Technology Solutions

Upgrade IT

Companies should take steps to prepare for technology advancements.

Sooner or later every business needs to update, upgrade, or migrate its technology repertoire, but sometimes unexpected or external circumstances foist technology change upon companies almost without warning. With proper planning and acknowledgement that change is inevitable, business owners can keep their day-to-day operations on track while undergoing a major technology transformation.

Knowing what factors may trigger a technology change is an important part of effective planning. The commercial real estate industry was quick to adapt software and technology that made the overwhelming amount of real estate facts, figures, and variables easier to manage. Consequently, numerous commercial real estate software packages have proven track records and dedicated long-term users. This also means that many companies are running software that is more than 15 years old.

Time for Change
No matter how dedicated a company is to its software, routinely upgrading to a product’s current version is important. When newer versions of software are released, simple economics eventually force software providers to focus more on supporting the new versions and less on maintaining the older versions. Business owners should have candid conversations with their software providers about when to upgrade their systems.

In other instances, mergers and acquisitions can affect a business’s technology systems. If one company is acquired by another and each uses a different real estate management package, problems arise. If both companies stick to their separate platforms, the information technology resources needed to maintain the newly merged company’s systems will double. More importantly, different systems separate the newly combined staff on very practical levels. For example, it might lead to confusion about which system contains critical documents such as leases and contracts.

While it may seem as if there are enough headaches involved in the merger-and-acquisition process, it is best to migrate both companies to the same system immediately to streamline the business. Make a choice between the two platforms and begin the migration process. Interview both software providers to determine which one can offer the most help in data migrations. The amount of experience and help a vendor can offer during the migration phase should be a major factor in deciding with which software the merged company will go forward.

Outgrowing a System
As a business grows, its information technology system may not be able to keep up. For instance, perhaps an increased number of tenants has made monthly rental reports long and inscrutable. Or maybe a company is ready to begin producing virtual tours for its listings on its Web site, but its small Web-hosting provider cannot handle such an undertaking.

For many small to medium-sized commercial real estate companies, often it is not fiscally wise or even possible to buy ahead of the curve and bulk up information technology systems in anticipation of new business. However, just knowing that growth is inevitable can help companies prepare for it.

Setting up new IT systems or upgrading existing systems is the perfect time for companies to organize their processes, since it is likely they will be upgrading again in the future. Using clear naming conventions in digital filing systems, keeping process documentation up-to-date, and asking IT service providers about their growth plans are all good ideas.

Managing Software
When companies foresee the next big technology change looming, it’s time to ask for help. Changing an IT system causes disruptions, and companies must plan for the kind of help they might need to make everything run smoothly.

Since even the most scaled-down and straightforward real estate management software systems are internally complex, it is likely that companies will need external help when upgrading or migrating their systems. Usually only a software vendor is able to manage the specific details needed to make a move. This can include issues such as database structure and formatting issues. For example, is the property’s tenant data keyed off of a unique identifier in the database? Are there differences in how lease expiration dates are formatted? Can financial reporting categories be maintained? These are just a few of the myriad questions to consider.

Most commercial real estate software vendors offer consulting services for tasks such as data migrations. Be prepared to seek and budget for their help. Even if a company’s IT staff has the ability to perform the upgrade or migration without professional help, doing so may greatly lengthen the transition time.

Seeking Assistance
The best way for commercial real estate companies to obtain reliable referrals for an IT consultant is through networking with colleagues. The IT consultant should not only have strong technical abilities but also good interpersonal skills. Clear communication and reliable timetables are critical for successful technology transitions. When interviewing IT consultants, companies should insist on meeting with the actual staff members who work with clients rather than only sales managers. Working with IT consultants who are familiar with real estate business issues, terms, and software packages is ideal. This will save the time and effort of bringing them up to speed on specific needs. However, such multi-talented individuals are rare. For general IT projects, such as new office setup and messaging systems, these cross-skills may not be needed. Any assistance needed for key IT systems, such as a customer relationship management system, should be directed to real estate software vendors.

Monitoring the Process
After identifying a reliable IT consultant, company owners must remember that their business is intimately tied to their IT system. An IT consultant is not going to know these needs as well as a company’s owners and managers. It’s important to monitor the processes to ensure the business-critical aspects of the new technology are configured to the company’s needs and specifications.

Although outsourcing a technology upgrade to consultants alleviates many of the headaches involved in the process, business owners must plan to spend a great deal of time with them. A good IT consultant is clear about expectations — who does what, what they will not be doing, and what they cannot do without a company’s management team.

Commercial real estate professionals can’t avoid every pitfall associated with an IT migration. But it is possible to minimize the time, effort, and pain involved by knowing when to ask for help and who to consult on this type of major project.

Scott Dare

Scott Dare is director of information technology at Eisner & Lubin LLP, a New York-based public accounting and consulting firm. Contact him at (212) 829-3264 or sdare@eisnerlubin.com.

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