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Rules of the Road


Sometimes guiding technology for a major hotel company can seem more art than science. Take Marriott, for example. With 2,600 properties and more than $9 billion in sales, Marriott is clearly the largest and most influential hotel company. And yet, as MarriottÃ.‚¬™s CTO and senior vice president of information technology strategy Barry Shuler readily admits, running MarriottÃ.‚¬™s IT department requires more negotiation than anything else. "If you want to do something the standard way, you have to convince hundreds of owners and franchisees to agree, and that is a consultative effort," he explained in a recent interview with Hospitality Technology. "My consulting experience has come in very handy. You canÃ.‚¬™t dictate to a client when you are a consultant."

Shuler may not be able to dictate, but of course, that hardly means he cannot gently guide Marriott and all its partners. Over the past nine years, Shuler has helped push Marriott away from a reliance on proprietary technology solutions, towards a components-based technology architecture that has made MarriottÃ.‚¬™s systems more open, flexible and cost effective. While at the same time, Shuler has helped Marriott become more prepared for anything and everything that may come its way. And all it has taken is a clear vision and a few "rules of the road" to live by.

Creating ecosystems
For years, Marriott leveraged its size to help build a competitive advantage. But size can also be problematic. Few technology companies--and even fewer that cater to the hospitality industry--can scale to meet all of MarriottÃ.‚¬™s needs. For years, lack of confidence in the industry has led the company to build its own applications. Increasingly, however, that attitude has changed. Now Shuler admits, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, "Marriott would rather buy than build applications and would only build as a last resort, or for competitive advantage."

Increasingly, Marriott has turned to vendors to find applications that fit its means, or worked closely with the vendors to develop new solutions. Ideally, Shuler notes, standard technologies would emerge from the big technology companies."We would like to see standard technology emerge from large technology companies that have significant R&D investment capacity, and are likely to be around for many years," Shuler notes. "We have started to develop that kind of ecosystem."

According to Shuler, the right kind of ecosystem, involves deeper cooperation with technology vendors. The hope, he notes, is to lessen MarriottÃ.‚¬™s investment and risk in technology systems, while at the same time get solutions that meet MarriottÃ.‚¬™s exacting needs.

Legos and Tinker Toys
Marriott is currently working with a major technology vendor and a consulting company as a three-way partnership to develop a complex software system that will be rolled out first by Marriott, but will eventually be in the public domain and for sale to its competitors. Shuler expects to get a six-month head start before the solution is available to the rest of industry. "Plus," he adds, "we have invested our intellectual capital in it and that is our payback."

Whether it is off-the-shelf, proprietary or created in partnership with technology vendors, Shuler has moved Marriott towards using component-based technology systems, which he likens to Legos and Tinker Toys. "Component-based architectures have just a few standard pieces," Shuler explains. "In using these standard pieces, sophisticated structures can be assembled. In a similar way, we use standard components to assemble systems and technology that are unique to Marriott. That is our strategy."

A Hilton or Hyatt could take the same components and configure it to its needs in a way that would be distinct from Marriott. "While our competitors could take the same set of Lego Blocks and configure systems and technologies to their needs, they would not replicate exactly what we do," Shuler argues. "There will always be a certain amount of capability that would be proprietary and give us a competitive advantage. But, even these Marriott-specific competitive-advantage components would still leverage standard interfaces to interact with industry standard components"
The move to a component-based architecture is the result of ShulerÃ.‚¬™s experience updating many of MarriottÃ.‚¬™s proprietary systems. When Shuler came to Marriott over nine years ago, the internal architecture of its reservation system or was nothing like the architecture of today's system. "When I first came to Marriott it was very difficult to activate only a part of the reservation system without activating the whole thing," recalls Shuler. "But now, behind the scenes and with no user impact, we have largely implemented our fundamental vision of a component-based architecture."

Of course changing a major system like reservations wasnÃ.‚¬™t easy. The system never goes downÃ.‚¬"it is up 24/7/365 days a year. And if it goes down for even a few minutes, Marriott can lose millions of dollars. The process of changing out the system and replacing the various elements for separate components was "like putting new wings on a 747 while it is flying," Shuler admits.

Attention to agility
The difficulty of migrating property management across the 2,600 hotel enterprise has proven equally challenging for Shuler. "When I arrived at Marriott, we had multiple property management systems," explains Shuler. "One of our fundamental principles states that Ã.‚¬ËœMarriott InternationalÃ.‚¬™s application systems will be designed with attention to agility.Ã.‚¬™ While the business-specific functionality of each of these property-management systems was world class, our agility--speed of change to roll out new functionality--was hindered."

Slowly, but surely, Marriott has reduced the number of PM systems to keep its technology in line with its technology strategy. "This is just one example of how our principles give us a clear strategic direction for the evolution of our systems and technology portfolio," Shuler insists. "Principles are rules of the road as to how we will deliver information technology in Marriott. Think of them as Ã.‚¬Ëœpre-fabricated decisionsÃ.‚¬™ that are general enough to be future-proof, and yet specific enough to align everyone around a common set of actions."

MarriottÃ.‚¬™s rules of the road are driving a host of changes at the hotel company. One of the most significant changes has been the move to perform advanced scenario planning for every aspect of its operation. "The enterprise needs to be a model itself, able to model the processes that it will deliver, and embedded in those processes will be the systems and technology."

Planning and modeling is now part of everything Marriott does. Whenever the hotel company purchases a hardware or software solution, it now develops an exit strategy at the same time. "We are constantly monitoring what is happening with vendors, we want to know what the impact would be if the company fundamentally changes," explains Shuler. "When we negotiate a technology contract I feel strongly that we should assess these types of scenarios."

Checking in
"In the early days of IT, we looked at how the technology might support business functions and organizational units," Shuler adds. "Today, our fundamental driver is business processes, which almost certainly cut across business functions and organizational units. When we consider a business process change, we assess the impact to technology, and vice versa."
MarriottÃ.‚¬™s main focus for process change now is piloting a self-service check-in solution. MarriottÃ.‚¬™s goal is to keep user-transactions being entered on a handheld wireless device (cell phone PDA, or other devices) from being interrupted and lost, should the network connection be lost. According to Shuler, this notion of occasionally connected computing, or Ã.‚¬Ëœseamless mobility,Ã.‚¬™ will be built into the architecture for all MarriottÃ.‚¬™s systems and technology in the future.

"It is much easier to engineer, design, deploy and support networks if standards are in place," adds Shuler. "IP is a well known standard that is ubiquitous. We are actively driving toward a converged network architecture for our hotel properties, based on the Internet Protocol. This will allow us to simplify support and gain leverage across a variety of network services in our properties, to the benefit of our guests and hotel associates."
Of course, standards have moved well beyond IP. According to Shuler, Marriott is involved in organizations like HTNG (Hotel Technology Next Generation) and OTA (Open Travel Alliance) to encourage and support the industryÃ.‚¬™s convergence on standards. "The thinking of these organizations is starting to converge as well, not only for basic network protocols, like IP, but also for the data and message formatting that these converged networks will require for hospitality industry commercial applications to be more easily configured and integrated out of the box," Shuler adds.

And as Shuler readily admits, that convergence is driving business processes at Marriott. The recognition of the needs for stronger standards within the lodging industry as well as more broadly for technology has given greater motivation for Marriott to get involved in groups like HTNG, OTA as well as IEEE. Although Marriott only joined HTNG within the last six months, Shuler clearly feels that MarriottÃ.‚¬™s influence in the industry can be mutually beneficial. "We think it is important to get standards to emerge," Shuler concludes. "HTNG is a structured way to do this more effectively."

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