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Functionality, features and service are key to seamless data integration.

Years ago, real estate automation consisted of back office accounting systems that helped ensure the accuracy of a company's books and records. The accounting team typically operated in a vacuum, as many other departments did little, if anything, in terms of automation. However, as technology advanced, construction, leasing, acquisition and asset management personnel began to find-themselves utilizing independent software, products to satisfy their needs.

And with the promise of today's advanced technology, one would expect that real estate organizations should be able to seamlessly integrate data on an enterprise-wide basis, enabling users in all departments to leverage functions and share data. The technology has matured and now presents the tools needed to achieve this goal. Why, then, are even the largest industry players still inputting the same information over and over, jeopardizing data integrity while delivering the desired results with little elegance?

The excitement surrounding technology's evolution is intoxicating. However, it is important for the real estate community to recognize the flaw in the perception that these advances have yielded "simple" technology solutions. While operations most certainly can be streamlined by using the latest products, the task of achieving truly seamless integration is monumental in its complexity.

A company's information system typically includes several basic layers. At the core lies the management and accounting system, which handles all of the operating transactions and produces the enterprise's books and records. Database systems and Executive Information Systems (EIS) provide property management, financial modeling, lease valuation and other financial and nonfinancial data for querying and report writing. The basic network offers the medium for these systems to operate, as well as to facilitate document sharing, e-mail, spreadsheets and calendars. Finally, Wide Area Networking (WAN) and the Internet allow users throughout various regions to have access to all of these tools. In fact, while technology has traveled at a dizzying pace, it is the telecommunication/WAN area that has brought the greatest change in how enterprises can potentially operate.

In the past, quality varied dramatically among software products developed to run the various systems and networks. While the market has matured greatly during the past few years, with a number of stable software offerings now available, there still remains significant differences between products. The challenge lies in selecting the right products and bonding them together, a feat complicated by the fact that the real estate industry has no standards for electronic data exchange. As a result, tying information together often mirrors fitting square pegs into round holes.

To succeed in data integration, users must refocus on the strength of their core systems. Software functionality, features and service have been, and remain, the most important considerations. The language, the hardware and the operating platform should be secondary. In a world dominated by PCs and PC networks, accepting this reality, for many, requires an open mind. Yet above PC networks, there exists a broad class of machines that possess characteristics and strength that PCs are unlikely to ever achieve. Ultimately, the functional differences among software products are so great that the issues of platform and language should rarely be a factor.

Unfortunately, the fundamentals of software and service have taken a back seat, or at least a side seat, in the process of making Management Information Systems (MIS) decisions. As a result, many nationally distributed PC software products have been selected almost exclusively, and they often fall short of users' needs. While they provide a perception of "safety in numbers" and do function correctly, the users and/or their consultants are often unaware of their limitations. In many cases, users did not take the necessary time to get to know the products, or more importantly, the service associated with them. Perhaps the sheer existence of so many popular products leads users to assume that they all function similarly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes down to determining the functional effectiveness of any product, the only way to determine if an application will meet the needs of an organization is to get to know the product before its purchase. Users must be willing to discard the notion that they can tear the plastic off of a box, insert a disk and be up and running quickly. And while hours of demonstration might seem like the least attractive element of buying a system, it is the most important. Dedicated vendors will spend several days with potential clients to achieve a high comfort level.

Although the road to achieving seamless integration may seem daunting, it can be done with the assistance of the right team. The primary delivery point for service and problem solving has to rest with the strength of the selected vendors and their abilities to bond systems together. Unless every detail has been addressed, users are not going to be able to fit their square pegs into round holes.

Many real estate organizations have chosen to hire consultants to guide their technology decisions, and these firms can help to navigate the automation jungle. With this said, it is important for real estate professionals to trust their own judgements, too. Consider that no third-party consultant has ever gotten popular by telling clients how hard it will be to achieve their end goals. Further, consultants oftentimes find themselves in positions that present conflicts of interest, although not always apparent to all parties. On one hand, the best solutions the consultants can provide involve selecting attentive vendors that do not require their follow-up service. On the other hand, follow-up service represents a major revenue center in the consulting industry. Of course, this just illustrates that the quality and reputation of the consultant is as important as any other vendor in the process.

Technology will continue to change, and new developments will create exciting opportunities. And while the future of computing remains open-ended, there are no shortcuts in the road to an integrated IT enterprise. Property management professionals will be satisfied well into the coming years if they take the time now to choose the most functional products for their enterprises and invest the time and resources necessary to create the successful partnerships that produce truly seamless integration.

Robert Entin, President, Integrated Business Systems
COPYRIGHT 1999 Hagedorn Publication
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Entin, Robert
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 9, 1999
Words:1028
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