Oiling the wheels of real estate technology

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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The screen goes blank. A curse, a hefty thump, another curse and a scramble for the internal phone directory. The disembodied voice is clear, concise and career-saving. A few keyboard jabs and the figures start to scroll again.That is probably the closest many come to meeting the mechanics who oil the gears running their professional lives. But who are they? And what do they do all day?

Computers are taking over the property industry yet the masters of the silver screens remain vague and anonymous. 'They look so normal,' said one bemused outsider who strayed off the lift on the wrong floor into the IT dcepartment one day. Perhaps he was expecting to see the beardy, bedenimed nerds, high on pizza and Pepsi, who pop up in TV documentaries about wizards driving forward the boundaries of technology.

Deja-vu. A decade ago, an agency whizzkid made the same wide-eyed remark over lunch after being called into a mysterious new department where letting statistics scrolling across flickering screens. Today, he goes nowhere without a portable with as much computing power as he saw that day in the whole room. Certainly there is not a beard nor pair of scruffy jeans to be seen in Mike Burnup's sanctum on the sixth floor of Jones Lang Wootton's headquarters overlooking London's Hanover Square. Yet he has been driving through a technological revolution which has put an office in a notebook and brought the most obsessive technophobes into the computer age.

'It all started back in the late Seventies when JLW were among the first firms to install a mainframe computer,' he says. The agency whizz would not have seen much change, as dumb terminals were concentrated in deskbound departments which used the firm's databases most, or on the desks of secretaries and administrators. Progression since then has moved in chapters. The second came about 10 years later when a new generation of mainframe and a lot more terminals were brought in, adding new departments to the network.

And all this time the IT department was doing pretty much was it still does today: providing those soothing voices at the end of a phone and writing the software which made all this machinery work. Unlike today's PCs, there were few ready-made software packages. None of the IT people are property specialists so, like today, they sat down with users and worked out what was required. 'We have always been driven by the need to solve business problems with technology rather than vice-versa,' says Burnup.

Valuers, for instance, took their time deciding what they needed from the technology, such as big monitors with as much information as possible on the screen. By the time that had been achieved, a new phase of technology had emerged, bringing in a UNIX computer running relational databases. 'That meant we could start developing systems for other departments in UNIX, which is cheaper and more efficient than the mainframe.'

Finally came the layman's idea of the computer - PCs. Again it was not just the advent of new technology which determined what technology to use. Desktops had been scattered around areas like the research department for some time. But the software was still too primitive to handle demands at that time for services such as internal electronic mail and word-processing. So this chapter involved a mid-range UNIX computer running Office Power, an ICL package.

A couple of years later the real PC takeover began, culminating in an invasion of around 400 new desktops over the last 12 months. This time it was driven by demands for better presentation of material. Surveyors wanted to be able to produce user-friendly presentations of their analysis. Clients wanted the data to be compatible with their own - usually PC-based - systems. As in so many firms, it internal administration systems have led the changes. Secretaries and other administrators provide the interface with outsiders and the Office Power system could not handle their demands.

The mainframe still purrs away in the basement, feeding data into networks not just in the Hanover Square but two other London offices as well as those abroad. But it will be phased out over the next 18 months as the firm makes a final switch to a client/server system. 'You don't make changes like this in a Big Bang. They come gradually,' says Burnup. Each department has its own network. These are now in turn being linked to the main backbone so all will be able to talk to each other.

JLW is following the Microsoft highway 'because most of our clients use it'. Burnup's 24-strong department has been testing Windows 95 and NT for six months and found it fast and stable, so these 32-bit systems are likely to be phased in over the next year or two. Again, changes will take place by department, as and when each one's applications demand. 'The bulk of the software we use is our own, because we had to write this for the mainframes,' he says. But now they are working with a supplier to customise packages for use on the PC - although he insists this does not preclude working with other software houses.

This interest in client needs has encouraged a more fundamental step. 'We are doing a lot more external work nowadays,' says Burnup. This involves IT consultancy which goes beyond the normal provision of reports in compatible format. The department will also provide data that clients can analyse and manipulate for themselves.

JLW is also developing systems such as property management, customised for individual customers. This is seen as a saleable service in its own right rather than a bolt-on to existing reports. 'It is a big growth area because property departments are increasingly outsourcing services, leaving themselves with less IT expertise,' says Burnup. The move away from solely support-based operations for JLW staff is changing the whole culture. 'We are now being looked at as a profit source rather than a cost centre. And we have to go out and sell ourselves.' Who could do that in denims?

Keeping in touch is critical

Connectivity is the main buzzword in the technology world nowadays. It is also a driving force behind JLW's computerisation. One advantage of PCs is the ability to link machines - and their users - through networks. These stretch outside the Hanover Square building not only to other UK offices but into Europe. Plans are in hand to put in ISDN links this year so data can be link moved seamlessly around this wide network. A dial-up connection is also being set up with New York.

A European IT group has been working for the last 18 months to standardise the set up in each office, making mail and data movement as simple as internal transfers. Every staff member now has an e-mail address, with Internet connections through the department's 'firewall' UNIX computer.

Connection with clients - actual and potential - obviously looms large, and Burnup's department is busy constructing a suite of Web pages to replace experimental ones on the Reading University Department of Land Management server which list the firm's various locations and give a digest of research.

But this has spun off a surprising bonus. The same software has been used to create an intranet - an internal communication system. For the moment, it is a way of storing information like the daily news bulletin and staff lists. But Burnup sees a much wider role. 'There is a reservoir of information within the firm which staff can access. Our next step will be to provide access to the databases, and possibly the library.'

One crucial advantage of the hypertext-based system is that it is both easy for non-technical users and runs on any time of computer through the same program. Burnup is currently using Mosaic (which, unlike Netscape is free) but is also testing Microsoft Explorer.

Another benefit is the seamless connection with the Internet. Users comfortable with this internal network are enticed easily into the wider world.