Information Age (IA): Radisson Edwardian has built a portal where employees at any level can access corporate information and applications via a browser interface. What was the main driver behind the portal, who uses it and what sort of information do they access?
Iype Abraham (Abraham): We wanted to create a central focal point for accessing any type of corporate information. When employees log on they can personalise their desktop according to the information that is relevant to them. We 'push' certain components to the desktop, such as company announcements, but most of the information is accessed on a 'pull' basis.
We define two types of components – mandatory and subscribable. The mandatory ones are accessed by the entire organisation, such as email and office applications. The other subscribable components are accessed by groups of people responsible for different areas of the business – for example, the finance director would decide who gets to see payroll-specific information such as salary details.
Having said that, there are very few pieces of information that we keep locked. Daily revenue is available to everyone as soon as they log in. Online training courses are available to every employee to access whenever they want. We've tried to concentrate on mixing casual employee information and news combined with service statistics that encourage people to be interested in what we've done with the portal.
IA: How have you developed the user interface to cater for people of different job specifications, in different environments?
Abraham: Part of the project was to design our own desktop 'shell'. We've embedded a browser, and use [French portal software company] Mediapps' software to aggregate corporate applications and information within that framework. So wherever you are inside or outside the organisation, you have access to exactly the same desktop.
We've made efforts to ensure that the functional side of it is appealing to use – emphasising the point and click nature of the portal means that employees require very little training. If they can use the Internet they can use our system.
IA: One of the key challenges organisations face in building centralised data access is integration. How do you manage the process of aggregating data from disparate sources?
Abraham: We have a single data centre where every piece of information is hosted and delivered. We control what comes in and what goes out through that medium. The Mediapps application acts as the glue. Then there's a small team of individuals that decides what the output will be and manages it.
Other hotel organisations store their data on desktop PCs or in small workgroups. These are little islands of data with no aggregation of data whatsoever. We deliberately set out to collapse the storage of data into one place and ensure better reliability and enhanced redundancy.
IA: What improvements in customer service or employee efficiency have you seen as a result of deploying the portal?
Abraham: We believe business information is the barometer of the organisation. Internally we call it the single version of the truth. Whether you're the front of house manager or the rooms divisions manager you will access the same piece of information, so when you have a dialogue with that person you're not comparing apples and pears. That makes the whole communications process easier to deal with.
There are no secrets. Every employee, from ground level to the chairman, actively looks at the daily revenue figures every day. What used to happen is that, each morning, each hotel would generate an Excel spreadsheet report on the previous day's performance that would then get tidied up and eventually presented to the chairman eight hours later. Now we have that information updated minute-by-minute so you can see when a conference has been sold and how that has impacted the group's sales.
We've also seen a change of behaviour in certain individuals. For example, human resources can allocate rota schedules on a daily basis and see more clearly where staff are, or if other hotels have requirements they can fulfil. Or if a booking is cancelled it immediately re-enters circulation. Previously it would be out of circulation for 24 hours, creating additional overheads for the hotel.
IA: All the applications Radisson uses are accessed via a browser using a thin-client application supproted by the Citrix application delivery platform. What impact has this thin-client infrastructure had on your use of IT resources?
Abraham: From a support perspective it's a hell of a lot easier. Although they have access to Windows in the background, employees do not have access to functions such as the 'Start' buttons that they would have on a traditional PC, so they cannot go into the system and make changes. We've rolled out a number of new applications in the last year or two – big applications such as finance and ERP systems – yet we have not increased our level of support.
Another measurable benefit is that we've effectively halted the purchase of new desktop PCs, something we'd always foreseen as a three-year cycle. The auditors have written off the PCs that sit on everybody's desks and we don't intend to replace them.
We've also centralised operating systems and applications within the central IT data centre, which means that application upgrades can be turned around overnight rather than over the course of three to six months. When the PCs are switched on they check to see if there is a new version of the portal 'shell' – if there is they download it using file transfer protocol (FTP) over our wide area network. It's very quick, and it means we can roll out a new version of that desktop shell to 500 PCs immediately. Otherwise we'd have to visit every property and have someone manually upgrade each PC using a CD.
For IT staff there has been an immense change in their working practices. It's now much more introverted in terms of designing and testing, with roll-out often happening overnight. The quality of IT projects has been significantly enhanced from that point of view.
IA: One of the downsides of using thin client technology is that it places a lot of strain on the server. How have you adapted your IT infrastructure to deal with this? For example, have you had to scale up your server processing power, or are users adversely affected if a key server goes down?
Abraham: Yes, our infrastructure does require substantial resources at the server end, but at the same time, we have reduced the amount of bandwidth required on the wide area network because we're not moving files around any more. In the same way we've halted expenditure on new PCs, we've halted expenditure on wide area networks.
It's changed our perception of what an individual in the IT department needs to offer the organisation. There's much less desktop support and a higher emphasis on understanding high-end systems, so it's matured the responsibility and technical capability of these individuals.
IA: What applications have been best suited to being deployed across the thin-client architecture?
Abraham: Everything's running on Citrix – there's no application used by employees outside of the Citrix environment. But in terms of individual applications we have met greatest success with our property management system, Fidelio, which is used by around 65% of hotel chains worldwide. No other hotel chain has integrated Fidelio so tightly with Citrix as far as we know.
In most hotels, Fidelio is a geographically dispersed system, so if you're in another hotel you cannot refer to data stored in your home location. We've enabled 'virtual' Fidelio access, which means that any department head can log into the system and manipulate it as though they were in their home location. This fits well with our management structure – a head of department is no longer based within a geographical location, they have responsibility across a number of hotels in a region. They can be in charge of a discipline across all of our 10 hotels without having to travel between them, opening up three or four virtual hotel windows on the desktop at any one time.
IA: Finally, how have these technology investments impacted future technology developments at Radisson?
Abraham: The hotel industry is undergoing a process of consolidation. Many hotel groups have taken on properties without standardised systems and encountered data integration issues. We have created a standard for our properties and any new ones we bring online will be based on this standard. We've made it more future proof in terms of our plans for expansion. It's all about maintaining control centrally. The deployment of the underlying infrastructure is complete – it's now a case of adding new applications and services as the need arises.