Making Meaningful Change a Reality

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October 21, 2019
Q&A
Michael Schubach

Q&A with Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group's VP of global applications and digital transformation, Todd Wood.

                                                    

After many years as a hospitality technologist specializing in system transformation and change management, I have come to a singular conclusion about the state of twenty-first century technology that can be neatly and succinctly summed up in a single pithy phrase: “ain’t nothin’ easy.” And by that, I’m not referring to any of the often-discussed psychological implications of being raised in an era of human/machine convergence, where selfworth is determined by the number of ‘likes’ you earn or by the number of people you either haven’t met or barely know who “heart” what you have to say. Instead, the more direct problem is that modern technology entered our homes and offices on the pretext that our lives would be made simpler and better. In so doing, technology has created its own massive complexity and saddled humanity with new life-impacting paradigms, one straw at a time.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: we are the camel after all – and we seem to be having severe back problems. Remember exactly why we brought automation to every conceivable aspect of our lives? As early as the Industrial Revolution, automation was foreseen and anticipated as a knight in shining armor, mounted on a spirited white charger. It came into our lives to do battle with drudgery and danger: it promised to make us more organized and more productive, to free us of errors, to lighten our burdens and to return more leisure time to our lives. Well, now that every device you own can speak to you from the great beyond through smart phone apps, you may pause to reflect on how the promise of a leisurely future is working out for you.

The truth is that despite the world’s progress, you, the gentle reader, are more likely to validate rather than refute my thesis that, technically speaking, ain’t nothin’ easy. From the hospitality technology perspective, ain’t nothin’ harder than swapping out a property management system. A PMS is far more than an electronic system – it is the repository of a property’s operating philosophies. It defines and restructures policies and procedures. It serves guests and remembers them when they return. It is the electronic embodiment of how we envision purpose and pursue success. From that perspective, replacing a PMS is never a first consideration; in fact, it’s usually the last resort – the doomsday scenario. When the change is for not just one location but many, or perhaps not one country but many, or not one business style but many, the concerns grow geometrically if not meteorically for the team members making replacement decisions.

Let’s agree that a property management system is the heart – and the heartbeat – of a hotel’s information technology array. Now meet one occupant of a system-replacement team member’s shoes: Mr. Todd Wood, VP, global applications and digital transformation of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG). Todd and I have known each other for years, and we both are veterans of large-scale system transformations. MOHG’s objective was to swap out the PMS system and enhance the CRS in this high profile, highly respected operator in the luxury / ultra-luxury sector. In a market where guest recognition and white-glove service are everything, the prospect of heart replacement surgery on the guest service network is, to say the least, daunting. And to extend the medical metaphor a bit further, imagine that this very delicate surgery must take place while the patient is up, mobile and working full time. 

As distinct from bringing up a brand-new property live, replacing the PMS in an ongoing concern doesn’t have the luxury of a soft opening or a pre-live “invitation only” shakedown cruise; it’s a transformation that takes place between the time a guest requests a wake-up call and the front desk delivers it. It requires massive preparation, split-second timing, and a team of qualified IT and operational professionals who have been preparing for the cutover for months – or in some cases, years. I talked with Todd about his experiences, and he was happy to share. 


Michael Schubach:
There was likely a myriad of reasons for replacing your property management system, but when it came right down to it, what were the principle drivers of the project?

Todd Wood, MOHG:
For us, the two most important considerations were migrating the business to a new foundational cloud-based architecture and reducing business risk by enhancing security and expanding our global support network. There were other factors that played into the decision as well, such as enhancing the ability to innovate and the elimination of some functional pain points that we’ve learned to live with but would prefer to overcome.

Michael Schubach:
 What was the most serious challenge you faced?

Todd Wood, MOHG:
As is often the case, we needed to align other projects in flight with the PMS cutover so that we did not lose critical business capabilities while the systems were being converted. In our case, we implemented a new global guest profile system that had to be simultaneously integrated into both the new and the old PMS systems. That was challenging.

Michael Schubach:
What was one of the most unexpected consequences of the project, either positive or negative?

Todd Wood, MOHG:
As you know, there can be a lot of resistance to system change including fear, reluctance, too many other things going on at the same time or just a preference for ‘the devil you know versus the one you don’t. The project team is very pleased by the level of excitement and acceptance of the new system demonstrated by our colleagues as they went through the implementation. That was positively impacted by the substantial effort we put into change management and creating stakeholder buy-in and alignment before the first change was made.

Michael Schubach:
What was the smartest thing you did?

Todd Wood, MOHG:
I would say insisting that this transformation be a business-led project rather than an IT initiative. It is a complete partnership between the IT team and the business owners – we worked together on the system requirements, the solution selection, all aspects of deployment and are jointly providing ongoing support of the new environment. In addition to a proactive steering committee composed of top executives in Operations, Quality, Revenue, Reservations, Marketing, Digital, Finance and IT, we were able to convince the COO to invest and dedicate a former Hotel General Manager to provide business/project leadership.

Michael Schubach:
What would you have done differently if you had it to do over again? 

Todd Wood, MOHG:
It would have been very nice to have more time between conversions. Through our regional lead approach, we are able to convert three properties in parallel, but a little more time between conversions would have allowed team downtime to rest and recharge before starting the next set of hotels. The project was originally scheduled with a less aggressive timeline, but the rollout got started a few months later than initially planned, which compressed the schedule. I am very proud of the fact that our conversion team, supported by our partners, is able to meet the challenge.

Michael Schubach:
Other thoughts that might not have gotten the attention they deserve?

Todd Wood, MOHG:
Never underestimate the importance of aligning the goals and objectives of the key stakeholders. In any project of magnitude, roadblocks and unforeseen circumstances will happen; you must plan on the unexpected. Those situations call for the team to sit down together to consider alternatives and hammer out solutions, not to try to defend untoward situations or to place or avoid blame. Stakeholder alignment must be real – not just a checklist platitude – there is far too much at stake.

Michael Schubach:
Any parting words of wisdom?

Todd Wood, MOHG:
The MOHG team took some innovative steps that we feel helped us make the process more successful. Some of our ideas may be unique to us and our international footprint, but they might also be helpful for others to consider. First, the project is being overseen by a program director that had specific business transformation background and is led by colleagues with many years of operational systems and training experience. We didn’t believe that project leadership could be assigned to someone and hope that on-the-job training would be sufficient. The experience and resource investment allowed us to plan and lead our transformational project internally. Second, our own staff members are our team leads, not the vendor’s deployment team or outside consultants – although those resources have been helpful and useful throughout the project. Also, we subdivided the deployment teams to be regionally based, which helps control travel costs and enhances the understanding of regional variations. Throughout the effort we are developing our internal team resources to become systems and process experts, increasing their value to the project and to the organization. Generally, staffing the project internally and regionally helps decrease costs and improve results. Third, each property is appointing a “champion” who is the primary point of contact and coordinator for the deployment at their site. Each champion is required to participate in a live conversion at a sister hotel before they take on their own. As a result, they know the system, know the process, understand each step, and are ready to take responsibility for mentoring participation and success at their own site. The champions’ program is making a remarkable difference in each site’s success. Finally, we take change management seriously. We held regional kickoff meetings with key staff members from each region’s properties not to tell them what we were going to do, but to ask them what they needed most and how we could best achieve project success. We got great suggestions but more importantly, we generated validation, cooperation, and concurrence. 
  
                                                                           


If I am correct in my assertion that no technical undertaking is easy, then it follows ipso facto that no technical deployment is going to be a cakewalk, but just because ain’t nothin’ easy doesn’t mean that everything must be unnecessarily difficult, demotivating or career threatening. What the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group did wasn’t quick or easy, and it goes without saying that it wasn’t inexpensive. Putting stakeholder representatives from across their global organization onto the same “virtual” team, giving them a common identity and purpose, having them formulate shared goals and objectives was all key to their being able to take on the improbable and deliver what seemed like the impossible. From my perspective – and I promise you that this will be the last time – there might not be nothin’ easy, but if you follow the example provided by the team at MOHG, it just might be that you can make something – and someone’s life – easier, which was the dream that modern technology offered us in the first place. - M. Schubach

©2019 Hospitality Upgrade 
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