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CIO drives tech-enabled golf with repeatable processes, innovation labs

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On a busy day, anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 people will stop into a TopGolf venue to have a tee-off, grab a bite to eat and enjoy some music or the big game on TV. And the happiness of every one of those thousands of people in some way depends on CIO Tom LaPlante.

Tom LaPlanteTom LaPlante

TopGolf isn't a run-of-the-mill driving range; it's a tech-enabled competitive golf "entertainment experience." The field of play, so to speak, is like a giant dartboard spread out over 200 yards; 500 unique sensor-equipped targets keep score on each microchipped golf ball by tracking its distance and accuracy.

When LaPlante was hired as the company's first CIO just over a year ago, Dallas-based TopGolf had successfully opened two venues in the U.K. and four in the U.S. since 2000. Management's plan going forward was to open a dozen venues every year. Each venue is 65,000 square feet comprising 102 golfing bays with interactive touchscreens and hundreds of televisions. With a company goal to deliver the same fun tech-enabled customer experience no matter which venue those thousands of customers entered, LaPlante realized he needed to apply some old-school IT management to this high-tech business.

We're trying to create a culture where, whether it's an hourly-paid associate on the food and beverage line or the CIO or CMO or CEO, it's everybody's job to come up with new ideas on how we can make things better.

Tom LaPlante,
CIO, TopGolf

"It's interesting; you have all the latest and greatest technology, but you still need the basics -- configuration management, change management -- you still need to have all your processes documented," LaPlante said. "None of that really changes; you just have a lot of new tools and more devices and solutions you can implement."

Creating a project management playbook

His first order of business was forging a relationship with the business, including the company's site operations, marketing and general managers. A joint business-IT management committee was formed to discuss strategy -- what short-term and long-term entertainment offerings they wanted to make to guests -- and to be sure the business objectives were crystal clear.

From there it was a matter of filling new positions with the right people with the right mix of cultural adaptability and technical skills to carry out his first major task: getting a new site in Houston up and running. Knowing it wouldn't be simple and knowing TopGolf's ambitious plans for dozens more venues in the years to come, LaPlante kicked into project management mode and created what he calls a site-build playbook.

"We knew what the physical dimensions of the sites would be, and we needed to create a repeatable process if we were going to be building eight to 10 sites a year. The configuration of the hardware and the software and the functionality had to be about 98% the same across all the sites," LaPlante said.

Everyone involved, from the construction team to the technology project managers, documented their work activities for the Houston site. When it was complete, he held a three-day "postmortem" on lessons learned and discussions on how to create a more repeatable process.

"In some ways, there are only a few moving parts -- the golf ball, the ball dispenser, a touchscreen game panel, targets with antennae, and there's the software, but they all have to work flawlessly to create the guest experience we're looking to create," LaPlante said.

With another site scheduled to open in Austin about six months later, the playbook was put to the test. When it opened the first week in May, LaPlante was pleased to find things did indeed go much smoother thanks to the lessons learned in Houston. He doesn't intend to rest on that success, however; every time TopGolf breaks ground in a new location, the book is reopened to scrutiny and revision.

Yelp! Going social without fear

When, as they do now, businesses live and die by social media chatter, sites such as Yelp can be a company's best free advertising or worst public nightmare. On the TopGolf website, along with usual requests for the Facebook "likes" and Twitter follows, is a call to "Give us a Yelp."

Where some might see that as inviting criticism, LaPlante views it as another way to serve customers. You can either embrace it or make it difficult for people sound off about your business, LaPlante said -- and TopGolf definitely wants to make things easy for its customers, including airing gripes.

"If you bother to take the time posting something on Yelp or Facebook, or tweet it … we can turn that negative to a positive," he said. Each TopGolf location has a "marketing champion" whose job it is to monitor social media and interact with customers.

Next up: LaPlante plans to up the social ante by integrating Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, et al into the gaming experience, whether guests are on-site or on a mobile device. Soon, no matter where players live, they'll be able to team up and take on other players in leagues across the country. Call it tech-enabled fights to the finish.

One of the biggest takeaways from the playbook process was the need for open communication and staying on top of change management. When on-site employees think the change they're making is "minor" -- just wanting to switch out a PC or fiddle with one of the 300 on-site televisions -- problems arise. Making sure everyone understands the interconnectedness of the technology and making it easier for them to ask for tech-help when they need it emerged as key needs. Soon, employees will be enabled with tablets and smartphones that will help them to not only do their particular jobs -- such as taking orders and processing payments -- but also allow them to communicate directly to management.

"It's been a combination of finding very good talent as well as getting support from my peers in the business units," LaPlante said. "Whether it's marketing or site operations or construction and finance, it's just everybody pulling together and saying we're going to make this work."

Building a deep bench for innovation

Staying on the cutting edge of technology, wowing customers, facilitating change management, moving to the cloud and fostering innovation -- all while handling back-end drudgery -- is par for the course for LaPlante.

But LaPlante, who has a long career in the travel, hospitality and marketing verticals, was immediately drawn to the challenge. "They really wanted to keep on the forefront of innovation around interacting with the guests and making the guest experience really, really special with the wow and cool factor," LaPlante said.

Having the right IT skills on board was critical to success. LaPlante recruited 14 people immediately, and nine months later, another 10 to 15 people to get the IT job done -- with management's unconditional support. He also got no arguments when he decided to bring the software development team in-house and bolster its ranks by five people.

"The board of directors recognized we're a technology-enabled entertainment venue, and in order to really scale up and provide the guest experience they were looking to provide, they needed to lean into technology," LaPlante said.

To guarantee the same great experience in every location, every time, LaPlante took a page from the world's top golfers: practice, practice, practice and experiment to see what works. The company soon will be opening TopGolf Labs -- a separate facility created to replicate the actual venue environment. The idea is to work on perfecting problem areas pointed out in the playbook, as well as test new technologies without having to disrupt regular on-site operations.

Whether it's a mobile app or tablet or new game or equipment, the technology group will be able to try the new technology and work out the kinks before taking it for a trial run. The physical construction of new sites is now in such a rhythm that the group will have nearly two weeks before a grand opening to try out their latest innovations. This last step is important to the process, LaPlante said, "because you can't quite replicate 102 hitting bays."

"That's how we're going to take new, innovative ideas and push the envelope without impacting the production site," LaPlante added.

LaPlante wants to instill the mindset in every employee -- business and IT -- that a tech-enabled entertainment venue can't rest on what's working today.

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"We're trying to create a culture where, whether it's an hourly-paid associate on the food and beverage line or the CIO or [chief marketing officer] or CEO, it's everybody's job to come up with new ideas on how we can make things better," LaPlante said.

To that end, an IT steering committee was recently created to solicit ideas for what capabilities the next generation of technology should deliver. He is also looking to start a mini-think tank within the technology group, designating two or three folks whose main mission is to come up with new ways of doing things and the cutting-edge technology required to support it. He plans to start it off with folks who are well-versed in hardware and software but eventually rotate in employees from marketing and other departments, as well as on-site associates, including new recruits.

"When you're always adding new people, you want to get them convinced that, yes, their opinions and ideas are going to be listened to, and it's inherent in their job to come up with new ways of doing things."

Visit the TotalCIO blog to read about how Tom LaPlante is leveraging cloud computing to keep the back end running while focusing on innovation.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.


This was first published in August 2013

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