By Susan Davis Gryder 2013-12-24 23:10:36
TODAY’S SCHOOL NUTRITION PROGRAMS rely heavily on technology to manage their complex operational, nutritional, administrative and regulatory requirements. Software designed specifically for school foodservice can help track participation, manage payments from parents, collect reimbursement information so districts receive appropriate federal and state funds, ensure compliance with government requirements, control inventory and much more. If you are a school nutrition technology user, you know its value in making your job easier and more efficient. But do you know what goes on behind the scenes to ensure that the technology you choose becomes a useful part of your operation? Most technology providers work very hard to ensure their customers’ experiences with their products and services are smooth and worry free, so they rarely lift the curtain to reveal the day-to-day challenges they face. Still, the best vendor-customer relationships are those in which the challenges confronting both parties are understood and appreciated. To provide behind-the-scenes context for technology users, School Nutrition spoke with several top technology vendors about the challenges they face as they work to provide school nutrition operators with the most comprehensive and easy-to-use products to meet the challenges you face. Here’s what they’d like you to know: Federal Changes in School Menu Requirements Put Pressure on Technology Companies, Too Over the course of the last two to three years, school nutrition directors and their teams have devoted many, many hours to prepping their menus and operations to meet new nutritional standards for breakfast, lunch and competitive foods. It might not be apparent to you that technology providers must do the same, on an even shorter timeline, to ensure the complex changes to the requirements are reflected in their software. “So many people were really caught off guard by the impact that the menu changes had on foodservice operations,” says Mary Jo Tuckwell, MPH, RD, who serves as technical director for consulting services at technology and consulting provider inTEAM Associates. “When you change a menu pattern like that, so many other pieces of the system also change: procurement, the skill set staff needs to deliver the menu, food costs, etc.” But have you given much thought to the development and testing process that’s needed whenever software undergoes big changes, particularly under deadline? Gabe Aiello is director of product and business development for PCS Revenue Control Systems, whose software PCS Nutrition on the Web (PCS-NOW) provides an integrated suite of technology products designed for K-12 school nutrition programs. Aiello points out that technology companies, like most successful businesses, work hard to hide their particular challenges and struggles from their customers: “One of the things school nutrition directors may not understand—in part because we don’t want to sound like we are making excuses—is that, just as they have been challenged by all of the regulatory changes in the last few years, these have been a real challenge for us, as well.” He explains that it’s only after the final rule has been published, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) starts writing the new specifications for the software developers. “As with any big projects, there are often delays, which mean that new software has to be developed even faster,” Aiello notes. There’s no flexibility in the school calendar, so “new, approved software still has to be ready for districts to train their staff and roll out before school startup in August/ September.” Then, there are complications when USDA offers changing guidance, such as with the (still temporary at press time) waiver on the grains/proteins maximums. While customers might prefer that software vendors make modifications to reflect such interim changes, this “is not practical,” explains Aiello, “as it would trigger the resubmission of the software to USDA for approval, which can take months.” Instead, software companies are advised by USDA to wait for the final rule and new specifications. “Regulatory changes challenge a company’s ability to respond to individual customer requests. New features, customizations and general improvements to the software can be delayed, as delivering the new, approved software becomes the top priority,” says Aiello. Mike Gorden, account manager for Harris School Solutions, agrees: “One of the challenges for any organization is the ever-changing” regulations. In addition to the tight timelines, Gorden finds that getting the most up-to-date information about the regulations can be difficult. As many School Nutrition readers have discovered, there can be varying interpretations of new regulations. “So, finding the exact resource to get it right the first time can be difficult,” explains Gorden. Harris’ school nutrition products include eTrition, EZMealApp and EZSchoolPay. Beyond the regulatory challenges, because technology supports so many areas of school foodservice, Tuckwell stresses that any changes in the operation can mean big changes to the software that keeps things running smoothly. For inTEAM, with its focus on menu development, this means never losing sight of the fact that changing menus can have unintended consequences down the line. “Your menu drives your operation,” Tuckwell cautions. “When you start with a menu that’s [simply] compliant, you may not meet other operational targets.” Adoption of Best Practices Leads to Successful Operations That Benefit Most From Technology Technology providers know that operational best practices can help school meal programs remain efficient and apply technology to its fullest potential. They also see many situations where school nutrition departments sabotage themselves by not standardizing procedures and processes district-wide. As Tuckwell puts it: “I want to encourage directors and operators to adopt processes that reflect best practices and standardize them…if a district does something 10 different ways in 10 different elementary schools, they may not realize how much this challenges their ability to run a successful operation.” Tuckwell believes software can be an integral part of the process of determining and implementing best practices throughout the school nutrition operation. “Automation forces the discipline. When a new technology comes in, this is often the point when operators start asking questions about items and recipes, begin certifying menus and find that they need to get a consensus among all their schools,” she explains, adding, “It may be the first time they really know data on key performance measurements on a month-to-month basis, and can identify waste, production issues, instances where people don’t follow recipes, etc.” Aiello emphasizes that, while software makes implementing best practices easier, that doesn’t mean the software itself is simple to develop: “Our technology systems are every bit as complex as your foodservice business, because we essentially re-engineer your whole business process into our software. Think about all the departments and people you have, all the things they do and the information flow they require—that’s all in the software! It’s our job to streamline all that, make it efficient and give our clients options so it’s not cookie-cutter.” The benefits to using technology to support best practices are clear to the technology vendors who spoke to SN. “Using best practices, particularly in back-of-the-house functionality, leads to good control of inventory and production and can save 5 to 15%, on average, in food costs every year, by reducing things like waste and theft,” points out Amy Huff, SNS, vice president of marketing, Horizon Software, which provides both back-office and front-of-house solutions for child nutrition programs. Partho Sarkar, vice president of client services for Harris School Solutions, is enthusiastic about the prospect of his customers sharing their ideas and success stories with one another. “In an ideal world, we’d like to bring all of the users groups together, and have a network of peer school districts to see what’s working or not working,” in the application of the company’s tech programs, he notes. “The group would be able to share best practices and areas of opportunity.” Time and Tech March On Foodservice software vendors face a special challenge: working with the existing technical systems, hardware and servers of their K-12 segment customers and interfacing with a district’s Information Technology (IT) department—or, in some cases, the lack of an IT department!—and other student account software. Huff points out that IT resources vary greatly from district to district. “Larger districts generally have more resources in the foodservice office itself, and with [operations] that have their own IT staff, it’s often a lot easier to get things done,” she notes. But “If the school foodservice office shares IT resources with the rest of the district, foodservice is often a lower priority.” In an ideal world, Huff would like the district-level IT staff to understand the unique computer needs of a school nutrition operation—especially when it comes to getting reimbursements, avoiding fines and, most important, getting kids fed. It’s also challenging to install the latest software and get it working smoothly on “ancient” school system hardware. Districts need to prepare themselves for upgrades and ensure that they have the hardware requirements to run systems effectively, says Sarkar. “There comes a time where older technology or software is going to have an impact. Sometimes districts go out and purchase hardware and PCs without our knowledge, but it’s better for them to communicate with us, to make sure that all specs are met and new equipment purchases are adequate to work with the software.” But vendors want customers to recognize that many of the challenges they faced when adopting technologies as recently as a decade ago don’t exist today. Gabe Aiello recalls the days when systems integration was a big challenge, but emphasizes that today’s technology allows school foodservice customers more flexibility to choose the best option for each segment of their operations. “We would like our customers to know that systems can integrate with each other much more efficiently than they used to, so they don’t have to be afraid of having different solutions that can talk to each other,” he notes. “After all, isn’t it better to have the best solution for each area than to have one that’s mediocre at everything?” Newer web-based technologies have made the process of upgrading and staying up to date much easier. Still, Mary Jo Tuckwell asserts that those districts who adopted technology the earliest may have the most difficult time moving to web-based services. “A number of districts made sizeable investments in technology that was cutting edge in the 1990s and early 2000s,” she reports. “Moving to web-based is hard and expensive when you’ve already made a major investment in servers, etc.!” Nonetheless, Tuckwell advises, “Districts need to start thinking about making that transition, and must build computer upgrades into their operational budgets on a regular basis, say every five years.” The Tough Economy Creates Challenges for Technology Vendors, Too Tough economic times have presented many challenges for school nutrition providers, and no one has come out unscathed. Technology providers also must do more with less and provide more value at less cost. Says Aiello, “A lot of our customers went through a significant reduction in staff during the financial crisis. We had customers who lost half their staff due to district-wide cuts; the fact that foodservice is self-sustaining didn’t make any difference. This meant a lot of loss of knowledge and experience regarding our programs— how to run them properly and how to maintain them. So one challenge we’ve had is how to help retrain [school nutrition] staff and make it easier for new staff to get on board quickly, understand the programs, and maintain them properly.” Aiello says PCS has had to make its training more robust and accessible, through web offerings and videos. Another result of using untrained people, says Aiello, is that users aren’t aware of features of the program that could help them control food costs, predict usage and forecast menus better. “Worst-case scenario,” he points out, “people might not be knowledgeable about something that might affect their claim for reimbursable meals or their ability to meet the nutrition standards.” Vendors acknowledge that getting and keeping customers has become more difficult with ever-tightening budgets. Huff observes, “What we’ve seen the past couple of years is so much pressure for foodservice to do everything at the lowest cost. … It’s harder and harder to get districts to see the return on investment that they get from technology that goes above and beyond the procurement requirements.” Beware of Great Expectations Despite the tough economy, school nutrition customers naturally want a great product. But what does that really mean, when it comes to software? “It would be really nice if your customers understood that if the software does 80% of what they want, that’s terrific,” comments Aiello. “Expecting it to be 100%—software just doesn’t work that way. Economies of scale mean that we put a tremendous amount of development effort into programs, but if we [need to] do a lot of custom work for every district, it’s harder for everyone.” Aiello believes that a customer’s expectations can be influenced by many factors, both within and outside the school nutrition operation. “With larger districts, it’s not so much a question of foodservice functionality, but of integration with other systems within the district, such as a warehouse system, a financial system or something else that’s important to the superintendent,” he explains. In his experience, smaller districts often have the highest—or most unrealistic— expectations of how a new software program will mirror existing systems. “Directors in larger districts are probably aware that there are limitations, if they’ve worked with lots of different software,” Aiello notes. “In a smaller district, there might be the expectation that the software should 100% mirror what they were doing. A director might have been using a spreadsheet, and they want the software to work the [same] way. But when they finally use the [new] system and see what it can do, they like it.” Make It a Partnership Running through all these comments is a common thread: technology providers want to be partners with their K-12 school nutrition clients. They believe passionately in the value of the services they provide: more efficient operations and a more user-friendly experience for school nutrition providers, families and students. They are depending on their customers to work with them to make that partnership a reality. Now that you have a better understanding of their challenges, you have the opportunity, the next time you talk to your technology vendor’s representative, to ask: What can we do together to improve this school meal operation and others around the country? Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Illustration by iStockphoto.com. BONUS WEB CONTENT To access reflections from software vendors on the value of long- and short-term planning for successful technology integration, visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent.
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