Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Technology, Do I Really Need It?

Today I gave an interview with Ben Chapman of Successful Meetings magazine. He is beginning to write an article for meeting planners on the subject of "Technology, Do I Really Need It?". Here are my thoughts on the subject.

There are two types of technology applications that Planners are pushed to use by the media, their peers, their companies, and the Association conferences that they attend:

1. Technology that faces attendees (web sites for event information, online registration, wireless internet access on site, onsite kiosks, fast/simple onsite registration)

2. Technology that helps planners in the back office functions (budgeting, reports, data consolidation, procurement processes, e-mail)

Attendee-facing technology

Meeting Planners absolutely need attendee-facing technology because their customers (the attendees and event owners) demand it. Because planner-facing technology is typically boring, many of the technology advances that will continue to make the news will be in this arena, such as RFID tracking of attendee movement and intelligent name badges (nTag).

Planner-facing (Back-office) technology

Meeting Planners do not absolutely *need* back-office technology. They need efficient back-office practices, and it's important to understand the difference if they don't want to overspend on technology.

If planners can do their job on sticky notes posted in their basement, and the end result (the event) is the same, then their customers would be happy. But low-tech or no-tech processes in the back-office could only work for events that are the same over and over, where you have a fixed routine, fixed contracts with vendors, fixed relationships, and nothing changes. If only everyone could find high-paying jobs like that.

Planners living in a world of constantly changing events, who want to be efficient, must produce more (events, attendees, quality) for less (time, money, staff, effort). Proper application of available technology is a good way to accomplish this. But remember that technology is not the requirement; efficient process is the requirement.

"Ok, I understand that I need technology, but *what* technology do I need?"

To select technology, first start with your process and look for where you can apply technology to improve it, and where you could change your process to take advantage of existing or less expensive technology. Then look at the different technology tools that could work together to form a working process for all people involved - attendees, planners, registration specialists, accounting, management, procurement, legal, suppliers, etc.

An internal or external process consultant can help you select technology and design a process that works with it. They often bring an outside, high-level perspective that is missed by people involved in daily operations. For example, Tech3 Partners does an excellent job with this, as I recently saw first-hand through my observation of Rod Marymor and Jeff Rasco handling their National FFA Online Conventation Registration project.

Incidentally, the practice of putting tools together into a working process is called Systems Integration, which is a subject I'll be speaking about with Paul Rantilla of Passkey and Kathryn Glessing of IFEBP (International Foundation Education Benefits Compensation) at the MPI-PEC conference at Session TP421 in San Diego on Jan 25th at 3pm.

Technology selection and process design.

Everyone in the meetings world these days wants a good Return On Investment (ROI). ROI is calculated as the amount of additional revenue that you generate (or expenses that you save) divided by the money you invest to achieve that revenue or cost savings. If you pick a very expensive technology or a custom development solution, then you are going to have to produce a lot of revenue or cost savings in order to get a good ROI. Conversely, you might be able to get a superior financial return with less expensive outlay by using established, low-risk technology.

Be flexible with your system design. If you have what you believe to be a "perfect" process, and you want the technology to exactly fit that process, then you may be stuck with custom development and its associated high cost and high risk. This is often not going to give you the best ROI in the long run. Work with your consultants, vendors, and technology suppliers to see if a slight modification in your process, which should work for you as well or almost as well as your original design, will allow you to use low-cost, low-risk technology that is currently available.

With technology you always want it Cheap, Fast, and Custom - but often you can only get two of those three.

For example, Weyerhaeuser manages their meetings list in Excel (although they might have moved to Access by now). For each new event, one of the planners generates a Meeting ID number, which then is used to track all expenses for that event throughout the organization (procurement, travel, budgetting). For events that need online registration (a small percentage of their 1000+ meetings per year), they use Register123 by Certain Software, and enter the Meeting ID number as the Register123 event code in order to connect the two systems. In this way, Weyerhaeuser combined two inexpensive, proven technologies (Excel and Register123) to deliver significant cost savings compared to their previous processes - just the formula for a very high ROI.

The basics of technology selection

Some parting thoughts:
  1. First, you must have a good foundation for your technology: High-speed internet access, phone/fax service (VOIP can give huge cost savings and flexibility with voice mail, digital messaging), e-mail, web site hosting
  2. Then add fundamental systems that your attendees require: Online registration, event web sites, on-site services, maybe housing and travel management.
  3. Then add in the systems that help you the most back-office: Excel, Outlook, Access, Budgeting tools, procurement tools, site selection databases (MPBid, Plansoft, Starcite), supplier search tools (, meetings data consolidation.

Sometimes, a single system will fulfill multiple technology requirements out of the box. Other times, you'll have to work with your vendors to integrate separate systems into a single process. Don't automatically pay substantially more for a single system that does everything, when two or more inexpensive systems may give you equal return at much lower cost.

1 comment:

Rick Borry said...

Pamela Brubaker found an article from "Baseline, Dec 1 2004" that describes the dangers of huge IT investment without bringing all external systems into the project first:

HEADLINE: Triumphs & Trip-Ups In 2004;
Here's a look at the winning and losing technology projects of 2004. Toyota, Ameritrade and Wal-Mart are among the winners. Losers: Wal-Mart suppliers, Wells Fargo and Ford.

Of course, self-interest can go too far if it doesn't serve constituents. Wal-Mart's sheer girth makes whatever it deems to be its self-interest everyone else's. Hence, the race to meet its radio-tagging mandate. But even that could change if its suppliers find, over time, that they don't get a return on the effort.

Ask Ford. The company couldn't get suppliers to buy into an e-procurement system and had to pull the plug after a $220 million investment.

"In the auto industry, it's historically club versus carrot," says AMR Research analyst Kevin Mixer. "Without the carrot, suppliers walk away."

Here's a look, in numbers, at the year.

$220 million estimated sum Ford lost on installing an electronic purchasing system.

When Ford Motor Co. launched a procurement system dubbed Everest in 2000, the game plan was simple: exchange information on orders, accounts receivable and inventory status with suppliers electronically.

The system, based on Oracle 11i e-commerce software, was announced in 1999-and dismantled in August 2004.

"We evaluated it and decided to transition back to our current legacy systems," says Paul Wood, Ford's manager for global purchasing and information-technology public affairs.

AMR Research's Mixer estimates the auto giant spent about $220 million over four years on Everest, and pulled the plug when it realized more heavy investment was needed. The big issue: Ford's suppliers were already tied to the automaker's systems via electronic data interchange applications and didn't see a benefit in changing to Everest.