In Allen "Gunner" Gunn's opening plenary at NTEN's cloud computing event last week, he spoke passionately about the potential for cloud computing to transform organizational boundaries and barriers (see the video of the session; Gunner's keynote starts at 29:50).

He talked a lot about the popular cloud-based project-management tool Basecamp. Basecamp is a project space where everyone associated with a project can post updates, set and track deadlines and milestones, and even upload files associated with the project. It's one of those tools that "just work," and once you've gotten used to it, it's hard to imagine life without it.

According to Gunner, part of what makes these tools just work is their air of neutrality. If you've ever worked with a consultant or collaborated with a colleague in another organization, you probably hit a roadblock when you realized that that person didn't have access to an internal system. Maybe she needed to be able to access files that were on a server in your network, or maybe you were using the Tasks function in Microsoft Exchange to keep track of deliverables for the project. Perhaps you went through the work of setting her up with a temporary account on your network, but that can raise security and privacy issues.

It's more likely that you cobbled together an imperfect solution, sending updates by email attachment. That works in a pinch, but if you're going through more than one or two rounds of edits, it can get messy in a hurry. I've lost hours of work because two people were unknowingly working on different versions of the same document.

Managing projects in the cloud is a way to sidestep all of those hassles. As Gunner put it, the cloud is a "demilitarized zone" of organizational culture. Using a tool like Basecamp or Google Docs, you can invite someone to work with you on the project itself, without spending time navigating barriers in security or organizational culture, or worrying about oversharing.

Even more provocatively, Gunner suggested that cloud computing can change how the organization works internally. When someone's slipping on a deadline and promising it'll be done Monday morning, politely ask them to upload the current draft to Basecamp for archival purposes. In other words, keep projects moving by keeping them in the group's purview, not rotting on a single staff member's hard drive. "And that's when [they'll say] the dog ate their hard drive," Gunner warns, "but you're moving them into a role of accountability and driving more transparency so that stuff gets in front of more eyeballs sooner."

That same heightened accountability can also transform how the staff works with leadership. Accountability can be a two-way street, with the same system that tracks staff's deadlines tracking the ED's work too. "If you can get the executive director to put stuff in [Basecamp], then they're as accountable to the staff as the staff is to them."

That's a powerful idea, but does it work? Getting people in leadership roles to substantially commit to changing how they work can be very difficult. In my experience, when an organization starts using the cloud, it often begins with a small group using cloud-based systems as a way of sidestepping organization infrastructure. It's not easy to make the shift from avoiding standard practice to changing it.

What about your organization? Has the cloud changed how you work? What technology choices have improved accountability in your nonprofit or public library? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Related: Six Views of Project-Management Software

Photo: Simon Webster, CC license