Technology Solutions

Automate Your Business With an Internet-Based Information System

For years the commercial real estate industry has relied on archaic business systems to generate revenues. Traditionally, transaction-related information is duplicated on paper and filed in multiple locations. But today's more sophisticated clients demand greater speed and accountability from their brokers, forcing companies to re-evaluate their information management systems.

Automated information processing can help commercial real estate companies increase client satisfaction and profitability. Automation is different from technology; while technology is simply the tools and the software, automation is the organized business processes that encourage efficiency.

Obstacles to EfficiencyReal estate companies that primarily rely on traditional mail, fax, and filing systems may be losing money, even if they have the most talented brokers in their markets. Although many companies already heavily rely on computers, their systems often aren't connected, which decreases the speed at which information can be accessed. Retyping a client's contact information numerous times and cutting and pasting data into multiple programs is not efficient; yet many real estate companies still operate this way.

Internet-Based Systems to the RescueThe World Wide Web makes it possible to access transaction data from anywhere in the world through Internet-based information systems. Companies can use these systems to track all business procedures, from contact management to transaction management. Internet-based systems consolidate information from many different databases, so data only has to be entered once. Then users can access data from any computer via the Internet and a password. In the long run, centralized systems cost less to implement and maintain.

Getting StartedTwo companies leading the charge in developing enterprise applications in the commercial real estate industry are REApplications and Oracle. But to build a solid Internet-based information system, the vendor must have a thorough understanding of your business.

The first thing a company must understand is that the nature of an information system is strategic, not tactical. It requires active participation by the company's owners and managers, which often results in a cultural shift in a company's identity.

Implementing an Internet-based information system includes creation of an automation task force, needs analysis, budget creation, vendor evaluation, system selection, beta implementation, full implementation, and training.

In some cases, the existing hardware platform may suffice. However, with the increased computing needs, a company's system may require more memory, power, and bandwidth. Depending on the application, additional software may be required, such as Microsoft IIS, SQL, and other Web services products.

The best option for small companies may be for the software vendor to host the program, as it usually has the hardware, communication infrastructure, and staff to support the system more cost-effectively. A good systems company should have a protocol and experienced staff for converting data, which is a complicated and timely task.

Once the system is in place, users need only an Internet browser to access the information from anywhere. Naturally, this dictates installing protective security. A good system has multiple levels of security limiting access by clearance level. Depending on clearance, some users may be able to view information but not edit it.

Data is much easier to manage and secure, since it is located on one central server. A good firewall and internal software security should keep out intruders. However, company employees historically are the biggest offenders in security breaches.

The second aspect of security is backup. This is by far one of the most critical elements of any automation program, as one crashed disk can destroy years of data. The technology is now in place where it is easy and relatively inexpensive to back up data on a nightly basis. In the event a company chooses to go with a vendor-supported system, all elements of security including backup will be managed by the vendor.

Sample ApplicationsTo better understand the benefits of integrated platforms, take a look at two specific applications.

Commission Payments. When flowcharted, this seemingly simple task looks like a disorganized disaster for many brokerage companies. The process usually involves several peoples' approvals, entry into multiple systems, and many hours of data entry. The process is exacerbated when multiple regional or national offices are involved.

However, automated systems streamline the process. For example, when a transaction is completed, the broker completes a form on the Web, which calculates commission, allows for broker verification, and also asks for some additional information regarding the deal. Once submitted, the commission owed then appears on the appropriate manager's screen for approval. He reviews financial and other information and then submits it for payment. At this point the information shows up on the status report of the person in charge of payables. In the most advanced systems, the commission is sent through electronic funds transfer directly from one bank to another.

Expense Allocation. Integrated systems also help companies assess if their deals are making or losing money by generating transaction identification numbers for all deals. After entering the basic information into the system, the ID number tracks each instance of time and money spent from listing to closing. Company management can use this information to track business development and eventually to understand the profitability of every deal. Additionally, companies can track transactions that never make it to the deal stage to find out where they waste valuable resources and time.

The Future of Integrated SystemsInternet-based platforms are the future of all information management systems. The goals of integrated systems are quite simple: to flatten business processes, reduce traditional costs of processing information, and turn data into information. Automated systems enhance efficiency, increase client satisfaction, and improve bottom line profitability. Embracing them is critical to staying at the forefront of the commercial real estate industry.

Jim Young

Jim Young is founder of the Jamesan Group, a real estate technology service company in Carlsbad, Calif.; CEO of REApplications, an application service provider; and co-producer of te Realcomm conference. Contact him at (760) 729-4312 or jyoung@tjg.com.

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