No IT? Distributed workers? No problem for this virtual firm

Gurnet Consulting runs on Salesforce, Jobscience, Yammer and Google Apps, with some help from Twitter and LinkedIn

With a widely distributed workforce and no IT staff, the 30 full-time Gurnet Consulting consultants have become some of the industry's ultimate power cloud and social networking users.

Consultants within the firm, which specializes in IT project management, depend almost exclusively on cloud applications such as Google Apps and Salesforce and social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter to collaborate with each other and build key professional networks.

Founder and CEO of the firm, Martin King, says the company's virtual infrastructure lets the company run lean and quickly adapt new tools as they become available in the cloud. It also gives the consultants the social glue they need to operate effectively as a team. "We don't have offices where we can talk around water coolers," King says.

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The company starts by using Yammer to draw its consultants together on projects and in personal relationships that help build a corporate culture in the absence of a face-to-face business environment. And it uses cloud applications Salesforce and Jobscience to track customer engagements and keep an eye on a pipeline of prospective new consultants the firm might need to hire for specific projects.

In combination with Google Apps for business applications, the company has all the platforms it needs to do business, eliminating the need for IT infrastructure except for laptops and smartphones, King says.

For its core business Gurnet uses Google Apps for calendaring, contacts, instant messaging and video calls, word processing, spreadsheets, slideshows and knowledge management. Salesforce.com provides collaboration on documents such as proposals, statements of work development and organization of document collateral for proposals. Job proposals developed in Google Docs are linked to job opportunities in Salesforce. Jobscience facilitates recruiting and workflow.

Gurnet is an IT consulting company that helps its clients develop and manage IT infrastructure projects. That requires a lot of attention to details such as whether the client businesses have the personnel, infrastructure and systems to go ahead with projects, and if not, how to get them.

Gurnet also helps write RFPs, choose vendors and formally assure that projects will be completed successfully, then helps the client bring the newly completed projects into routine use.

That range of work requires a lot of collaboration and a pragmatic way to achieve it and keep it organized. That pragmatic approach embraced cloud services, and will likely result in expanded cloud services, he says.

For example, currently the firm uses spreadsheets to correlate data about skills needed by clients that is housed in Salesforce.com with data about job candidates that resides in Jobscience. The spreadsheets work, but creating them is a time-consuming manual process.

As the firm grows, that process will become too big a burden. The solution will likely be upgrading Salesforce and Jobscience licenses so the two services can be integrated. "That will mean exponentially higher license fees, but it's better than buying server and having to maintain them," he says.

It helps too that Google Apps, Salesforce and Jobscience all offer limited free services or trials that are attractive financially, and they promote experimentation with new ways of doing things. Because they are cloud based, trials can be set up quickly with no infrastructure demands on Gurnet, King says. "We can do rapid prototyping and make a call on it pretty fast," he says. A three-month free trial of Yammer, for instance, led to the Gurnet purchasing the service.

While he likes the flexibility and economy of cloud services, he does worry some about availability. But he has faith in the providers, taking their size and popularity as indicators they deliver highly reliable services. "We're playing with the big boys in the industry so I'm not too worried about it," he says.

Putting these cloud-based collaboration tools in the hands of his consultants and the ease of use of the applications has provided good results, although they are not always predictable.

Yammer serves to share personal information among the consultants in order to create a closer social bond. King, for example, posted family photos from his Fourth of July vacation.

But it is also used to share ideas and issues consultants face when working on client problems. They see each other's posts and comment, sometimes generating ideas that result in effective professional strategies.

For instance one consultant working with a client on merger/acquisition due diligence and another consultant working on a unified data warehouse for a client with 36 different business units found via their Yammer posts that they shared similar problems. Both were using tools and techniques to onboard data from disparate businesses. Yammer helped the consultants realize they had something in common and to provide a forum for sharing, King says, ultimately resulting in better outcomes for clients.

Beyond cloud services, King also promotes use of social networking; it's mandatory for consultants to have LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and Facebook is encouraged. King says he has even won useful feedback and connections from posts he has made about articles he was reading on his Kindle e-reader.

Gurnet's use of social networking is also a business development tool. A comment King posted on LinkedIn elicited a response from an IT executive at a retail chain that led to a chat and then to an in-person meeting and ultimately a work engagement.

The social networks also provide a reservoir of professional experts that Gurnet can tap when it requires outside expertise on client engagements.

The firm has also referred potential clients to members of its social-network-based professional stable when it lacked the expertise they were seeking. Gurnet didn't get a contract, but it generated good will, he says.

This is important because the firm has no sales force. It does employ a part-time recruiter for hiring more consultants, and job notices generated by the recruiter are cut and pasted to individual consultant's LinkedIn pages to get the word out to its well qualified professional community, he says. That method works better than using a more generic jobs site like Monster.com, he says. "A Monster account is the last resort," he says. "I'd rather go with someone we know."

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