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Feature Article - September 2004

Automation Realizations

Technological streamlining can make facility management easier and more efficient

By Kyle Ryan


THE DOWNSIDES

With so many possibilities, it sounds too good to be true—and that kind of is the case.

"Some of the technology is fairly capital-intensive," Andrus says. "We spent tens of millions of dollars building out our systems. It's an expensive proposition; [but] it does have a tremendous payback."

Andrus recommends even small facilities make a modest upgrade technologically; software companies will usually build according to budgetary limitations.

Half the battle lies in changing entrenched routines. The phenomenon is especially problematic with municipalities.

"Government has the reputation of being so slow moving," Heller says. "You've been doing the same things for ever and ever, and you've just got to continuously change the way you do things."

The Elk Grove Park District operates under the philosophy of "dare to do," according to Heller.

"People get very comfortable with the way they do things," she says. "We continuously do things around here to make people uncomfortable."

To stay comfortable, there's a tendency to create "workarounds" in new software—ways of working around a program's setup to continue doing things the old way. The urge to create workarounds is especially strong if the software isn't specifically tailored to your routine.

"The times we have tried to make the software do what we always used to do, it's come back to haunt us," Gray says. "When we look back three years later, we say, 'Why didn't we just change our procedures?' Because it really wasn't that big. It's like, 'Do you like blue cars or red cars?'" Gray continues. "'Well, we always had a blue car.' So what? Now you have a red car. We were slow to let go of the past—that whole culture of change is very difficult to break out of."

With technology, change is the only constant. Anyone who's bought a computer knows how quickly it ages. What's cutting-edge today seems archaic in a couple of years, and facility managers have to be mindful of the upgrades that are inherently involved with this kind of technology. That can be problematic when you have a large staff that needs to be trained. The Prince George's County parks department had to train 800 people. At the Elk Grove Park District, the project took nine months go get rolling.

While every company sings the praises of a centralized database, there is one innate danger: If the center goes down, everything goes with it. After all its work to create a customer-friendly system, the Prince George's County parks department faced massive failures when its software went live.

"We kind of died that day," Brett says, laughing. Four different technical glitches hampered the system. The phone-registration system informed callers classes were full when they weren't. The Web site couldn't handle the traffic. People weren't happy.

After the dust settled, the company adjusted the software, and Brett has had few problems since then. It's a good idea in any case to have strong back-up and contingency plans.

"Systems have gotten very reliable and very supportable," Andrus says, "but you still do have the odd issue, a natural disaster or something of that sort, an act of God or act of wacky employee that could cause some issues."

AXIOMS OF TECHNOLOGY

With so much to consider when making technological upgrades, mistakes are easily made.

"I think the biggest mistake that anybody would make is to think you can do something really quickly," says Suzette Schwartz, registrar and IT assistant trainer for the Elk Grove Park District. "You want to have a good team behind you, going through all the planning stages so the rollout of the upgrade goes smooth."

Heller agrees with her colleague.

"If you're upgrading, you kind of feel like you can do anything and everything, and you want to do it right now," she says. "It just doesn't work that way."

Technology by itself doesn't equal happy customers, either. Andrus adds that just because you can bill someone efficiently doesn't mean they're fulfilled.

"The use of this technology needs to improve the business from a financial standpoint," Andrus says, "and hopefully it does that while improving the member's life experience with the organization as well."