone in DC for the same service.
They’ve really helped us to keep on track with that enterprise view, that’s where that partnership has been really helpful.
The GSA has also begun some small pilots using Salesforce’s analytics tool to better help guide decision making as it relates to customer service, across its core functions in the federal acquisition service and its real estate management. Sharma said:
We realised recently that we really want to go back and focus on some of the core competencies around sales and service. There are a lot of problems that we can still solve there as an agency, utilising some of the things we have developed. It’s really working towards that customer 360 view, so we have a clear understanding of who our customers are and how we are interacting with them so that we can make their experience better.
So when we were picking pilots for Wave, that’s the function that we concentrated on. [For example], we are using Wave so we can start doing trend analysis to see what buildings are problem areas year after year). We are also using it in our USA.gov call centre, which is the major call centre where we provide information to the American citizens.
Since we have been using the platform for so long, we now have a very horizontal implementation across many different orgs. We have many different types of applications. But we really want to get back to our core focus of sales and service. That’s really why we started looking at Wave, because we really want to be the people for the folks that are interacting with tenants, or if you’re selling a service to another government agency, we want to make sure that those employees have the data they need to make the right decisions.
That’s really what’s the most important to us. It’s about making sure that people have the right pieces of information and have the most streamlined process to make the right decisions.
Finally, apart from the Salesforce platform itself, Sharma noted how the GSA’s technology function has significantly improved since it moved away from a waterfall approach to development and began using agile methodologies. This isn’t unusual in modern digital organisations, but it’s good to hear federal agencies adopting the approach. Sharma said:
There is some mind boggling statistic out there that says 70% of IT projects fail. The percentage of projects that fail is absurdly high. So we need to start approaching things with a fresher and more innovative way. One of the things that has been central to our strategy is that agile approach.
A lot of times when you get started with this is that you're not going to know all the answers ahead of time. You don’t know what you don’t know. There is simply no way to find out what you don’t know until you get started. So you want to make sure that you get started in a way so that first failure isn’t that $10 million failure.