INTERVIEW: Why cloud computing works for Croke Park

19 Jul 2010

Former GAA president Nickey Brennan talks to Gordon Smith about tackling change in the organisation and how moving 6,000 officials to Google Apps has improved communication.

Few organisations in Ireland can match the Gaelic Athletic Association for breadth, scope and scale. It has 6,000 officers at all levels and total membership in excess of half a million people. As a result, the sports body offers a compelling case study on implementing significant change through technology. This year marks the midway point of an extensive five-year IT strategy that touches almost every aspect of the organisation.

The man tasked with leading the initiative is in a unique position to put the project in its widest possible context: former all-Ireland winning Kilkenny hurler Nickey Brennan served as president of the GAA from 2006 to 2009. Unusually for an outgoing president, he subsequently resumed a committee role in order to head the team driving the organisation’s IT plan.

Having held several senior technology and communications roles at the food conglomerate Glanbia, Brennan also has the advantage of bringing considerable day-job expertise to the project. His involvement in IT stretches back so far that he jokes about his ability to read mainframe punch cards. Now his gaze is fixed firmly forwards, steering the GAA through an IT strategy that embraces cloud computing, online mapping, video and a host of cutting-edge technologies.

The strategy

Prior to the plan, the challenge facing the GAA was considerable. Its strategy called for an overhaul of internal and external communications, taking a fresh look at membership and registration, games development and club development, volunteer areas, marketing and ticketing, as well as financial and management systems. The association was by no means a greenfield site in IT terms but its existing email systems, for example, fell well short of what would be needed for the future.

According to Brennan, the single biggest issue the GAA had to address was which vendor to choose, with Microsoft and Google quickly emerging as the only serious contenders. Interestingly, the association shirked the obvious choice of IT partner. “I would be used to Microsoft here in Glanbia; we would have major enterprise agreements with them and we would have a lot of technologies developments around SharePoint. Google was coming to the table with a much simpler offering, if I could put it like that. Google was also at an early stage – and you’re looking back over 12 months ago – of developing new technologies. Maybe there was a level of risk, but it came with some excitement from the GAA’s point of view. We saw what they were trying to do and it was of a scale that we could take on.”

The terms of reference in its tender document made clear that the GAA wanted a provider that could offer services through cloud computing. Baker Security & Networks, a Google enterprise partner and a long-standing IT supplier to the GAA, won the bid to help implement Google Apps.

Brennan emphasises that the GAA’s decision is no slight on Microsoft. “Its technology is superb and I use it every day in work so I certainly would be very strong on that, but in terms of what the GAA wanted, Google came with a better package and a better technology solution based on what we required,” he explains. “We had to take a certain leap of faith in the technology but clearly in terms of the overhead from a financial point of view there was a significant difference.”

The upgrade

The first objective of the project was to upgrade the GAA’s email systems to Google’s Gmail service. The project team established a protocol that gets around the problem of changing administrators. Under the new naming convention the Kilkenny county secretary is “It means because we have movement of officers year on year, you don’t have to keep changing. As the new person takes over the role, they take ownership of the email address,” Brennan explains.

Swapping email systems is more than just an infrastructure issue, he points out: it speaks directly to the association’s efforts to improve dialogue with its members at all levels. “Despite our wide spread, we wouldn’t have been seen as good communicators from the centre outwards,” he says. “The advantage of the email system is better communication to get our message out. We now have all of the clubs in the system so we can instantly send out communication to the clubs and they can hear about things happening. We can instruct them and guide them much more easily than heretofore.”

Although no final costs are available, Brennan says the move to Gmail has significantly cut costs and administration overhead, since all the infrastructure is now hosted off-site rather than on in-house servers as it was under the old model. By early March 2010, 100pc of GAA club secretaries – some 6,000 people – had moved to Gmail to access their email. In any 24-hour period, up to 2,000 secretaries will log in to their GAA Google Apps email accounts, and 75pc of all accounts are accessed at least once a week. It means more people can be sure of receiving newsletters and ezines directly from headquarters. Brennan counts this as one of the GAA’s most successful projects to date. “We’re very pleased about that because it’s not simple to get people to buy in to a new process,” he says.

In reality, this is just the start. Google Apps’ Calendar function is starting to be used more extensively at the GAA. Where this software comes into its own is in managing resources like clubhouses or pitches. A calendar, accessible to any GAA member on the internet, can show when the pitch is free and would allow members to book the pitch for a challenge match. Google Maps is being used to show directions to club grounds right around the country, and the word processing software Google Docs is also being rolled out. Google Sites will allow clubs to create their own mini websites under the umbrella. Looking further ahead, Brennan is optimistic about Google’s video-conferencing tool, which could ultimately lead to reducing travel for county officers making their way to meetings.

Saving time and money

This year, GAA is also setting up an intranet for its many documents and linking this to Gmail. “Depending on who you are within the email system will determine the type of access you get to documents within the Google Docs platform,” says Brennan. The GAA’s scale means that it produces massive amounts of paper documents and the intention is to reduce this amount, which will save costs. A further saving, of time rather than money, will come from allowing members to retrieve documents from the cloud rather than having to store data locally on their own systems.

“When we get everything on our own intranet there are clear advantages for us. First of all we don’t have to produce as much paper; we can notify people by email when a document becomes available for viewing. We don’t have to print, envelope and post it. People who were doing that job can now be redeployed to do something else, so we will change some of the internal processes and at the same time we will save money,” says Brennan. “We see this forward path in terms of implementing our IT strategy as delivering on cost savings, efficiencies and all the buzzwords you want to think of.”

Information will also flow around the organisation more easily, leading to better decision making. “When we’re looking at our games and fixtures, as our counties come more and more online with this system, we’re now going to be able to turn around and provide information about the number of games people are getting at certain levels. With that information we’d like to think we’ll get better fixture planning if some people are getting too many or too few games or if matches are being crammed into too short a period. Up to now, a certain amount of that information was anecdotal. Now we’ll be able to start producing facts because we’ll have all the records online,” says Brennan.  

Under the IT plan, the GAA has changed its financial management system to Microsoft Dynamics and the intention is that all of the counties and provincial councils would use the same software suite. “It’s not because we want people in Croke Park delving in and looking at their accounts. It brings a consistent approach to financial reporting,” says Brennan. Currently, the GAA doesn’t produce a set of consolidated accounts because each county is an entity in its own right. A partial consolidation of all accounts might identify potential overspending that could be corrected by bringing the association’s considerable buying power to bear. “We have tended to operate at local unit level but maybe we should be benefiting more from our scale, nationally. That’s not on our agenda today but if we can get that technology developed, it starts to have possibilities,” he reasons.

The external GAA website, developed by Ebow, was recently launched, offering improved news content. A journalist has been assigned to the site and will feed information during the summer as match reports are filed. Photographers at games will be uploading pictures from the side of the pitch straight onto the sites. More video content and podcasting is promised, as well as historical information such as results, along with information about the medical treatment, player welfare and coaching and development.

The GAA’s fixtures management software is an application developed by Tyrone company Servasport. This is currently being rolled out to counties, with around half online and the remainder due to go live later this year or early next. When fixtures are allocated to venues, referees and linesmen will get a text message asking their availability. If they reply yes, the system assigns them to officiate the game. Close to the end of the match another text message will be sent to the referee’s phone, as a reminder to send the result. That will feed both the GAA’s database and automatically updates the website. A module in development will handle all of the disciplinary matters. All of this connects to the GAA’s membership system which is entirely online – paper registration is no longer accepted. This allows the GAA to know exactly who and how many members it has.

The human factor

Such an extensive change, whether in IT or other areas, invariably meets the resistance born of human nature. As other examples have shown, this can be the rock on which many projects perish. Brennan takes a pragmatic approach to tackling this challenge. “I suppose there would be nervousness and the age profile of the people we deal with in the association would be people who find embracing technology maybe a challenge. Sometimes we have to take that into account. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that you just stop because of that; you have to help people along,” he says.

With that in mind, Baker and the GAA’s IT team devised training programmes to help people with the move to Google Apps. A series of short video presentations were hosted on YouTube. Lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes, the clips use screen captures and voiceovers to demonstrate how to send emails. This initiative cuts to the heart of what the GAA is trying to do and it takes account of the fact that, unlike a commercial organisation, most of the people involved give their time voluntarily.

“When I’m working in Glanbia I have targets to meet and things to do and I’m paid to do it, and if I don’t do them, my pay mightn’t be as much, it’s as simple as that. In the GAA, bear in mind, the vast majority are all volunteers who are doing this because they have an interest and a grá for it,” Brennan emphasises. “If we can give them technology which will make their lives easier as volunteers, it means they don’t have to spend as much time as they did in the past because the technology will help them. It will make it more interesting, they will get things done faster and I’d like to think because it’s faster and easier to do, we might be able to attract more volunteers.”

Overall, Brennan prefers to downplay the project and is reluctant to get involved in hyping the GAA’s efforts. “There’s nothing radical about what we’re doing. It’s important to understand the importance of where we’ve come from and the need to move into this technological age is not anything huge but it’s not an insignificant step for us nevertheless.”

Good practice

“I don’t for one minute think that what we’re doing in the GAA is necessarily revolutionary or anything like that. It’s good business practice and we’re using IT do get the job done better, to get it done more efficiently and to make it easier for people to do their jobs. And it makes for better record keeping. If we can capture all this information electronically across the various strands of the organisation, we’ve a better hold on what’s going on and people who make decisions are better informed about those decisions. While we’ve done a huge amount in the GAA, I would never stand up and say ‘what we’re doing here is way beyond somebody else’. It’s not. It’s practical and it’s the right way to deal with things in terms of the association. We’re seeing the benefits of it already and we’ll see even bigger benefits over the next number of years.”

According to Brennan, the choice of a five-year time frame for the IT strategy was deliberate because the ultimate goal is about making the organisation more flexible and better informed. “When you have good IT systems in place it means you can stand back from that and if you want to forward in other directions it can be a lot easier to move forward if you have a lot of good information in front of you. It means you can make good, proper decisions whereas if you have to collate that from manual records it’s slow, it’s cumbersome and it’s costly. There’s a huge advantage in having this information available to us.”

Appropriately for someone involved so closely in team sports, Brennan is keen to deflect credit from himself and he talks up the work of others. “You set out your stall, you get good people around you to make sure the plan is delivered. In the vast majority of cases you’re going to be engaged with one or more external parties. You must really develop a relationship with them,” he says. “Nobody does this on their own; it’s about teamwork and in the case of the GAA the one thing I would like to say is, I may be just the guy who’s steering the ship but there’s a lot of other people around both internally in the GAA across the country and externally, people in Baker and Ebow or Servasport or Ticketmaster (which handles online ticketing for the association). They’re playing a hugely important role in working with us to deliver these solutions and I’d like to think it brings satisfaction to them also. They’re working with an organisation that’s embracing technology and we’re doing that because we want to hand it on to the next generation in at least as good a shape as we got it – and I’d like to think we’re doing that.”

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic