Definitely Doug 1/29/21: Why is technological innovation so hard?

by Doug Rice

Why is technological innovation so hard?

Most attempts to deploy new technologies at hotels fail. That’s my observation based on 30+ years of exposure to hundreds if not thousands of hotel technology projects. To be sure, some benefits may be gained, and success is often claimed, but in too many cases, when you go back to the original objectives, many were never achieved.

These new technologies were intended to improve sales, operations, guest experience or guest satisfaction. Yet rarely did they deliver everything that was expected, or if they did, it was only after spending much more money than planned. Too often, a major issue was overlooked in the project design and led to the loss of a key benefit because fixing it would just be too costly.

When the track record of technological innovations is consistently disappointing, it becomes even harder to sell future projects.

Today I address some of the common reasons why projects fail and identify some techniques that can improve your success rate. The keys involve looking at three ecosystems: the operational processes of the hotel; its organizational structure; and the project management. I could use many examples, but for this article I will choose a hypothetical project involving guest room controls, because everyone will find the technology reasonably familiar.

Assume you are renovating your hotel and you decide to upgrade from mechanical room controls (a fancy name for wall switches and standalone thermostats) to panel-based touch controls (often placed on the desk, bedside table, on the entryway wall, and/or in the guest mobile app). You will also implement mobile key at the same time, since many guest room controls systems integrate with door locks and can simplify the design, especially for locks that also have built-in indicators like do-not-disturb.

With the upgrades, you expect guests to be able to unlock the door, adjust the lights or temperature, and perhaps control the draperies, the television, and the make-up-room and do-not-disturb indicators, all from the panel or mobile app. You also hope to get some operational efficiencies such as better housekeeping productivity from knowing which rooms are ready to clean rather than having the room attendant knock on each door until they find one. Or you want to improve guest satisfaction by avoiding the need for them to check in at the front desk, or by better scheduling housekeeping around the guest’s needs.

Technology projects often fail because the hotel implements a new technology without adapting its operating practices. I am perplexed that so many hotels that offer mobile check-in, but when you use it, you still have to wait in line at the front desk and complete additional steps there, to get your key. That’s an obvious example; but what happens with our rooms-control project if operating practices are not reexamined?  

Assume you have selected a rooms-control solution that has all of the features you want, you place an order, and a few months later, the vendor comes in and installs it. You chose a system that communicates wirelessly, of course, because do not want to run new cabling. You and the vendor test everything and you sign off that it works as advertised.

But then you see that guest complaints are rising, and the common element seems to be the room controls. Lights will not turn on. Heating and cooling fails to achieve the guest’s desired temperature. Touch panels are nonresponsive. So, you call the rooms-control vendor and start opening support tickets. Does this sound familiar?

Some of these problems may indeed be issues for your vendor: defective hardware, buggy software, or incorrect configuration or installation can all lead to problems. But for a moment, let us consider what OTHER things that might be causing the problems, and whether your hotel is organized to find and fix them. After all, there is little to be gained by yelling at a vendor who cannot actually help to fix the problem. So, what else might be the culprit?

That slow or unresponsive control panel? It could be your Wi-Fi network – you DID choose a wireless installation, which needs a well-designed network with adequate signal strength in the right places, and the relevant components need to be working correctly today (the fact that it was working when you installed the system does not help you now). Do you have the skills and equipment on your engineering staff to diagnose this? Most hotels do not.

That pole lamp that won’t turn on? If it has an on-off foot switch that the previous guest turned off, or if is unplugged from an outlet or has a burned out bulb, then no amount of pressing the rooms-control panel button will turn it on. As part of the upgrade, did you revise housekeeping procedures and checklists, and train room attendants and supervisors to verify (when preparing a room for check-in) that the lights actually turn on and off from the panel? And if they do not, do they know to check the plug and foot switch? Are your front-desk or call-for-service staff trained to ask guests who call about a nonworking light whether they checked the foot switch? You have a new guest room environment, and your old processes will cause bad guest experiences anytime the prior guest has turned the light off the “wrong” way. The standard procedure of “we will send someone from engineering up to look” is neither convenient for the guest or efficient for the hotel.

Getting alignment means having the right departments in the hotel involved from the outset, talking through what will change, and getting their buy-in on how to deal with those changes. Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so you want to build a big list of what can go wrong with the new technology – for the guest, for the staff, or to the effectiveness of the operation. Then figure out how you can either avoid each problem or deal with it effectively when it happens.

Do this before finalizing the project, not after the fact, when key staff may who were not consulted early start looking for someone to blame for an implementation that affects them negatively. Afterwards may also be too late if there are critical constraints you missed – for example, there might be union contracts that limit a room attendant’s ability to take on these new tasks. With any nontrivial technology project, it is smart to present it to the entire management team up front, to highlight the operational changes you expect might be needed, and to invite them all to participate in defining them further (and for departments that are clearly affected, this should not be optional). Even if some of them resist the proposed change, you will get better results by involving them early rather than waiting until after the fact.

Project management is also key. Most technology deployments involve multiple departments within the hotel, and often outside vendors or contractors as well. If, after your rooms control installation, you get complaints that rooms are not heating or cooling correctly, how will you diagnose it? It could be the rooms control panel or thermostat or (again) the Wi-Fi network, but it could be any one of several other things. Did your wiring contractor connect the thermostat wires to the fan control unit correctly? Did the property management system notify the rooms control system at check-in so it knows that the room is occupied? Did the interface message actually reach the rooms control system? Was it handled in the appropriate way once it did? Is this an issue for your engineering department, for your Wi-Fi vendor, for the rooms control vendor, for the PMS vendor, or for your low-voltage wiring contractor? Did your project manager test all these things independently before signing off?

Without a project owner that has the complete picture, once things go wrong you will likely have a frustrating series of unproductive discussions with multiple vendors, and no simple resolution. And if you used an external project manager, what will you do after they have finished and left? External project managers need to be paired with an on-staff project owner who understands all the pieces, who shares ownership during the project, and who assumes it once the external project manager has exited.

Take the example of a guest who presses the make-up-room button, but the hotel never gets the message. The guest returns from lunch expecting their room to be ready for a meeting, and it is still a mess. How do you diagnose what went wrong? If there is an interface to your housekeeping or work order management system, is that working properly, and is the message getting to someplace where the right staff will see it and be able to act on it in a timely manner? I have seen this fail because the request was configured to go to a default task queue that no one was looking at, rather than somewhere that a housekeeping supervisor or room attendant would actually see it. In this case, every system was doing exactly what it was supposed to do based on the configuration settings, but the end result did not meet the hotel’s needs.

This illustrates a common issue, that technologies in hotels from different vendors are often highly interdependent. Yet each vendor focuses on its own piece of the puzzle, and rarely has a full understanding of how you need it to fit with the other pieces of your technology stack, or what you want the end result to be. Getting that desired result means you may need to coordinate across vendors throughout the selection, installation, maintenance, configuration, and operation. You cannot assume the vendors will do this for you: in most cases, they are not even capable. They lack the intimate knowledge of your operation, of your hotel’s internal capabilities, and of the other systems involved.

Coming back to our example, when the room designer and the project manager chose the new rooms control system, did they confer with housekeeping about how they would ensure that the guest could turn the lights on? Did they discuss with engineering whether they had the ability to manage the Wi-Fi network to specifications sufficient for a mission-critical task like room lighting? Did they involve the vendor who manages the work-order management system to ensure that requests from the room control panel would end up in the right place? Did housekeeping agree that they could handle requests arriving that way? Did the front desk consider whether and how to communicate the changed room setup to guests?

No vendor is going to do any of these things for you. The hotel is the ONLY one that knows exactly what they have, how they want to operate, and what they are really trying to achieve.

Part of project management should be developing clear statements at the outset as to what the desired business outcomes are, stated in ways that will make it very easy to determine whether those outcomes are actually achieved. One business outcome of the rooms control project might be stated as “a room attendant will be dispatched or scheduled within one minute after the guest presses the make-up-room button.” It is straightforward to measure whether this is successful, and it is easy to explain to every vendor what you want the system upgrade to achieve. Then the project manager needs to work through each outcome, in detail, with the participating vendors and the affected departments, to make sure that the system is selected, configured, installed, tested, and trained to deliver that result. I have seen far too many projects where the objective is never achieved because (a) it was never explicitly stated and/or (b) no one person had the ultimate responsibility for delivering it.

Interfaces are often a key part of the solution. Typically, a hotel will ask each vendor whether they support an interface with the other vendor. Assuming the interface exists, it gets added to the order. But were the right questions asked first? Interfaces are often specific to certain versions of the products they connect; do they support the ones you have? Interfaces exist to support a specific list of transactions across systems; does the one you are buying support the transactions you need at both ends? Interfaces may require certain configuration changes in the systems they are connecting to, do you know what they are and (more importantly) can you live with any side effects? Many hotels blindly assume that every hotel that has implemented a particular interface in the past has connected exactly the same systems exactly the same way as they plan to, and to achieve the same end result. That is rarely the case; there are always differences.

Ideally you would like each vendor to agree that project acceptance occurs, and final payment is made only when your business outcomes have been achieved. Understandably, vendors resist this when part of the solution depends on another vendor. This is where a good project manager steps in and clearly defines the deliverables from each vendor. Puzzle pieces need to fit together at their adjacent edges – and the project manager is the one who needs to inspect each piece, identify what is not going to fit, and make adjustments so it will.

Depending on the vendors and their products, this may be straightforward or may involve significant effort. Vendor sales staff rarely know to ask these questions, and it is the rare vendor whose interface documentation covers it in detail (kudos to a few who are starting to do this!). You may find that the interface you were told to order will not actually work in your situation, and the one you actually need has not yet been written yet (but of course can be written, for a price). You want to find this out before you place the order, not after. Consultants who may have experience in the particular types of integration are often a valuable resource for this exercise.

By focusing on the outcomes and asking the right questions, hotels can greatly improve their odds of success. When interfaces are involved, this often means an early call with vendor sales engineers or product managers from all parties to ensure that they (a) understand your desired outcomes, (b) know what role each product has to play in achieving it, (c) can verify that the planned interface is practical and will achieve the desired outcomes, (d) can explain any necessary configuration changes, and (e) can clearly identify any side effects that may impact the hotel. It is unfortunately common that some new capability may require one of your systems to be configured differently than before, and that configuration may cause you to lose other functionality that is currently used. No vendor is going to tell you these things during the sales cycle. They are not trying to deceive you, they simply don’t have enough information from you or from the other vendor to be able to foresee the issue.

The bottom line is that today’s technology is complicated and highly interdependent. Even well-meaning vendor/partners cannot manage it for you because they can only see a small piece of the total picture. If you want a project to end successfully, you need the involvement of the hotel’s executive team, and someone at the hotel needs to take full ownership, ask detailed questions, and ensure that they have correct and complete answers before they move forward. You can bring in an external project manager and/or consultant to help many of the details, but the project will still be likely to fail without adequate internal leadership and participation.

As an interesting exercise, I invite you to go back to the last major project you completed, where you can still find the original presentation where the idea was sold to management. What were the key projected outcomes? Were they clearly stated and measurable? And were they achieved? If not, why not? In my experience, you will not have to look very far to see some of the above issues at play.

And I would love to hear your war stories and what you learned from them. I will share any good ones I hear in a future column (protecting identities as needed!).

Douglas Rice

Discover Return On Experience

Three ecosystems — Hospitality & Leisure, Food & Beverage, and Inventory & Procurement — operate independently and together depending on your needs.


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