What I learned about business process optimization at Woodbine

It sounded like a great IT industry name, but I just couldn’t put my money down on “Redeploy,” one of horses competing at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto last week. Instead, I kept looking for one that might be called “Virtual Machine.”

I was there with my company, which had rented out a tent as part of an employee social event. There was a group of tables set up just outside the tent, which sat right on the edge of the track where all the action took place. Inside the tent was the food, a booth to make our bets, and a handful of monitors that gave us updates on race times and the latest odds. On each table was a collection of racing forms, which offered even more background about the individual horses and their past performance. As a mix of paper and electronic steps, Woodbine’s races seem like they’re crying out for business process optimization, but an afternoon there convinced me they’re probably best to leave it alone.

In any other kind of organization, you could see plenty of opportunity for increased digitization of the betting process, for example. People tended to flip through the racing forms, scan the monitors, make up their minds, line up to place their bets and occasionally change their minds while they were up there. Sometimes people at the front of the line took so long that those at the end didn’t have a chance to place their bets. Then, when the races were over, there was a mad dash as people flocked back to the monitors to see the full results, including not only the winner but who “placed” and “showed.”

With the right mix of hardware and software, a lot of these cumbersome and unnecessary steps could be eliminated. The monitors could be placed outdoors, just near where we stood to watch. Better yet would be handhelds distributed to the audience where they could see updates and place bets in real-time, without ever having to leave their place (this would require e-payments, but that wouldn’t be hard to do). The racing forms seem almost entirely redundant – the type of thing best served up on a Web page that could be accessed through the handheld, and hyper-linked to the day’s roster of competing horses.

And yet . . . I looked around at my coworkers. The reason this whole thing was fun (and it really was) came down to the level of interactivity and collaboration the process encouraged. They were talking as they looked through those racing forms, and the paper format got them to make their decision more slowly than they might have by clicking through a series of pages, like search results. They kept the conversation up while they stood in line, and they were really buzzing by the time they were rushing to see who won what, and how much.

Woodbine’s desired outcome of this process, of course, is to maximize the amounts the audience bets on each race. Automation would allow for greater throughput (and no doubt does in off-track or online wagering) but the social networking that took place last week far outweighed what you could replicate on Facebook or similar Web sites. The process as it stands today creates a community which is assisted by IT but is not necessarily driven by it. The people are the horses that pull the processes along, like a cart filled with IT equipment. You have to be careful which one you put in front of the other.

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