Careful Technology Planning

In “Bits and Bytes of School Meal Management,” by Susan Davis Gryder (January 2014), School Nutrition magazine shares a “behind-the-screens” look at some of the challenges that tech providers face in meeting your school nutrition program needs. In addition to regulatory challenges, a need for more best-practice sharing (even among sites in a single district) and working with a district’s IT department, the vendors interviewed for this piece offer additional advice about the value of long- and short-term technology planning.

First, it’s an important reminder that you can’t simply throw new software or technology into an operation without planning for it and then expect a good outcome. Vendors want their customers to plan for the long game, with careful analysis of processes and a good understanding of what they want from their technology solutions two, three and even five years down the line. Janet Luc Griffin, a senior consultant with inTEAM, observes: “I’d like for our customers to understand that compliance isn’t a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing process, and people need to prepare for the long term.”

Of course, this preparation isn’t only on the foodservice side; Griffin says that it’s incumbent on the technology providers to also think about the long game—and to do so from the perspective of their customers. She points out that her company goes “through a process of testing new tools, and weighs the importance of [factors] on our implementation schedule. We look at the cost-benefit to our customer: what are their priorities, and what’s most meaningful to them.”

Griffin’s colleague Mary Jo Tuckwell, MPH, RD, technical director for consulting services, agrees, further stressing that school districts must take the time to plan and analyze their own processes and think through the long-term implications of making changes. “Even in smaller operations, which tend to be more nimble and respond more readily, there’s a process,” she observes. “It takes time to go from concept to reality.”

Horizon Software provides both back-office and front-of-house solutions for child nutrition programs, as well as products that support vending of reimbursable meals, temperature management and digital signage. Vice President of Marketing Amy Huff, SNS, encourages customers to give a lot of thought to the long-term planning that goes along with technology implementation. “School foodservice managers who make the investment in processes and technologies upfront can reduce costs in the long run. It’s hard to find the time to put new processes in place, but the challenge is getting districts to realize that, with a bit of investment, they can save money in the long haul and manage the business better.”

Shorter-term planning, on the part of both customer and vendor, also should be considered—and closely linked to the school calendar, says Mike Gorden, account manager, Harris School Solutions. “One of the challenges for us is that we have a lot of districts that go on break during the summer. Although [some staff] come back to work earlier than school starts, they have a lot to do. Often, they turn their computers on the day before school starts and have a ton of [software] updates from over the summer!” he laughs.

Indeed, he continues, “Our busiest time of year is back to school—the call volume is four to five times what it is at any other time of the year. We need our customers to follow certain steps to prepare for software updates. We understand that’s not the first priority on summer break, but when they come back, if they haven’t followed the steps, they call us and say something’s not working properly. But if they follow the steps we give them in June, this will facilitate the back-to-school process.”

Gorden points out that a high call volume, with numerous calls from multiple serving sites within a single district, isn’t beneficial to customers. “We wish [customers] would designate one person who’s in charge of calling in with problems, rather than many individuals calling for help. An inhouse point-of-contact—a POC—could answer 90% of questions, or call us for help. This would reduce the number of phone calls we receive and help us respond more quickly. We find that districts that are most successful typically have a designated POC.”

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