Overcoming obstacles to technology

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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Jane Nelson is remarkably cheerful for someone who seems to spend much of her time negotiating  obstacle courses  designed to make her job impossible. As property IT consultant for KPMG, she has what could be a unique role in the industry, testing new software and offering independent advice on systems.  At times, it can be a frustrating - and even bruising - task.

 Frustration stems from  snail-like progress by software developers towards more user-friendly computers. And the odd bruise emerges after scaling obstacles  erected by other IT professionals. 'There has been an upsurge of interest by clients such as pension funds in making software more flexible and responsive,' she says. This stems from new demands on property, which is becoming more performance-driven. Software needs to be capable of producing - and communicating -  information to illustrate that performance.

 'Suppliers have been reluctant to make the investment necessary in  products to meet those needs,' she says. 'The market is crying out, for instance, for good Windows programs.'

  Despite claims from developers that some have already emerged, Nelson insists that nothing stable and fully-functional is being properly used - two years after she called for these new products. And she offers what could be a controversial reason for the delay. 'I wonder whether software developers were speaking to the right people,' she asks. If they had asked ordinary users, an enthusiasm would have emerged  for user-friendly, more efficient  tools. But she suspects they talked to IT departments, who have other fish to fry.

  There may be  reluctance to change established software because of the need for retooling and  retraining. This takes up valuable time and eats into budgets. Windows runs slowly - or not at  all -  on older, less-powerful machines. That can mean asking partners or directors for money only a few years after installing  existing machines - not a task taken lightly by a department heads.

  She says users know what they want: more efficient software where elements can be switched between one program and another to provide a more efficient method of analysis and reporting. 'It is up to IT departments to keep them informed on tools to do this.'  But sometimes they fail. For instance one software developer went directly to an individual surveyor who then ran its program on his own machine because he was dissatisfied with his IT department's service.

    'The most common problem I come across involves staff who do not know how to use the software they have been issued,' she says. The solution is to plan strategically and consult with  staff. Firms  should not look around the market at what others are doing then adopt, and adapt, the most popular systems. Nelson says it is important to decide in advance what is required from the  technology and then choose appropriate systems.

  'The best firms are those with steering groups composed of users from each area of business as well as IT department representative,' says Nelson. These groups also need strong links down into departments to ordinary workers.  This need for a strong strategic element reflects a damning report by Tim Dixon of the College of Estate Management last year, which pointed out how some sectors of the industry failed to consult with staff and make business plans to drive IT strategy. Training was a particular problem, especially in the public sector, he said.

  Nelson's insights come not from academic study but hard  experience. An accountant by training, she is no bean-counter making judgements from on high. She worked for Chartwell Land, setting up its computer systems before joining KPMG two years ago. That still left time to gain an end-user's view, as she took an MBA at the same time, specialising in valuation and development.

  Since then she has installed two new systems in property companies, advised a major retailer and pension fund last year and  has five current projects under way. On the software side, her small department aims to test every new package and has assessed  between 20 and 30 in the last four years. 'There are probably very few products we don't see, and we cover the rest of Europe as well as the UK,' she says.

  That has revealed some glaring gaps. The most obvious is  tardiness in developing Windows programs: 'But we have also been working for a over a year on the problem owners face monitoring services which have been outsourced to agents.'   Information ought to be compiled in spreadsheet form which  that owners can check without any further work. The reason this does not happen brings us full circle back to some IT departments, which concoct their own, overcomplicated methods of reporting, according to Nelson.

  This lack of a common language between clients and professionals is perhaps the major drag on the efficient implementation of technology in the property industry. Development of Windows-based programs with their flexible, cut-and-paste functions and interchangeable elements  could help leap this gap.   Nelson just wishes this had been realised a couple of years ago.