Enterprise Orgs & Summer Camps: One in the Same?
I have written about my past life as a summer camp director before: the impact it had on me personally and professionally, the lessons learned in that environment that directly impact my life every day, and how those lessons influence me in my current role at Myplanet. I maintain there is no better place than a summer camp to hone your interpersonal skills. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.
This summer, my past life briefly became my present again, as I returned to camp to run a few small groups for a few days. As usual, I loved it. Cheering, dancing, swimming, roasting marshmallows, and reconnecting with some of the best people I know — it was everything I remembered it being, and I had a blast.
But something struck me this time that I hadn’t thought about before, something I probably only noticed because I no longer work in camping, and instead work for a software studio with the express mission of improving workplace experiences. And once I noticed this thing, I couldn’t let it go. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind for a month now.
Camps, I realized, are massive enterprise organizations operating on a micro scale.
Camp = Enterprise
It sounds odd, but it’s true. The same features of any major corporation can be found at summer camp: Payroll, Shipping & Receiving, HR, Operations, Recruiting, Customer Support, Facilities Management… the list goes on and on.
There are some notable differences, of course. Most major enterprises don’t have a staff of 50% teenagers, for example, or a clientele that lives on site with the staff. And outside of parts of the mining & extraction industries, few enterprises are as remote as most camps. But the rest of the structure is strikingly similar to every major org we’ve ever worked with.
Camps are nearly as byzantine as the most bureaucratic big businesses when it comes to figuring out what tasks need to be accomplished, and by whom. They’re dependent on outdated, legacy systems as well, and have budget limitations that make the strictures of major enterprise seem downright frivolous. And they have a diverse group of stakeholders and users with an often conflicting set of end goals.
Camp is the perfect miniature model of what we see all the time with our customers and partners. Their challenges are the same ones faced by our clients in the enterprise space. Which means they’re also a great place to look for greater understanding and potential solutioning.
One of the biggest challenges of camp is how remote they typically are. Tucked away on the semi-distant shores of some quiet little lake in the woods is part of their appeal, but it means camps don’t have great internet access.
Known for being havens of disconnection, there is no wi-fi available. Computers are restricted to the office and cell phones are more or less forbidden (the lake is an unforgiving place for an iPhone anyway). But for all the purported separation of tech & camp, the reality is camps are completely dependent on modern tech. And that dependency runs very, very deep.
Camp + Tech
Nearly every aspect of a well-run camp necessarily relies on technology, just as it would in any major enterprise organization. Websites, chock-full of information about everything you could possibly want to know about a camp, serve as the primary touch-points for families researching which camp to send their kids to and for potential staff deciding where they’d like to work. These days, all the application information is submitted online for both campers and staff, and then gets transferred over to a database that’s part of the primary camp software. And then the real heavy-lifting of tech gets going.
Once the consumer-side (i.e. camper- and recruit-facing website) is sorted, it’s on to the enterprise-side (i.e. the administrative software). Camp software stores profiles for every person at camp — medical histories, emergency contact information, and activity preferences for campers, plus qualifications, salaries, and evaluations for staff, among many other things. That same software, informed as it is about the people in camp, also serves as the activity scheduler for all of camp.
In the case of the camp I work(ed) at, once piece of software manages to place over 500 kids in 35 or so activities in five block rotations with a Day 1 / Day 2 alternating schedule, with strict permissions and privileges in place so people doing the scheduling and programming can’t see private profile information, like medical records and payroll, that needs to be available to administrators. It is, in a word, complicated. But take one look at any current HR software in a Fortune 500 company and you’ll find an almost identical level of complexity.
Feeding over 700 people 3 meals a day plus snacks requires a near-constant state of food ordering, and supplies for regular activities — as well as the semi-frequent special programs — get placed almost as regularly from vendors all over the world. And with international camper mail taking longer than a camp season lasts in some cases, even letters home to parents frequently get scanned and emailed, instead of regular old snail-mailed. The list of ways camp and technology intersect could go on, but you get the idea.
The sheer volume of information to be tracked, stored, and accessed easily in case of an emergency is mind-boggling. But as the world learns to lean on cloud storage, camps are stuck with the old, hard-drive based ways. Remember, connectivity is dicey at best when you’re deep in the heart of the north. (Location, location, location.)
Camp ≠ Enterprise
So what do camps do well that we can bring to our enterprise friends? First and foremost, they’re very good at moving with uncertainty and change. For all the traditions, the set events, and the activities, each and every day is different. Rain comes one day, and outdoor sports have to move indoors. A summer with 25 consecutive rain days and the sports staff has to get pretty creative with how they occupy the kids who signed up for their activities, but they do it, and the kids have fun, and camp is still the magical place all those kids who love sports believed it to be.
Being able to accept the circumstances as they arise and pivot to work within those new parameters is a tough thing to do when clients have specific end goals, but if you can find a new path forward, you often find something you hadn’t planned on that is even better than you could have imagined at the outset. Ask any camper or staff: the times things went completely off-script are always the most-cherished memories. Camps are among the most Agile environments I’ve ever witnessed.
Another thing they do exceptionally well is design with their users in mind. Part of their magic is in how deeply kids remember and long for the experience of the previous year(s) again and again. But it’s not just the kids camps have to appeal to. Ask any seasoned camp director and they’ll tell you: without staff buy-in, your programs are DOA.
Bright colours, loud pop songs, and fun cheers get the little kids motivated, but camps also know how to get staff — sometimes ranging in age from 16 to over 60 — motivated, too. That’s a tough crowd to get universal resonance with, but camps are masters of connecting with their users and finding the emotional thread that will pull them in. If every customer or employee experience created a connection like that, we at Myplanet would be out of work (but also very psyched for how amazing all the software in the world was!).
Camps are also, as mentioned, almost defined by the tight budgets they operate under, which means they are champions of running lean. And while in the camp world that means things are often made with popsicle sticks, it also relies heavily on having a vivid, can’t-be-stifled, no-isn’t-in-my-vocabulary sense of creativity. Innovation is at the heart of every silly evening program and camp-wide event, and failure is all but obsolete. (Again, it’s when things go completely off the rails that the kids have the most fun. Even if the event didn’t go to plan, it was inevitably full of stuff people loved and want to see repeated year after year.)
Camps are expert re-inventors. People love the experience and want the same thing every summer, but every day is different. New staff, changes in weather, and a million other factors force camps to shift, tweak, and adjust all the time. The essence of the product remains, even if the exact experience is different.
What they know, and what they’ve always been good at, is that if you’ve created an experience that inspires connection and some form of joy, you can make adjustments as needed. They’re more dependent on technology than ever before, but only where it makes sense, only where it enhances the experience.
Thinking critically about the ways this self-contained community interacts with technology on an almost constant basis helps me think critically about the ways our globally-oriented partners are interacting with tech every day.