The required skill and competency set for hospitality students is a highly discussed topic among academics. This is not surprising given the goal of any hospitality program: to prepare students for careers in hotel and restaurant environments, and give them insight that will enable them to hit the ground running in a new position. In the information technology segment, however, there is debate in academic circles regarding the best way to prepare prospective hospitality IT professionals.
Some academics argue that operational IT is something that needs to be learned on the job as opposed to in a classroom setting. The basis for this argument is that hospitality operators will each have an IT system that is unique to their organization. Learning only one vendor's system in a classroom does not prepare students for when they have to use a different system.
The opposing view, and the one to which I subscribe, argues that operational and strategic IT should be taught in an integrated fashion. Even though companies may use different systems, the core of these systems is still the same. When you teach someone how to drive a car using a Honda, and that person later drives a Toyota, yes, some of the details will differ, such as the placement of controls and switches on the dash or steering column. However, the main driving skills apply no matter what model or make of car you are driving. Teaching operational technology is similar.
Skills Survey: Need More IT
To understand if teaching operational and strategic IT at the hospitality school level is important or not, researchers* surveyed about 150 hotel managers, asking them to rate the importance of 35 operational and strategic IT skills, as well as rate the performance of their recent hospitality school graduate hires in those skills. Hotel managers rated these as the top five most important IT skills: ability to use spreadsheet programs (i.e. Microsoft Excel); ability to use e-mail systems (i.e. Outlook Express, Thunderbird); ability to use word processing programs (i.e. Microsoft Word); ability to present data in an efficient manner; and ability to analyze numerical data with computers (i.e. SPSS, Excel). Standard communication and financial analysis skills, it appears, come first. Drilling deeper, the next five most important IT skills are predominantly in the operational IT arena: point of sale systems (i.e. Micros), use of presentation programs (i.e. Microsoft PowerPoint), property management systems (i.e. Fidelio, FOSSE), participate in virtual meetings (ie. Webinars, teleconference), and central reservation systems (i.e. MARSHA, OnQ, Holidex).
When we compare the skill importance ratings against the performance scores of recent graduates, we see that there is a significant gap. While hotel managers highly rank the importance of those IT skills, the performance of recent college graduates does not measure up. The results indicate that academics need to do a better job of integrating those skills sets in every course that they teach. If a student is taking a food and beverage management course, they need to learn about different POS, back office, and inventory/cost control systems. In a lodging management course, it follows that students need to be exposed to at least one property management and central reservation system. Since the most important skills are communication and financial analysis-based, these need to be integrated in multiple courses over the course of a four-year education. If those skills are covered in one IT class, it will not be enough, as the results indicated.
One of the biggest challenges in teaching operational hospitality IT is in finding a real system that can be used in an academic setting. In the traditional client-server model, it is costly to maintain a real hospitality system. The solution to this dilemma seems to be in Web-based systems that don't require an additional technology infrastructure. We see more and more Web-based applications in the market today. I encourage vendors to allow hospitality schools to use their systems. This will not only help to train future hospitality professionals, but it will also help vendors in their long-term marketing efforts.
* Researchers: Cihan Cobanoglu, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee; University of Central Florida: Anil Bilgihan, Fevzi Okumus; Katerina Berezina: Oklahoma State University.