Internet-Based Information Systems Improve Company Efficiency
By Jim Young |
In the last 10 years, personal computers and PC networks have wreaked havoc on centralized, structured information management systems. Instead of being organized into specific databases, company information often is scattered in various software programs such as Act!, Access, and Excel. While these programs empower employees to use computers in their own environment without relying on an information technology staff, they also may fragment the organization.
Today, commercial real estate companies are discovering more-organized information and improved efficiency through Internet use. Another benefit of the Internet is that companies are connected internally as well as externally with other organizations.
One of the newest Internet technologies designed to organize company databases is integrated, Internet-based, business information systems, which are starting to be implemented, particulary at Fortune 500 and other large companies. The goal of these systems is to provide comprehensive data warehousing delivered with extreme efficiency. This means that, in correctly designed systems, information only needs to be entered once, regardless of whether it is a contact or a property record.
The Building Blocks
Internet-based systems integrate three main sources of company information: the Internet, intranet, and extranet.
As most everyone knows, the Internet holds the public area of a company Web site that anyone can access. It should contain marketing information, general company information, service offerings, contact data, and relevant market information.
In contrast, only company personnel are allowed to access an intranet, which is the private area of a company Web site. Numerous applications are found in this area, including contact management programs, company calendars, company rosters, commission management programs, and listing management programs.
Finally, the extranet is a private area of a company Web site that clients, outside contractors, and business affiliates can access. Extranets often are password-protected and also may have other hardware- and software-based security systems. This area should contain information that the company feels is appropriate to share with its outside contacts, such as company rosters and project management cabinets, which are central places to share files or other information relating to a particular project.
Along with offering access to the Internet, intranet, and extranet, Internet-based systems also provide access to the multiple applications that a company may use; all components are one system but are accessed differently by different people.
How It Works
While contact management programs are popular industry tools (see “Staying Connected,” CIRE , May/June 2001), the future is poised to incorporate more information in one place. For instance, overlay programs exist now for contact programs that allow some property data integration with contact management information. But because they are add-ons, some systems could work better if all of the components were part of the philosophy from the beginning.
A good information management system should integrate all company databases, as well as assimilate into the company's Web site. In other words, an employee should be able to access all information relevant to a transaction, even if he is not in the office.
It is relatively easy to make Internet-based systems accessible to multiple people, in various offices worldwide. This means that armed with a browser and a reasonably fast Internet connection, company personnel can access a centralized, well-organized, comprehensive company database from anywhere.
Updating information in the database also is easy. For example, if a client's address changes, only one person has to input the new information and the entire database is updated automatically. Likewise, if someone has a meeting with the client, notes from that conversation can be posted immediately. To most organizations, this is a massive change and improvement in company communications.
Traditional brokerage firms quickly are realizing the inherent benefits of having the entire organization on the same page. It is more efficient, more effective, and ultimately gets better responses from clients.
However, users should understand that these types of programs rely solely on the Internet, so sites always must be up and site problems will affect usage.
In the near future, commercial real estate companies will be required to completely streamline their operations to compete effectively in today's fast-paced market. While most commercial real estate companies still lag behind large corporations, they likely will be pressed to adopt new systems in the next 12 to 18 months.
Well-thought-out and well-designed business systems are likely to replace accounting spreadsheets in Excel, property data in Access, and other databases in PowerPoint, Word, and Act! or other software — and remedy everyone having to maintain and update their own separate databases.
Imagine taking a listing and having a client sign the agreement using a form on the Web. This form automatically would order the sales or leasing signage, post the appropriate data to three listing portals, cross-reference the data against three comparables databases, place the advertisement in regional and national newspapers, and automatically open the right project-management template. At the end of the transaction, the commission automatically would be calculated from information already in the system, and the appropriate funds would be transferred electronically to the bank accounts of all transaction participants.
While it's not reality just yet, this scenario in some ways is extreme, but in other ways very realistic. Companies such as SAP and Salesforce.com offer products on a larger scale. But the commercial real estate industry is taking notice. Some commercial brokerage companies have embarked on designing customized systems, and some companies are beginning to offer these types of systems to the commercial real estate market. And more are likely to follow.