DEOS award shows email still reins king

The tools are more modern, but Defense Department office procedures are durable.

The recent Defense/GSA awards of the Defense Enterprise Office Solutions, though exciting, made me think of how little office and communications procedures have changed in 30 years. Email still rules.

Microsoft has been remarkably successful in its ability to adapt to whatever — the internet, mobile computing, the cloud, the corporate server environment. Maybe it didn’t succeed in smart phones, but now Microsoft’s market valuation has again surpassed that of Apple.

Moving to Office 365, Microsoft’s subscription, cloud-hosted suite, certainly modernizes things, including email. You might remember when technicians ran around, unwrapping software boxes and inserting CDs.

In his statements, DoD’s Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy, talked about DEOS in terms of cloud, cloud strategy, multiple cloud policy. But cloud is just a route to the real benefits, less infrastructure to worry about, simpler administration of accounts and licenses, less duplication of effort and easier sharing of information. And, one hopes, it means better products for a couple million users. The cloud system lets people work online, download and work locally, then synchronize, or start locally and upload to the cloud.

Yet DEOS also shows the extent to which Outlook, Word and Excel documents, Sharepoint and the like still dominate office work. From the advent of DOS and ASCII word processors, it was a short distance to de facto Microsoft standards. That shift occurred about 30 years ago. I’m simplifying a little, but Microsoft products have proven nothing if not durable.

Google offers similar functionality, not as robust as Microsoft’s. The latter company has a long head start in the enterprise IT market, to say nothing of a savvy set of federal resellers. Maybe that’s why the Interior Department, after six years with Google, will move to Office 365 under a $94 million contract with reseller Planet Technologies?

Most federal email is cloud hosted now. That battle is mostly over. Email has grown more modern technologically and managerially, but it remains the main way bureaucracies, federal and otherwise, communicate. Nobody yet has developed real-world mind-melding. Look how many highly visible characters get caught for one transgression or another because of their email trails.

The document remains the other basic unit of work. Here, too, the cloud has let vendors modernize by cutting out the need to ship, by email, copies of this spreadsheet or that Word piece. The storage needs and confusing jumble of versions got to be too much.

At my first post-collegiate job — technically my second after selling Kenwood stereos for a few months — the staff used manual typewriters. A compositor in another state re-keyed everything into a typesetter. The next place had IBM Selectrics, with typed sheets fed into an optical character recognition system. More efficient tools rein today. Although, still, DoD uses Word or whatever to create memos that look like they came from a 1960s typing pool, except for the font.

I joke about keeping a couple of manual typewriters in my basement in case the grid goes. But who in their right mind would go back to the office of dial phones, typewriters, White-Out, and pink “while you were out” message slips? Procedures and workflow have proven durable, we just use faster tools now. Who knows, maybe someday artificial intelligence will curtail the reply-to-all urge?

Today the business versions of Office 365 include an application called Teams. It incorporates chat, a latter-day innovation in collaboration. Here at Federal News Network we use Slack. I get Slack messages from people sitting so closely nearby I can hear them unwrapping the cellophane from Little Debbie Banana Twins.

So it’s important in the age of cloud-hosted, unified business productivity and communication tools, to get up out of your chair occasionally and go talk to someone.

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