The Weather Company forecasts change, deploys Google Apps

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright February 17, 2014
Summary:
How content and big data business The Weather Company implemented Google Apps to help keep pace with its digital transformation

Bryson Koehler, CIO, The Weather Company
Bryson Koehler

Needing to upgrade your email system isn't a good enough reason for implementing Google Apps, warns Bryson Koehler, CIO at The Weather Company:

"If you just present it as a move from one email system to the next, people will question why are you doing it? If you're doing it just for email, you probably ought not to be doing it. It needs to be tied to a reason."

At The Weather Company, the impetus came from the company's leadership driving a program of change:

"We had to go through a cultural revolution. We needed to increase the velocity of change in our business, be able to multitask on many different projects simultaneously, increase the number of teams we work with both inside and outside the company."

That meant providing "the best possible toolkit" to the organization's 1200 global employees, from phones and laptops to VPNs and software, says Koehler:

"What are we arming them with so that they can be productive? A collaboration suite was what was required. The old model of a suite of separate applications, that model I knew was broken."

Digital transformation

The arrival in January 2012 of a new chairman and CEO, former Akamai president David Kenny, had signaled a period of transformation for the company then known as The Weather Channel. Owned by media and entertainment giant NBCUniversal and private equity investors Bain Capital and Blackstone, the company faced an urgent need to reposition for a digital age.

With more and more people getting their weather information from the company's mobile apps rather than its eponymous TV channel, digital was in the ascendancy. That meant an acceleration of pace: on digital, people expect real-time forecasts whereas the old TV broadcasting model had allowed for a lag of a few hours. There was also a need for a more global perspective.

Kenny, whose previous experience also encompasses digital marketing at agencies Publicis and Digitas, set in train a program of change, bringing in Koehler as CIO in summer 2012. The Google Apps roll-out began early in 2013.

100% big data

Many other technology changes have been under way, too. Weather has been all about big data since long before the buzzword existed. Not only for forecasting, but also in correlating weather to human behavior, advising governments and helping businesses make better decisions when buying ads, selecting in-store promotions or planning inventory and staffing. Koehler says:

"We are fundamentally one hundred percent a big data technology company. We then take that data and monetize it through many avenues. Our data happens to be atmospheric data and we apply a lot of technology and storytelling to that data."

One Weather Company client in the insurance business has built an application that sends an SMS message to policy holders warning them to move their cars under cover 30 minutes before a hailstorm hits their locality. That can save anything from $1 million to $5 million in potential claims after a medium-size hailstorm.

Koehler has overseen a major overhaul of The Weather Company's data infrastructure. His team recently implemented the Basho Riak distributed data store deployed across multiple Amazon Web Services availability zones.

On the content delivery side of the business, The Weather Company is to implement Sony's Ci cloud production platform to collaborate on content and make it available to teams globally.

Thus the Google Apps roll-out has been part of a broader move to more responsive, cloud-based platforms to help The Weather Company keep pace with the demands of digital transformation.

Real-time collaboration

The selection of collaboration platform came down to a choice between Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365. Google won out because its applications were better integrated and the licensing was simpler, says Koehler.

Adoption of Google Apps has brought about big changes in the way people work, he says. One important change has been the ability to collaborate without always resorting to email:

"The hope with Google is that email becomes a secondary form of communication. It's a horrible mechanism for communication."

The ability to work anywhere and on any device has been warmly welcomed, and Google Docs usage took off quickly because of its real-time collaboration. Staff have been encouraged to replace personal Box and Dropbox accounts they had been using with Google Drive.

Google Hangouts were rapidly adopted by marketing, sales and PR teams and the video conferencing platform has proven invaluable, Koehler says:

"When you're moving fast and constantly assimilating people and teams, when you see somebody's face it's easier to have difficult conversations and be direct and make difficult decisions and move forward. You get on a Google Hangout and it's amazing what you get accomplished.

"Google rooms are a standard part of every office we build now. We've seen a dramatic use of the Hangout environment, which is exactly what my hope was — that tied with the Google Docs and Sheets.

"... A year after we went live, people are still learning, still seeing reasons why it helps us work in a very distributed, non-stop mode."

Embracing change

That background of business transformation was key to the success of getting staff to embrace big changes in the way they work, says Koehler:

"This is not a transformation where you need to have a solution in search of a problem. Don't transform the way your entire business works just for the sake of doing it. It needs to be coupled with a reason for change.

"A business needs an impetus. Those reasons need to be laid out and a change to Google Apps needs to be a tool that's put in place to help that change. It is a dramatic change to how people work."

The Weather Company brought in cloud integrator Cloud Sherpas to manage the roll-out, he explains:

"In IT we don't do changes like that every day ... You have to relaize what your limitations are. You have to find a partner.

"The role that Cloud Sherpas played was critical to the success. You need a partner that understands the process of cultural change and how to make it succeed."

Key ingredients

Karl Lamberth, SVP global delivery for Google Apps at Cloud Sherpas agrees that having a broader motivation for change is a key element in successful deployments:

"A change imperative is a critical component in making it successful — a strong rationale at an organization level and at an individual level on why I am going to invest the time and effort into making this change."

Lamberth highlighted three key ingredients that in Cloud Sherpa's experience contribute to the success of Google App deployments:

  • Executive buy-in. Make sure top management understands the change imperative and actively helps to make the change successful.
  • Change branding. Position the change as something that's very positive, fun and excitng for an organization.
  • Organizational momentum. Use pilots to build networks of early adopters who then become advocates and supporters of the change: "When the rest of the organization goes live, they will be out there, visible, walking the halls, helping people make a quick transition to the new technology."

Image credit: Weather app © James Thew - Fotolia.com; Bryson Koehler headshot courtesy of The Weather Channel