Red Cross offers Office 365 to its units worldwide to improve communications

The Microsoft cloud email and collaboration suite could be adopted by millions of the relief organization's employees and volunteers

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) now offers its more than 180 National Societies the option to adopt Office 365, Microsoft's cloud-based suite of email, collaboration and productivity software.

The IFRC's decision to make Office 365 available to its in-country organizations is part of its effort to help those of them which have fallen behind in technology -- estimated at more than a third of all National Societies.

It will be up to each National Society to decide whether or not to adopt Office 365. However, with about 200,000 employees and about 15 million volunteers at these national operations, the global Office 365 roll out could very well exceed 1 million end users, and maybe hit several million users.

"If that happens, I'll be the first one to break out the champagne," said Ed Happ, the IFRC's global CIO.

Some of the larger National Societies have moved to Office 365 on their own already. For example, the American Red Cross last year adopted Office 365 for its about 40,000 employees.

But many -- about 80 -- National Societies are on the wrong side of a "digital divide" within the IFRC, often using outdated email servers installed on premise or relying on consumer-grade webmail services, he said.

"Email is by far the dominant communications means in most National Societies. It's an email dominant culture," Happ said.

A goal is to "bring everyone into the 21st Century" and give these National Societies enterprise-class email and collaboration software that's cloud hosted instead of installed on their premises, he said.

"This is going to be a more scalable system, make us more agile and helps us be better connected," Happ said.

Currently, the IFRC and National Societies spend more than two-thirds of their IT budgets maintaining on-premise software and infrastructure. Shifting this to a cloud model, in which Microsoft takes care of these tasks, is expected to free up time and money among IT staffers to do more strategic work that is of more value to the National Societies.

Since the IFRC is a charitable, humanitarian relief organization, the agreement with Microsoft includes some donations as well as some special pricing. "The determining factors are the National Society size and economic context," he said.

Happ would like Microsoft to apply more artificial intelligence to the Exchange Online component of Office 365, because this would be of great help to such an email intensive organization.

"I'm talking about a system that watches me for a week or a month, observing how I process email and learns from that, so that it can suggest to me folders to check first, people to contact first, based on that usage pattern," Happ said.

Although email is expected to be the primary driver for Office 365 adoption among the National Societies, the IFRC is also giving them the option of using other suite components, like SharePoint Online, Lync Online and the Office productivity applications.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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