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Everything Old is New Again

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October 01, 2014
Technology Insights
Michael Schubach - Michaelschubach@me.com

There’s no doubt – electronic technology is moving at a lightning pace. Even as you dash home from the iStore, whatever precious little next-generation state-of-the-art whiz-bang you have in your shopping bag has been superseded by a more powerful, more sophisticated, more nexter-generation replacement. This amazing rate of change suggests that everything’s up to date in Kansas City, and that we’ve gone about as fur as we kin go, right? Well, with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein and everybody else, I feel duty bound to point out that it just ain’t so. 

Professional technology watchers contend that the only increase we’re really seeing is in product refinement; the output of new product invention isn’t nearly as prolific as it has been in the past. Would it surprise you to know that technical historians point to the advancements made during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as the most prolific period of technical advancement? That era brought us innovations like the light bulb, the vacuum cleaner and the zipper, to name just three. Product releases that abound today are corrective rather than transformative, marginal rather than meteoric. This paradigm isn’t working in our favor – we’re busier than ever trying to stay workably current rather than actually moving ahead. 

Consider the amount of time you might spend updating, upgrading and replacing programs and parts in an effort to keep yourself technically current. Industry statistics indicate that today’s hotel guests travel with an average of four pieces of electronic gear, so statistically, if you’re traveling, you’re considering four times as much as you thought you were. Add your at-home array and the answer is: it’s a lot. 

As agonizing as this can seem for the individual consumer, image the impact that a constant refresh process has on the hospitality organizations making massive hardware and system deployments. Here the context can be dizzying – IT professionals maintain what is fielded, deploy new (although often not the newest version of new), retire the old, tired or blown apart and hope and pray that they can keep up with the shifting business demands effecting dozens, hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of systems, devices and hapless users in their array. What are their chances of success? Maybe moderate to good, depending on their staffing, planning, reliability of their vendors and the innate good luck that God typically withholds from IT professionals. What are their chances of wanting to start the process over again the minute they finish the first pass through the installed user base? I’d place those odds at right about zero. Suddenly, not keeping current begins to seem like a pretty appealing idea, and not being state-of-the-art becomes the de facto the state of the industry. There are massive obstacles associated with changing this reality. Let’s review the Top Three List (who has the time to roll out 10?) of reasons why:

1  The volume of change you can successfully impose on any individual or organization is limited. The real problem with change is not how fast new products come to market but how quickly the user community can successfully absorb them. The individual user’s level of interest, degree of aptitude and perception of value are just three of the factors that influence the success of change implementation. Then multiply those factors by dozens, hundreds or thousands of users, and you begin to expose the magnitude of making just small changes in a large environment. Change something huge like a property management system and do it across multiple sites, multiple time zones or maybe even multiple continents, and the task (and the risk and the business interruption) are gargantuan. 

If it were only that easy – the job is much more than planning and doing because you also have to sell the idea to everyone in your path. I wrote an article on the crowd psychology of inculcating change for the Spring 2001 issue of HU. Take a look at that if you really want to scare yourself. The bottom line here is that you should spend your “Let’s Make Changes!” capital wisely.

Pick those battles that promise the biggest organizational benefit – heaven knows you’ll need it.     
2  The rewards for going ‘the last mile’ may be marginal.
Ah, the immortal 80-20 rule (or any percentage variant that implies diminishing returns on highly complex transformations).  Consider an organization that issues cell phones to a good-sized staff, and assigns the task of keeping them current to their IT team. There is always new and exciting smart phone content, such as the flashlight app that drains the battery faster than you can find the ‘off’ button, or the flickering candle app that allows the user to become one with the aging crowd at rock concerts.   Despite the advancement of civilization that these applications represent, look at them again from the cost/benefit perspective. What time investment seems reasonable to upgrade a fleet of phones if the criteria for deployment in the first place were to enable the staff to make telephone calls and send text messages? Disallowing the scope creep that the flickering candle represents and obeying the deployment’s original charter, is the newest version of the phone any more effective than the original?  I know how geeks will answer this question, but what about the company’s stakeholders? Unless a clearly defined strategic or competitive goal is being met in the latest version, justifying the marginal value of an upgrade to an owner is, in the words of Mark Twain, like teaching a pig to sing: it makes you look foolish and it annoys the pig. 

3  The cost of being ‘au courant’ is prohibitive. Okay, you’ve done your sales job and the board and the owners are convinced: the cause certainly seems strategic, the benefits are justifiable and the purse strings will be loosened. Utopia is yours for the deploying with one tiny caveat:  don’t go off the deep end – keep the project in proportion and just be prepared to be realistic.

For those of you who speak neither Boardish nor Ownerese, please allow me to translate: your funding just got cut. The implications of the project are starting to sink in and the inestimable costs that lurk out there in the hearts and minds of those who’ve read points 1 and 2 above just got added to your list of tangible expenses.  There is a concern with issues such as risk, and risk costs money.  There’s also a very high likelihood that training need has been underestimated; I say that only because the hospitality industry has made a career out of underestimating its training needs. And let’s not forget business interruption – the bigger the job, the higher the level of disruption. With major projects, the threat of unintended consequences is far too tangible to ignore. 

As concerns increase, the strategy becomes harder to remember. “Now tell me again… What is PMS in a cloud buying us?  Don’t we already have check-in, checkout and folios?” It’s not that the idea is unsound or the project doesn’t need doing – in fact, the cloud example is a great one – the paradigm shift is coming.  It’s more a matter of when, how much and for whom, and those questions require careful, individualized answers. 

So in our post-modern era is there no hope of innovative change? Of course there is – just ask the folks who make LED light bulbs, cyclonic rollerball-mounted vacuum cleaners and… well, zippers are still pretty much zippers. The important thing to remember about zippers is that lots of people have them and most everybody knows how to use them. The trick to the meaningful widespread adoption of technology innovation is to start with a carefully considered scope and then cultivate the project until critical mass becomes your friend rather than foe. Well-planned change comes in deliberate increments followed by orchestrated waves. Without doubt, this is frustrating for techies who live on the edge of the latest release and can see an end state before a project begins. Then again, zippers were a frustration for them early on as well. They’ll learn.  

Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at Michaelschubach@me.com.

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Reprinted from Spring 2001
Buddy, Can You Spare Me Some Change?
By Michael Schubach

The biggest single impediment to achieving constant results in a constantly changing world is not the evolution of your systems, but the staff that uses them – in particular, their attitude toward change. We might rationally accept the inevitability of change, but like aging, we can either choose to adapt gracefully or continue to hang out with 19-year-olds. In a professional setting, the staff takes its lead from the management team. Smarter managers realize that change can be made the graceful way or the humiliating, budget-breaking, morale-busting way. Operators who become effective agents of change, who manage the process rather than simply order it up, increase the chances that their projects will succeed.

But how exactly can you manage the changes that seem to manage you? The most crucial step is to win the hearts and minds of the changelings. My experience has taught me that a small percentage of any change-bound crowd (let’s say 20 percent) are change enthusiasts who thrive on a constantly shifting landscape. Their pulses rush when something new comes along, and they can’t wait to see, touch, tinker and disable. These people are your change junkies. They are so much more than simply annoying – they are the natural masters of any new system. They are very supportive of making changes until the confusion dies down. Once that happens, you’ve lost their interest until the next catastrophic upheaval.

Another 30 percent of any given crowd is genuinely change resistant. They don’t understand why anything needs to change and haven’t really been happy with the world since the industrial revolution. These are your Luddites, and they don’t want and won’t like any of your damn changes, even if their lives and jobs improve as a result. During my decade of installing property management systems, this portion of the crowd became very easy to spot. They were the ones who would ask on day one of working on the new system if all the screens, reports and keyboard conventions could be changed to be identical to the system they had just retired. If a Luddite were to head up your IT department, you would be amazed to find that capital expenditure requests were a thing of the past.

The remaining half of your crowd is change wary. They don’t resist progress, but they don’t view change and progress as the same commodity. They are your skeptics, and they need to be shown how and told why changes are being made. The uncommitted segment of your target group represents the greatest opportunity to make any new project, procedure or conversion succeed. Win the undecided 50 percent to your cause, marry them up with your change junkies, and your project earns a 70 percent approval rating. Lose this crowd and the skeptics will join forces with the Luddites, leaving you with a team that is 80 percent convinced that your efforts will fail.

You can’t request, demand or force change – you need to sell change.

Read Michael's full article here:  www.hospitalityupgrade.com/Can_you_spare_some_change

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