I travelled to Portsmouth this week to take part in my first Google apps for education EU users group meeting, #geug12. I was a little afraid of meeting lots of developers - you know, hip types invariably male with expensive tastes in kit and a passion for talking java, python, css and php. There's only so much of that I can take and as I have served more than my first half century of life's great adventure so far, I can be sure they won't be beating a path to chat to me. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised: I found folk interested in good student experiences and collaboration as well as excellent French connections with whom to enjoy some bavardage.
In the wrap up session at the end of the day, a rather downbeat Google chap (clearly senior management as they work hardest to look casual, jeans and white shirt, perched on Google bean bags) shared with us his woes. Here we are, he said,(I paraphrase) with all this great free kit, with which clearly you can achieve fantastic things in education, and yet still European adoption is very low. He offered his observations: no use in Germany at all, low adoption in France (despite high level discussions), resistance in UK and only 20% in Spain (a success story). He asked us, pleadingly, what are we doing wrong? Half joking he said maybe we should change the name? to Blackboard maybe?
Well, Google man - here are my thoughts (some of which were expressed more or less in the session) but I think this post may lead you to a deeper understanding as to the barrier you are facing. The clue is in the culture.
Understand your customers: most universities in the UK (especially large traditional Russell group et al) are big corporate businesses these days. The management delegate the IT discussions to their techies who worry only that, at some point, someone will hit them with a big stick for forgetting to predict the unpredictable. IT professionals are often tribal, some love Google for personal use, others see only pain and even job losses if they move away into the unknown and relinquish any control. You assume they understand what you do - generally they don't, believe me. Grass roots change may help, especially with the additional UK driver of high fees and the arrival of "paying customers."
Know your USP: Google has a huge product range. The rule is similar to the weather on Skye (Western Isles of Scotland BTW) if it isn't there already, just wait a minute. However you are forgetting your major advantage - you provide international tools that could facilitate greater international collaboration across borders; language fonts and and scripts are easy with Google, sharing is not hierarchical, a true participatory culture can be established using docs, hangouts etc. So you support our internationalisation agendas, offering the chance to simplify (even for the technophobes) interaction and dynamic growth. And we academics don't have to spend hours getting ITS in, asking them to understand what we want to do, waiting for them to come back with a "solution" and trying to fit what we do into that. The tools you create on the whole support the ideals we hold dear, we can just get on with it.
In your defence, you are improving your communication - currently rather confusing just because there is so much of it - but Google can handle big data and make sense of the navigation, surely?
Back to my cultural point. Sad Google chap - you did a great job of making that intercultural leap to communicate with a UK audience. We all felt sorry for you and wanted to help. This was your master stroke - you were a skilled intercultural operator. The British love a loser, we warm to the underdog. Somehow you managed to make us believe that Google apps for ed, this little team, needed our help. I am confident that we will come rushing to your aid. We need you to grasp the cultural shifts presented by working with the mélange of cultures that make up Europe. It is a bigger challenge than the US, as you have discovered. The one common factor that crosses all cultures is that we trade with those we trust, we trust those we understand.