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

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

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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