In our technology-dominated era, the issue of digital transformation is never far from the top of the business agenda – in hospitality as elsewhere. For students of our Master’s in International Hospitality Business, the subject is brought to life by someone who delivers a level of real world insight only available from those who’ve ‘been there and done it’. That someone is Dr John Paul Kawalek.

What is digital transformation? It’s a fundamental question about a topic that has become one of the hottest in business today.

And there are few better people to ask it to than Dr John Paul Kawalek, who divides his time between consulting to organizations and teaching the subject in universities and higher education institutions, including Glion.

So what exactly is it, and what does it involve?

“Digital transformation is for businesses and organizations who want to modernize, create new products or achieve new levels of service, using affordable and accessible technology,” he explains.

“It involves working with organizations, paying particular attention to current processes. We deploy ‘process analysis’ to identify where technology can improve efficiency or effectiveness. Sometimes this means looking at the whole organization, and how it achieves the ‘throughput’. Digital transformation works out where we could optimize and improve systems, structures and activities.

“It is a modern version of ‘process improvement’, sometimes applying industry operational or accreditation standards, and putting together projects to change and optimize.”

As an example, John recalls how a recent client company put in a computer system to help maintenance scheduling. Now a three-week process takes just three days, giving a cost saving of around $1m per year.

He adds, “Another example is where a client developed a web-shop to complement their existing sales channels. Their markets expanded globally, with reductions in head-count in sales teams. In the service sector, there are opportunities to develop new electronic-based products, new levels of service, new information products…

Having worked extensively in the UK university sector, John also ventured into equity-based crowd funding to finance real estate developments. In fact, he’s currently working on new property development projects in the UK. He’s also a consultant to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which supports development projects in more than 30 countries worldwide.

But it’s the Digital Transformation and Data Analytics course he teaches at Glion which formed the basis for our recent chat with John. Here are the highlights:

Q: What does your Glion Master’s course cover?

John Kawalek (JK): It’s mostly about the transformational part – putting together technology for business purposes and ensuring that you’re driving a strategic change to those businesses. I teach students methodology, techniques, tools and ideas about how processes work in practice. This is what I do in my consulting work for the European Bank. We go into technology such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, also the Google Cloud platform.

In addition, we put together web applications. We might put up a website for the students, so they can see it all happen from scratch. Then we would also create a web-shop, so they can see how it’s built. After that, I ask the students to create their own web pages.

Then I get a bit more sophisticated with web-based development technologies. For instance, we develop some prototype applications using Caspio. Students actually put together a demo app for a given client business… I show students how to build applications. Students use applications like Facebook, Ebay, or other web sites, but do not necessarily have insight into what is involved in developing such an app. In our program of learning, I want to help them visualize how it is done, what skills are needed to put together a successful project to implement technology. For example, students will create the database and then integrate it into a website. We also do a little bit of data analytics, using software such as Tableau or Qlik. We will pull data from existing databases, and integrate into our own websites, with the fantastic visualizations that such technology offers!

Q: When you talk about these topics to hospitality business students, are they surprised?

JK: I think that sometimes they are not aware that they need this kind of knowledge in the hospitality industry. This is general business knowledge and it will be useful to them, no matter which industry they end up working in. My discipline, which is digital systems, is transferable to any organization, in any sector and anywhere in the world.

Sometimes, the students base their projects on a hotel business, for example. And that is absolutely fine, because we want to digitalize hotels. Other students haven’t been exposed to this kind of stuff at all, so they learn a lot of new things. In the classroom, I have to be a bit careful, because I know that students sometimes do not have a lot of organizational experience, nor necessarily much in the way of technical skills. So I adapt the course content to suit. No student needs loads of pre-requisite knowledge or experience!

Q: Most of your career you’ve taught MBA students, and at Glion you are teaching MSc – was it difficult to adapt the level of the course?

JK: I’m probably guilty of not adapting it enough sometimes! But the students in Glion are quick to feedback on areas I need to adapt a little more. The students are really good, great at ‘having a go’. To be honest, I think the students like my class because it is very practical and grounded in the reality of business, not just the theory. I teach hands-on skills they can apply once they’ve finished their studies and moved into the workplace.

Q: What do you see as some of the key outcomes from your course?

JK: Students get to see the structure of technology – and then they realize that technology is not really as big a problem as people generally think. They need to realize that they can put the technology together relatively quickly, once they understand the building blocks.

For our future business managers, they need to be able to identify business opportunities and benefits, and to put together projects and teams to realize the benefits of digital transformation.

I also want the students to see where we are going in the future, so we touch on technologies like blockchain and how 5G-powered apps might look. And I am working on including machine learning as the next stage.

Q: Are things like blockchain and machine learning difficult for students to grasp?

JK: It is sometimes difficult, because some of the products out there still demand quite a lot of programming. And, of course, students are not programmers. So I have to be conscious of this and demonstrate the growing number of tools and technologies that can be easily used in everyday business. There are some examples in machine learning and blockchain, but there is probably a lot more to come. For instance, I show students how to link standard websites to the blockchain, and how easy it is if you know how!

Q: If there’s one thing you want the students to learn from your class, what would it be?

JK: To be honest, I would say systems theory. Every time you look at a business, you have to see it as a system; and you have to improve it as a system. The efficiency and effectiveness are crucial – if you’ve implemented technology somewhere, it has to be there to improve the system. Ultimately, you are going to be measured on the success of the system, not on the technology that you set up.

People in business don’t always analyze the systems sufficiently to determine where the technology fits the system. A lot of technology is applied by companies without first understanding the system; so you end up with a situation where you are very good at technology, programming etc. but you don’t necessarily get the best out of it to improve the whole system – the business system. As a result, sometimes we see technologies implemented that are a complete waste of time – they do not work to improve the system.

And this situation is what I want the students to avoid in the future. You have to analyze the system first before you implement something. Even the term ‘Information Systems’ comes from the notion of systems theory, but people often think that information systems means that “I am a good programmer”. It is not the same thing.

Q: Many of our students would like to work independently in future, perhaps as hospitality consultants for example. What is important for them to know if they want to go in this professional direction?

JK: As a consultant, you are dealing with human beings; so you’ve got to be incredibly sociable and alert to the human dimension. You must be able to communicate on their level no matter what that level is. If they talk about football, then you talk about football. If it’s another topic, you talk about another topic. But basically, it’s an ability to adapt to all the different personalities. It is incredibly fun if you take it like that.

Also, you need to either do business development on your own or hire someone to do it; but what it really requires is networking. That’s all-important.

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Glion Institute of Higher Education
Glion Institute of Higher Education is a private Swiss institution offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hospitality, luxury and event management to an international student body across three campuses in Switzerland and London, UK.
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