The ‘Puter Path – Still Perilous, Still Full of Pitfalls

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June 01, 2014
Implementation of New Systems
Jon Inge

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Our systems may have changed, but picking them and implementing them is as challenging as ever.

I recently stumbled across an article I’d written 14 years ago on the challenges of selecting and implementing computer systems.  Titled, “The Perils and Pitfalls of the ‘Puter Path” (I’ve always been a sucker for alliterative headlines), I started reading it for amusement, to see how things had changed since then.


They haven’t. Just about every challenge and issue I wrote about then still comes up, all the time.  Only one thing struck me as a throwback; back then hotels still needed to decide if they wanted to go for a DOS-based application or one of those new-fangled Windows-based thingies.  I guess the nearest equivalent now would be deciding between on-premise or cloud-based systems, a choice that in another 14 years will probably seem equally archaic.

Why haven’t things changed?  Attribute it to human nature, I guess.  We’re an optimistic bunch, and, especially when technology improves at such an ever-increasing pace, we like to think that solutions to our problems can be found and installed as quickly as a new phone app.

And yet, we know that’s really not going to happen.  To help anyone going into such a project gain some clearer expectations – and what to plan for – here’s an abbreviated checklist of the key things to keep in mind. 

System Selection
Where to start? At the beginning, of course, which is having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve.  This is almost never a financial ROI, though that does frequently happen; support costs are sometimes significantly reduced or, more often, new systems allow much more effective marketing. But there’s always an operational goal that needs to be clearly understood and accepted by everyone. Replacing an unreliable set of obsolete systems is a common starting point, but for what purpose? What guest service or marketing efforts can be made with the new systems that can’t be made with the old ones, and what does that bring you in terms of more repeat bookings, higher average spend per guest and generally more revenue? 

I strongly recommend giving the project an operations title such as “Marketing Improvement Project” and not the old standby “Systems Replacement Project.” It changes people’s mindsets and increases your chances of success out of all proportion. Why go to all this effort and expense if you’re not going to change the way you do things?  Focus on that, not on the technology per se; it really helps motivation.
Once you have the goal defined, top-level executive support is the next absolute; without that there’s no chance that a project will succeed.  Someone with a stake in the operational outcome must make it clear why it’s being undertaken, must resolve interdepartmental differences on how it should be done, and must have the clout necessary to enforce timeframes.  A drifting project with no strong sponsor is a late, over-budget project with far less impact on the property’s success than it ought to have had.

Other system selection challenges include:

Enticed by the wrong system: it may look really cool and have some neat bells and whistles, but does it actually do what you really need?

Unrealistic timeframes: if you’re really going to maximize the benefit of your new software it’s going to take time to learn how best to use it, and how best to re-organize to take advantage of that.  Don’t attempt this in three weeks before your busiest season. (You can laugh…)

Too small a budget: new technology frequently has a threshold effect, meaning that unless you invest enough to raise the performance of the whole operation you’re quite likely to just move a bottleneck from one department to another. This often also means upgrading the infrastructure; installing new software on old computers and old networks can horribly handicap its ability to do the job you bought it for, not to mention tarring it unfairly with the unreliable brush. Plan for the long term.

Incompatible vendor/not checking references: you may be really impressed with the sales demo, but check with other hotels on how well implementations are managed and how well the vendor supports it afterwards. You may well still buy the software if it’s a really good match, but at least you’ll know what to expect later and can plan to be more self supporting.

Implementation
The most critical aspect of any implementation project is constant communication, driven by a strong project manager who keeps all affected departments (including the vendor) in the loop at all times. 

I’ve often said that the best part of any project is the day the contract is signed.  The hotel thinks it’s explored the system well enough to know it can do what it wants, the way it wants it, and the vendor thinks it understands the hotel’s operation and can configure the system to match. They’re both wrong; there just isn’t enough time to explore things to that level of detail. Misunderstandings and wishful assumptions are inevitable and start almost immediately implementation planning starts. 

The way to resolve them is to expect that they will occur.  Have an implementation project manager who was involved throughout the selection process and understands what was discussed, with whom and in what context. He or she must be able to negotiate the fairest way out of the impasses, bridging both vendor’s and hotel’s viewpoints to bring about understanding, compromise and progress. Leaving it to the department managers and the vendor to sort out piecemeal only leads to chaos, conflict, missed deadlines and lost opportunities.

Manage Expectations
I’m going to quote this almost verbatim from my old article, because every word of it is still very relevant.

This is really a catch-all for most of the above situations, and covers expectations about both systems functionality and the smoothness of the implementation process.  It is human nature to wish for things to go perfectly, for the system to do all that you’d really like it to in just the way you’ve imagined, and for the implementation to go 100 percent smoothly. But in reality we tend to interpret system descriptions, demonstrations and vendor responses to our questions all in the context of our own wish-fulfillment, to fill in any gaps in the best possible light for our situation. And it never quite works out that way.

We may have great plans for all the statistical analysis we can do with the new system, and then find out that it doesn’t capture all the data elements we’d expected. We may look for perfect integration with existing systems, and discover that there are some incompatibilities between the databases.  Menu analysis may indeed be possible with our new POS/inventory system, but only with more manual data entry and management than we really have time for.  We may think that the implementation process is well planned, and then discover that one or more of the parties hadn’t really understood their roles or responsibilities.

The truth is that no system is ever finished; there are always capabilities that could be improved or added, because human ingenuity will always want to do more, or do it better…  And there will always be misunderstandings between people on who’s to do what, when and in conjunction with whom.  The best we can do is plan for what we want as thoroughly as we can imagine, expect there to be changes and a need to compromise, and communicate with each other constantly to stay aware of reality.

If all this planning, effort and constant focus seems like a lot of hard work, it is. But keep in mind Murphy’s Paradox: Doing it the hard way is always easier.

Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in technology at the property level. He can be reached at jon@joninge.com or at (206) 546-0966.

Download and read Jon's original article from the Summer 2000 issue at:
http://www.hospitalityupgrade.com/The-Perils-and-Pitfalls-of-Technology or see the attached pdf at the top of this page.

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