Understanding Information Technology Investment Decision-Making in the Context of Hotel Global Distribution Systems: a Multiple-Case Study
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Daniel J. Connolly Dr. Michael D. Olsen, Chair Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management
ABSTRACT This study investigates what three large, multinational hospitality companies do in practice when evaluating and making IT investment decisions. This study was launched in an attempt to 1) learn more about how multinational hospitality companies evaluate, prioritize, and select IT investments in the context of hotel GDS; 2) call attention to an important and costly topic in hopes of improving current practices; and 3) fill a noticeable literary void so that future researchers on IT and hotel GDS would have a foundation and starting point.
The perennial question of any business is "How does an organization add value?" Value can be defined from many different perspectives and may result from tangible and intangible factors. Principal stakeholders include shareholders (investors), customers, and employees. Shareholders typically measure value in terms of economic return on their investment based upon some level of perceived risk. For customers, value is assessed in terms of a price-value relationship; that is, how much they received in terms of product and services for the price they paid. For employees, value is measured by salary and by the intrinsic rewards of the job. Yet, one of the most elusive questions with respect to information technology is "How can value be measured?"
Hospitality executives are being pressured daily to invest more in information technology (IT) - especially in the area of hotel global distribution systems (GDS), which have become the cornerstone of a hotel firm's IT infrastructure and portfolio. There are a number of sweeping changes on the horizon impacting hotel GDSs and requiring the development of a well-crafted strategy for global distribution systems. These broad changes include bypass theories to remove airline GDSs and travel agents, the introduction of new and emerging player, and innovative approaches to pricing and promotion. Many of these developments offer promise to hoteliers, but they also threaten their control over their customer relationships and their inventory and add to the complexity and cost of distribution. Selecting the appropriate distribution channels is paramount to success and important if hotel firms are to grow top-line revenue and control overhead; yet the number of choices facing hotel executives is overwhelming. They are also at a loss for measuring value derived from IT.
One of the greatest issues plaguing the advancement of technology in the hospitality industry is the difficulty in calculating return on investment. Until recently, most technology investment decisions have been considered using a support or utility mentality that stems from a manufacturing paradigm. Under such thinking, business cases could be built around an application or technology's ability to reduce costs or create labor savings. However, management's attitudes towards technology have been shifting in recent years. The more technologically savvy hospitality companies are looking to IT to build strategic and competitive advantages. These types of investments yield results over time, and seldom in the short-run. This is problematic among owners and investors who demand more immediate results. Moreover, it is difficult to quantify and calculate the tangible benefits of technology when it is used for strategic purposes.
Today's financial models are inadequate for estimating the financial benefits for most of the technology projects under consideration today. While the hospitality industry has disciplined models and sufficient history to determine the financial gains or success of opening a new property in a given city, it lacks the same rigorous models and historical data for technology, especially since each technology project is unique. Although this problem is not specific to the hospitality industry, it is particularly problematic since the industry tends to be technologically conservative and unwilling to adopt new technology applications based on the promises of its long-term merits if it cannot quantify the results and calculate a defined payback period. When uncertainty surrounds the investment, when the timing of the cash flows is unpredictable, and when the investment is perceived as risky, owners and investors will most likely channel their investment capital to projects with more certain returns and minimal risk. Thus, under this thinking, technology will always take a back seat to other organizational priorities and initiatives. Efforts must be made to change this thinking and to develop financial models that can accurately predict and capture the financial benefits derived from technology.
Given the present predicament and difficulties surrounding the current tools, techniques, and measures, executives are faced with an important choice. They can 1) continue to use the present methods despite their shortcomings, 2) dispense with ROI, cost-benefit, and discounted cash flow analyses altogether for IT projects, or 3) develop new methods, tools, and measures that can accommodate the complexities of IT and quantify the intangibles. This study is a call to action in favor of the latter because the measures determine not only which projects will be accepted but also how their success will be evaluated. Having a rigid evaluation process forces executives to identify a project's potential contribution and align the project's objectives with the firm's strategic goals and objectives.
Using the co-alignment principle as its theoretical underpinning, this study employs a multiple-case design to investigate the resource allocation processes used with respect to information technology and global distribution systems. It looks at how three leading, multinational hospitality firms address IT project/investment evaluation and decision-making, the measures they use, and the frustrations they encounter. These frustrations include problems that arise from a hotel firm's fragmented ownership as well as from hotel executives' inability to measure the results of IT through definitive cause-and-effect relationships. The results of the study provide affirmation of the co-alignment principle and document linkages and co-alignment between strategy and IT. Clearly, decisions involving IT and hotel GDSs require multivariate measures, multidimensional perspectives, and multidisciplinary involvement. However, research from the marketing discipline is noticeably absent in this area. This study concludes that because IT plays an important enabling role for marketing initiatives and is redefining the supply chain of a hotel firm, marketing researchers can no longer stand on the sidelines.
This study also identifies three important constructs, or classes of variables (context, process, and project), the variables comprising each, and their influences on the evaluation and decision-making processes. These findings add to the understanding of IT evaluation, measurement, and decision-making in the context of hotel GDS. This study clarifies the intangible aspects in hopes that useful measures can be developed in subsequent research to quantify and evaluate these costs and benefits. Finally, this study provides a series of prescriptions or recommendations gleaned from the three companies that were the focus of this study in hopes that they will lead to the development of best practices in the hospitality industry.
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