28 September 2009

Handling Conflict

I was reading the book by Ray Comort (his autobiography) called 'Out of you Comfort Zone' and I believe there is a lot to be learned from this street evangelist from New Zealand who has now made the USA his home. Ray is a street evangelist and pastor who had spent a lot of his time open air preaching i.e. finding crowded street corners, standing on a pedestal or box and speaking out loud his thoughts on evangelism and life after death.

Ray found himself at MacArthur Park in LA which is renowned for its homeless population, drug addicts, gang warfare and high crime rates. Ths park is littered with addicts on cocaine and crack, as well as those selling it. The park has a high murder rate and almost all its inhabitents are either stab wound victims or harbor wounds with infections that they dont have the medical insurace to have treated.

In addition to providing the park dwellers with food, looking after their wounds and avoiding being killed, Ray also goes there with the primary reason of open air preaching. Talking out loud to audiences in this environment could be considered almost suicide as Ray has found out in many occasions. Presenting to this audience with a speech on the after life, man sinning against God and receiving Christ as their savior is far from the interest of the audience whose primary focus is on the food Ray has brought along or selling the clothes he has brought for money to buy cocaine with.

Needless to mention, Ray often states that he is faced with many conflicting situations. In most cases this involves verbal abuse of many kinds and with those insisting on disrupting his speech and attacking his belief system. He even once witnessed a gang war with axe stabbing. He has been spat on and insulted.

In Ray's book his reaction always sees to be the same. Even though in his thoughts he is very angry he does not let his anger be the controlling force in his behavior. When faced with insults and attacks he always flashes a smile. He always uses humor to defuse a situation. He always says that God loves you and I love you too in almost all circumstances. He uses his humor, smile and intelligent reasoning to always be the dominant force.

I think this is a good attitude to take when facing conflicts of any nature. Do not let your opponent win. You know when your opponent has won i.e. when your opponent has made you angry and made you attack back. You have already lost and it is as vein as shouting at a car that cut you off in traffic but has sped off into the distance. It is always good to smile, stay happy, and present the facts in a clear concise manner to your opponent. Your smile is more likely to diffuse your opponent's attacks and throw them off guard. It also gives your control over the situation.

22 September 2009

Maximizing your Hotel Distribution and Reservations using powerful XML technologies

The term ‘XML’ has fast become an acronym that players in the hospitality industry have had to become familiar with. In this rapidly evolving industry, leaving out the XML component of distribution could prove to be a strategic blunder. The benefits of this technology to hotels, hotel representation companies, international hotel chains, travel agents and wholesalers / tour operators are immeasurable. The hospitality industry has taken aboard the necessity to be ‘online’ if one intends to remain competitive, or for that matter survive. However, with the evolution of Web 2.0 or more so Travel 2.0, XML has the potential to directly affect immediate sales volumes and hotel room distribution capabilities in a revolutionary manner that has not been conceived before.

XML is the acronym for Extensible Markup Language. It is part of what is known as ‘Web Services’. Web services are in there simplest form a standard based web application that interacts with other web applications. XML requests could be sent to an application similar to sending a grocery list to a grocer. The grocer either replies with what was asked for or informs you that it is not currently available. The middle ground in this transaction is known as an ‘interface’ which allows two entities to understand one another. Connecting two entities using XML requires the building of an XML interface between them.

In the online hotel reservation industry, wholesalers are able to contract independent hotels directly. Wholesalers have the ability to interface with many online travel agents. A hotel that traditionally relied upon phone call reservations could now find its hotel rooms exposed to thousands of online customers across the globe.

Hotel chains are able to enhance their distribution by connecting to online travel agents using a direct XML connection. This not only increases their sales channels but also exposes their hotels to non-brand loyal customers.

Travel 2.0 is one implementation of a theory economists refer to as the Long Tail. This is based on the economics of abundance. The internet has made it possible for millions of consumers to seek their ideal hotel online based on their individual needs. Each consumer has his/her own idea of the perfect place to stay. The Long Tail’s principal is that the sum of niche markets far exceeds the total mass market; hence serving the needs of individuals is more profitable. This paradigm causes players in the industry to shift their attention from serving all customers, to serving the individual needs of customers. XML encompasses the flexibility and efficiency to effectively provide the most exposure a hotel room could receive online. A new paradigm has emerged where XML has shifted from being a basic technology that facilitates online room reservations to a tool that could be used to directly increase the visibility and sales volumes of a hotel or property.

Needless to say, any IT solution should respond in the quickest possible time frame and should also consider data compression techniques. Detailed below are some of the techniques in which XML could be used to improve the exposure of hotel properties online thereby improving distribution and sales.

Most customers visiting a city such as London or Paris are very likely to search for all hotels within that city or a zone / area within that city e.g. Leicester Square in London. At the time of searching by an online customer, an efficient XML request would be able to send out a request that would ask for the return of all hotels within that area or city. It is significant that XML standards have the capability to accept city or area based searches. If these are not supported, the result would be the increased server activity and delayed responses to the customer.

Simplicity and the ‘ease of booking’ are driving forces in online hotel room distribution. When a customer enters his search criteria online and views the hotel search results, it is imperative that the total cost of the room is displayed to him/her. The simpler it is for the customer, the higher are the chances of them making a reservation off the site as well as returning to the site. As with a product on a shelf at the local supermarket, it is imperative that the total cost of the room is displayed on the hotel room search results. The cost of a room should include the taxes and should detail the exact cost of the room rather than a cost range. An efficient XML system should be able to return this value in its initial response.

When a customer views the hotel search results, he should be able to see the widest range of room types and meal plans. This increases the variety and choice available to him. It also allows the customer to decide on the perfect fit in terms of accommodation for those going with him. This is critical when considering larger families or different needs (e.g. breakfast and dinner only). An efficient XML system should be able to support this need.
An efficient XML response should contain all the available room types and meal plans for a hotel and their total costs. In terms of visibility for hotels, the more room types and meal plans returned on XML, the greater the exposure. Some online room reservation sites are aggregators from multiple sources of hotel inventory. One provider may only provide a single room for a hotel. Instead of having to compete with that single room based on price, it is more logical to offer a double or single with breakfast. This would result in both room types being exposed to the customer. It also fulfills the need of a customer for whatever choice of room type he/she desires rather than being restricted to an available choice. The more room types and meal plans a hotel has within its portfolio and returned on an XML response, the greater the visibility of that hotel as well as the probability of it being booked.

Customers that wish to travel with children are often faced with having to pay an adult rate for that child or are not met with the suitable requirements on arrival at the hotel. An efficient XML system would allow the customer to inform the hotel that children will constitute part of the guest list. Hotels close to children’s venues such as entertainment parks could be marketed given their efficient handling of children’s accommodation. This could be driven by a powerful XML configuration.

Information and content is a key determinant in the online hotel industry. Content such as hotel addresses, images and descriptions are critical for a successful reservation procedure. Providers of hotel rooms are known to maintain static data with this information which can be downloaded on a predetermined basis. This is an important function. However the difference between a standard requirement and a powerful XML system is the value addition in static data, its flexibility and usability.

When taking into consideration the Long Tail of distribution and its focus on niche markets, content is one of the main criteria in the segmenting of properties into unique niches. These would traditionally be sought after by marketers who segment markets based on their own knowledge. It was not deemed feasible for a marketer to contact thousands of properties on a regular basis and ask them what differentiates their hotel from others and determining their unique selling proposition. It would be impossible to gather data from thousands of hotels on their locations and activities within their vicinity. With the use of a powerful XML medium this is now a possibility. An XML system could be put into place that allows information entered by hoteliers onto a database, such as their unique selling propositions, area information, forthcoming activities, location based services and segmentation information, to be harnessed. This could be part of the static data. When downloaded by distributors it allows them to segment their markets efficiently and effectively. It also provides them with the ability to market these segments online. The more segments that are marketed, the more visibility a property receives. A hotel could find itself globally visible to prospective customers and feeding off the growth of the Long Tail where niche distribution surpasses the traditional mass marketing efforts. The simplicity and efficiency of XML provides marketers with a powerful tool and hotels with unsurpassed distribution capabilities.

Booking a room is more than just making a reservation at a hotel. It is about the perfect booking experience. Customers often find themselves bemused by the handling of key collection information and hotel renovations. XML provides a solution here as well. Details on renovations such as the repairs to swimming pools could be sent with hotel rate information at the time a customer makes a search request for hotels. This shows him/her immediately what is taking place at the hotel. Key collection information could be passed in a similar manner.

Most hotels encompass special offers which have the potential to provide substantial value to customers. Offers such as staying 4 nights and receiving the next night free are very attractive. However marketers are not capable at present of marketing these attractive offers to customers. XML provides distributors with the ability to query hotel room providers for special offers in advance. This allows them to position these offers in their marketing campaigns thereby increasing a hotel’s exposure and visibility.

The above suggestions allow the XML technology to align itself directly with the Long Tail of distribution. XML is malleable. It can be made flexible to feed the immediate needs and wants of online consumers. Using it as a tool has the potential to increase the visibility and exposure of hotel rooms in revolutionary manners that have not been accomplished before.

17 September 2009

The Necessity for Investing in Employees in the UK in this Downturn Economy : Part 3 of 3

In the previous article we discussed why change management was so critical in downturn economies. Rapid change causes a lot of damage to employee motivation unless addressed by management. 

We also spoke of the effect the current downturn is having on employees.  There is no better time than the present to cement the trust and bonds between employees and use the current environment to drive change through team building. Team building within the company enables employees to face the downturn as a unit - a functioning powerful unit of people rather than scattered individuals.

There seems to be no better time than the present to capture the fruits of experiential learning using a real live environment. Outward Bound Training (as a human resource development initiative) courses involving taking employees to the outdoors to develop skills such as team building, leadership training, project management, handling stress, management training, communication, change, etc. may have been used in the better times as part of a team building program conducted by team building companies. As part of a corporate training program or outdoor leadership training the employees may have been asked to participate in a team building activity. These may have included raft building, kayaking, trust falls, outdoor navigation, etc.

Outward bound training is still popular in the UK, US, West Indies and Singapore. Whilst it has its critics, the proper harnessing of the learning (Transfer of Learning) could prove to have positive impacts within the work organization. The key point to focus on here is to lose focus on the activity and focus on what it is trying to achieve. e.g. lose focus on white water rafting but harness the relationships built with your team whilst on the course. The essence of Outward Bound Training is to place participants on simulated risky environments that would enable them to dig deep into their natural capabilities and resources. In these environments leadership skills, clear communication, resource allocation, time efficiency, etc. are all put to the test. The active learning involved provides memories and recollections which could prove useful to employees. However this learning needs to be addressed as would any change management strategy. The learning needs to be harnessed, reflected upon and actively implemented within the organization by change agents else the transfer of learning will not take place.

Some would argue that going on outward bound courses is the least on managers' minds given the worries of staying afloat. However some might argue that if it is financially viable it is an investment. Employees are under immense pressure and stress. They are expected to perform exceptionally well in a stressful environment where there job security is at risk. They are expected to work long hours while taking on extra work loads. In these economic conditions customers always want there projects yesterday and new ones delivered tomorrow. There does not seem to be a more opportune time to invest in the training and development of employees for this exact environment. Taking the employees out of the current work place to the outdoors not only prepares employees to be trained in the necessary skills to face a stressful work environment and thrive in time management, communication, leadership, etc. but most significantly, and most undoubtedly, it sends a very clear concise critical message directly to the employees. The message clearly states that their management has decided to make an investment in its employees. Instead of laying off and being bureaucratic, the management has made the conscious decision to invest in its employees and prepare them for the future ahead. Yes the times will be tough but the management as confidence that its employees, with the right training, will shine through these circumstances.

This message immediately, like a cork out of a champagne bottle, thrusts employee perception up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Motivation Model. They no longer need to be worried about security as instead of taking the easy option of laying off staff, the management has sent a  clear message that they are still a team and together they can make it. This message also solidifies Maslow's two immediate concerns in the triangle - the need to belong and esteem.

Outward bound training is a unique method in which manager's are able to use experiential learning as part of a human resources development strategy. The essence is in the capture of the learning undertaken and its implementation in the work place which is also undergoing severe stress. The skills captured from the training could prepare employees for the tougher times ahead and it will certainly sharpen their skills. It will also provide a very significant mode of motivation and a clear directive from senior management that it values its employees. The former CEO of GE Jack Welch in his book 'Winning' details that the head of human resources in a company should be given as much significance as a CFO. Whilst Mr.Welch's theories have both criticism and reason by many commentators, it is a winning advantage to invest in employees when it seems that all statistics, media, corporations and managers are working against them.  

Human resource development managers also must focus on ensuring that employees learn from these live non-simulation stressful times. The learning involved in going through risk related environments and overcoming obstacles must be harnessed, discussed, documented and championed by change agents to actively reinforce learning in the future.

The Necessity for Investing in Employees in the UK in this Downturn Economy : Part 2 of 3

The dilemma of change management.

We previously spoke of the effect the current downturn is having on employees. We discussed that management need to take action in this environment rather than waiting for governments to act upon it. After all it is the management that employees trust in the normal operations of the company. There is no better time than the present to cement the trust and bonds between employees and use the current environment to drive change through team building. Team building within the company enables employees to face the downturn as a unit - a functioning powerful unit of people rather than scattered individuals.

As people we tend to learn from our environment. We know that a hot cup of coffee could burn you when spilled. We know that a barking dog is not the safest to pet. We know that we should not trust Bernard Madoff with our life investments. We also know who we can trust when we are in times of need; that shoulder we can always rely on. This current downturn is real live experiential learning. Any Human Resource Development Manager should be quick to jump on the current opportunities to ensure that their staff learn from these times. This is a time of great change. Change management is essential.

During the good times most corporations are greater change evangelists than are the Christian Reinhard Bonke's of the world. With the downturn we seem to have forgotten our own gospel of change champions, consulting with employees, appointing change agents and harnessing charismatic / transformational leadership capabilities. These are possibly some of the most significant times heralding some of the largest changes in corporate history. Are you going to be part of the team that went with the flow and caused more harm than good? Or are you going to be the change and gather your employees around you to drive forth these dramatic changes? Irrespective of the outcome of your company i.e. if it goes into liquidation, manages to survive or thrives beyond, it is the people who worked for you that will remember you the most whilst the balance sheets decay in the chronicles of history.

Change management begins with answering the questions. That is the questions raised by employees. Management need to ensure that change (ideally being driven from the top) involves educating all employees with absolute transparency what is currently going on in the company. This could detail financial information, business strategy information and the challenges / predicaments ahead of us. Transparency and information are vital. It does not help in anyway to have your CEO locked away in his room racking his brain out while everyone else is assuming it is over. Transparency ensures that everyone is aware of the true picture. It is a waste of time to try to fool employees with strategy and positioning pep talks. They are well aware of the truth! It is up to management to be honest, transparent and clear. Questions should be answered truthfully e.g. why there are salary delays. The management should be clear on what their strategy moving forward is. They need to detail what is the plan to get us out of the rut or to survive. Explanations should be given prior to making requests of employees to work longer hours and take on more work loads. This consultative process makes employees feel important as they rightfully are. It musters support and motivation. A transformational leader is required to reitereate the changes and ensure that his/her charisma, consultative mannerism and overall concern for employees builds confidence and trust.

Managers would need to take on the role of counselors. Being transformational leaders they would be expected to show concern over (in confidentiality) how employees are getting on outside the work place, ask them what there concerns are and do there utmost to ensure the well being of employees are looked into. Employees need a voice now more than ever before. A voice often ignored but is critical. A voice that must tweet at the top.

We hear a lot of quotes and see a lot of posters denoting team building. e.g. Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM), alone we can't but together we can, etc. If in the past we could foster team spirit and team building to face multifunctional projects using cross functional teams which operate under immense pressure then perhaps team building is the best suited model to work with employees during the truly difficult moments. It is sad to see the reverse i.e. breaking up of teams with lay offs and adding job insecurity to bonded team environments.

Leadership training, leadership development, change management, HRD, team learning, team building skills and management training are worthwhile investments in any downturn. Their necessity is similar to teaching paramedics First Aid.

How do we harness these team attributes? Next section.

The Necessity for Investing in Employees in the UK in this Downturn Economy : Part 1 of 3

I was watching the BBC news last night on TV and whilst watching clips of President Obama defending his health plans I came across a rather disturbing headline that stated that the unemployment rate in the UK is at present the highest since 1995. This should not really surprise anyone. We have seen corporations collapse, fluctuating currencies, worrying reports of new world orders and riots in cities. Whilst the downturn has brought on much suffering and changes globally the headline itself brought to mind some of the management theories I had learned whilst on my MBA course a few years back.

This is a rather worrying statistic. The word statistic tends to remove the human emotion from the equation. I believe it was Stalin who once said that the death of a single person is a tragedy; more than that is just a statistic. The statistic here is you, me and my neighbor next door. Despite reassuarences from across the Atlantic that the recession is now over, the unemployment rate is extremely high. I cannot begin to imagine the mental state of people in the firing line of the downturn.

Unfortunately the unemployment rate is usually the last statistic to improve in any downturn. Increasing employment rates tend to denote that companies are once again confident in their growth capacity and the markets and are thereby investing in the future. The changes in the unemployment rate is a clear indication that a downturn is surely over or that companies are still cautious in how they hire new staff and take on new investments.

Whilst executives and senior managers worry about steering their corporate ships through these treacherous waters it is usually the crew below that tend to suffer the most. The downturn has brought with it copious volumes of risk in job security. Employees have had to worry if they would be laid off or sent home. Many companies have shamefully also used the downturn as an excuse to lay off staff and cut costs. Whilst other companies have had no choice but to enforce pressure on their staff to work much longer hours with heavier work loads.

A corporation is responsible for its staff. That is a humane view point. Employees come in to work and spend most of their lives working for a corporation. The treatment of staff, their well being and management during these hard times are a clear indication of the true colours of the company itself. Hard times are a clear indication of the true person behind the corporate persona. Companies must realize that how they tend to treat employees during these times are a clear indication of who they really are. Once the downturn is over, winning back employee confidence and convincing them they are more than just a statistic is going to be much more challenging.

Employees are possibly at their lowest state of mind on par with that which has not been witnessed in the last decade. Abraham Maslow had a theory named the Hierarchy of Needs Motivational Model which is widely studied on many of the abundant MBA courses globally. This model is a triangle shaped model in which the bottom layer is said to be the most significant factor in the motivation of an employee or more so his/her desire to perform within the company. As the building blocks are piled up on the triangle so does the necessity of each block reduce in motivational significance. Needless to say the first block details human physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, etc. These are basic human necessities. Just above the basic ethical humanitarian needs of people is security. Shockingly, this is what most employees do not have at present. Job security and employment rates are at the lowest levels as seen in the last decade. The basic human need of job security has been compromised. I cannot begin to imagine the mental, emotional and physical strains placed on workers today. Perhaps the government should take more action on the severity of the current situation although this could be borne by management themselves in combating this lack of security. The triangle blocks continue to pile up in the order of love and belonging (e.g. part of a team), esteem (e.g. working for Google :-) ), purpose and self-actualization.

Security or the lack of as borne by employees today include a shattered work-life balance, losing homes, being unable to pay off mortgages as well as dysfunctional marriages and relationships with children due to long work hours and mental fatigue.

This is a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately by management. The lack of motivation and the distraught attitudes of employees is not only ruining lives but will surely bring to disrepute the corporation or  put it under further stress. Management need to immediately address these issues. Champions and leaders are needed to drive through these perilous waters.