Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004
A lot is written about how technology can drive forward business. Much less is heard about how it can lead to disaster, even when you appear to have done all the right things. Take an average small firm, proud to have taken the plunge into computers back when email was still considered something only for geeks. By now, equipment is faltering and software collapsing under the weight of tweaks and add-ons cobbled together to handle new needs.
Disaster can strike out of the blue. It doesn’t have to be a virus or security breach, just too much strain on an ageing network. Few have an IT manager watching the danger signs, and support firms are more interested in selling hardware than solving probs .
Investment agent Martin Clarke decided it was time to call in specialists when the email system began to suffer. He is one of those veterans who still believes a letter is better than an email and a visit better than both. But he has never shied away from technology, boasting that he was using videoconferencing and voice recognition up to a decade ago. And foreign business is critical to the six-strong agency, so it could not afford to be cut off.
He took the opportunity for a complete revamp, including a wireless network and new software. ‘We knew we needed to upgrade but because our focus was on managing clients and because we are a small firm, we had not got around to doing anything,’ he says.
This is becoming a common problem among small property service firms flourishing in the private investment boom, says Xeno Andriopolous, managing director of IT support specialist Kinitron, which carried out the transformation. Good connections are vital to keep in touch with overseas investors and advisers spending more time away from the office. He says one of the most important pieces of new kit installed at Martin Clarke Associates was a combined fax/copier/printer. This not only saves space but can receive and forward email to any fax number. Anyone away from the office can email in an urgent fax outside office hours and does not have to worry about security or badgering hotel reception staff for messages.
Other changes included flat-screen PCs and ripping out cabling to provide a wireless network. This saved space and the wireless system also provides flexibility for moving people around the office. Presentations in meeting rooms need no wires or prior set-up. With careful planning and thanks to the wireless network, Kinitron was able to set-up a parallel new system so no PC was decommissioned until the replacement was installed, data and address books transferred and the user trained. Security was given a high priority. All data was scrubbed from the old PCs, which were then donated to a grateful local school. The wireless system was also configured to prevent intrusion from outsiders.
‘Anyone could buy a wireless card and set up their own system but it needs expertise and support to make it safe,’ says Andriopolous. You might expect a specialist to say this but support is as important as shiny new hardware for a small firm without the skills to handle a crisis. Technicians can access the system remotely and sort out 95% of problems without the need for a call-out. This cuts response times and costs. Staff can even be trained remotely.
Shiny new hardware is only part of the story, however. Support packages can include externally hosted email, website and backup services with full Internet security including firewalls, antivirus and antispam software. This provides increased email reliability with the capability for accessing it from anywhere in the world, plus the added benefit of a dramatic reduction in spam. Software is less straightforward. Most small firms have a limited budget and the temptation is make do with what they have. But this can destroy all the good work, as programs are often cobbled together, obsolete or just not powerful enough to cope.
Property firms have a special problem as they cover a more complex range of services than an average SME, ranging from complex financial analysis to co-ordinating dozens of agents or tracking mundane things like handling allocation of keys. ‘The first step is to look at programs that can be bought cheaply off the shelf,’ says Andriopolous. A management system can be integrated with accounts, linking data and pictures. Information is focussed on each property, providing all the information that may be needed for various tasks like marketing, management and investment analysis.
If all paperwork is scanned, information can be retrieved quickly via word searches but this does require discipline and all scans should be manually checked for spelling errors.
So what does it all cost? Andriopolous emphasises that not every firm goes for a complete makeover, so this varies widely. Size is also important as equipment costs per head fall where there are more staff. Around £500 per person is a good rule of thumb, rising according to more extras such as notebook computers – plus the monthly charge for service and support.
Clarke says the cost of technology is cheap compared with gains. ‘A good system also has psychological importance. It gives a go-ahead image to the client.’ Staff are also motivated. Kinitron says the main thing it noticed was that ‘a palpable feel-good factor’ had broken out in the firm.
The Internet was heralded as a bright new future, with property deals zapping across the ether and immense amounts of vital data available at the tough of a button. But many disgruntled new users have already gone back to what IT specialists deride as ‘snailmail’ – the humble postman.
Imagine the phone ringing every few seconds but the vast majority of calls are from crooks and pornography dealers. Every so often a call has the mysterious ability to spew toxic germs into the office – which you them pass on to clients, destroying years of goodwill. That is how ‘spam’ – the Pythonesque term for junk email – and viruses have brought the Internet close to collapse within a few years of general use. Specialists like Spamhaus estimate up to 70% of email is junk, and the burden is doubling every few months. This is on top of the continuing threat of hackers breaking in to vandalise or steal information.
So how can you resist this deluge? Build big walls heavily doused with disinfectant. King Sturge blocks around 17,000 spams and 50,000 viruses a month to its 17 offices. ‘It is an alarming statistic that 18% of our email is junk,’ says IT head David Morris. ‘And this is only what we block. No doubt a further number get through.’
That is despite a multi-stage defence which most smaller firms could not afford. Yet they can learn from the principles involved. For instance, all the 350,000-plus messages a month go through a single computer rather than to individual desktops. This acts as the main ‘firewall’ against hackers. Firewalls are now so cheap that every user – even home-based workers – should have one, particularly now that so many are permanently online through broadband connections.
King Sturge’s next line of defence is a machine running Esafe, combined spam filter and virus scanner program. There is also a server computer dedicated to web browsing. Finally, every desktop is loaded with anti-virus software. Again, this heavyweight approach has messages for smaller firms. Firstly, 90% of junk is repulsed at the first wall by simply rejecting any file with a tag such as .exe, .com, .scr or .pif. They tend to be the danger signs of a virus.
Any user can do the same, and IT support specialist Kinitron has another tip for smaller property clients. Drop your dangerous addresses. There are many, such as info@, server@, sales@, etc, which firms will never use but their email system collects automatically. Most spam and viruses now goes to random addresses such as jack@, jill@ and garbled names like xz34sjye@. Mail readers can be configured to only accept real users’ names.
Running ant-virus programs on every desktop at King Sturge might seem overkill but Morris says that entry walls can’t stop staff feeding infected files from floppies, CDs, notebooks. Portable pen-drives that plug directly into computers are a new threat. Nor can they stop people opening email attachments. ‘Worms’ which have brought the internet close to collapse come from seemingly harmless messages which secretly invade address books and send out thousands of similarly-infected attachments. Business relationships inevitably sour when these go to clients.
Messages appear kosher because senders’ names are forged or they have come to a private address users have foolishly used for public areas like mailing lists, which are constantly ‘harvested’ by spammers. Another major weakness is an understandable reluctance to get involved in the whole business. Most people have as little interest – or skill – running computers as they have in servicing their company cars. Yet they could easily hide behind other people’s walls.
Specialists such as Brightmail, Message Labs, Sophos and Norton Symantec can filter mail for around £2 per person per month. BlackSpider Technologies, which launched a new package this month combining several virus scanners as well as filtering spam, points out that installing and maintaining your own in-house email security instead can be costly and time-consuming. But the big names tend to deal with big clients with 50-plus staff. Smaller firms often make do by sending the geeky office junior to PC World for a copy of Norton or McAfee. They don’t realise that updates are vital when several new viruses are being propagated every day.
That means choosing corporate versions which install from the server onto every desktop in the office and auto-update themselves online. Getting in an IT support specialist to do this is no different to using a plumber or electrician rather than DIY.
Another weakness is to expect all threats to come via email. Direct links between computers known as peer-to-peer connections are potential breaches. So is browsing a dodgy web page during the lunch break which can silently sniff out sensitive data. That is why King Sturge funnels all browsing through a special server. Most IT managers believe the most important element of security is not the hardware or software but the ‘wetware’ – the people sitting in front of every screen. ‘Education is vital, particularly now so many are linked permanently through broadband,’ says Morris.
The rules are common sense:
One innocuous question can be the first sign that a lifetime of sweat and toil is about to come crashing around your ears. ‘Do you have a copy?’ asks the tax inspector. Two years previously a new client had appeared with a fat wallet waiting to be emptied. You took a copy of his passport, of course. The trouble is, no-one can find it and tough new rules on money laundering make no allowance for an incompetent filing clerk.
Nor does an incensed fund manager waiting for a copy of the lease on an office block subject to a tenant dispute. To make matters worse, that battle was sparked by mistakes in the way lease terms were written into the management schedule – which has also gone walkabout.
Inaccuracy and lost files have always been a short-cut to legal rows and loss of business but is now a potential step into the abyss. Tough EU rules on business compliance and money laundering, plus a post-Enron obsession with every email, invoice and phone record, means efficient management of information is vital for even the smallest business.
Take the routine task of instructing a lawyer, who then drafts a lease which in turn is fed into an management agreement - three stages when any number of things can go wrong. Paperwork proliferates and re-typing introduces mistakes. Files are lost, only to be discovered too late on the desk of someone who left or went sick.
Even computerised records are no use unless accurate and accessible but major progress is being made. PISCES, a common ‘language’ created to enable big landlords to feed information into the Investment Property Databank indices is blossoming as a more widespread tool which even small firms can afford.
Smart-DOCS, launched this month by property software specialist Real Decisions, <www.realdecisions.co.uk> uses PISCES to enable information from one document to be automatically transferred into another.
‘Imagine receiving electronic investment particulars for a shopping centre investment where the tenancy information needed for the appraisal is already available in standard PISCES format, ready for immediate transfer into an appraisal package. Instead of spending hours re-typing information into systems, or worse, spreadsheets, the analysis can be conducted within minutes,’ says Real Decisions co-founder Viviane Morris.
Other names like Capsoft and Business Integrity are also developing PISCES but the impact is bound to be limited until more users adopt the data protocol. Real Decisions says it is trying to speed that by concentrating on Word documents and extending to Excel spreadsheets, which are the most widely used applications in real estate.
Accuracy is no use, however, if information goes astray. ‘Since Enron, businesses of all sizes are under an obligation to show they are in control of all their processes,’ says Chris Lees, chief executive of software specialist Calvis <www.calvis.com>.
New EU rules have formalised this responsibility. For instance, managers must be able to show how they are meeting service level agreements – which can be hard if the agreement terms have been lost or never communicated to the people at the coalface.
New working methods are also bringing pressure on filing systems. Firms are breaking down department walls and organising new kinds of team working. That involves access to a wide range of information.
Despite all the promises of the paperless office, much of this is still recorded on dead trees. Leases, for instance, sit in filing cabinets and copying 80-page documents would be a massive task, so when one is pulled, no-one else has access.
Document management software is rapidly becoming as necessary as basic word processing and accounts to handle this burden. It absorbs and organises just about anything that goes in and out of the business, ranging from leases to accounts and email.
One weakness rapidly being discovered about working via the internet is that many email programs do not provide for long-term storage of messages. Those that do may not be much good at searching and filing, says Lees. Yet regulatory bodies and many performance-based contracts demand a complete audit ‘trail’ so users find themselves saving everything, including trivia and garbage, and running out of storage.
Document management systems integrate and sort information and make it accessible on screen. Hummingbird has just upgraded its Enterprise Suite and added a few bells and whistles by .enabling access through a hand-led or Smart Phone. Users – and clients - can link into property databases, leases and contracts while away from the office.
This presupposes that files are not still on paper and scattered around desks, filing cabinets and even different countries. All paper needs to be scanned as it comes into the office – something many property firms are now doing as a matter of course.
But one warning. IT support specialist Kinitron warns never to let through scans without proofreading, as word searches are useless if names have been mis-spelled by the optical character reader software.
But that should be no burden as an OCR like ScanSoft’s OmniPage Pro <www.ScanSoft.com> can now convert printed text, PDF, Word and Excel files with remarkable accuracy. And at a little over £400 it is well within tight budgets.
In fact, Lees says complete document management systems can be set up for only around £100-£300 per user. At this level the system is likely to be read-only. But that would be enough for anyone facing disaster for the sake of tracking down something as innocuous as a passport scan.
It is hard to keep track of changes in property software. That is not because the pace is so frenetic: in fact the exact opposite makes it hard to remain focussed. Movement can be glacially slow. Program writers are as keen as colleagues in other sectors to move onwards and upwards. But property is such a tiny market that publishers can’t spend millions developing The Next Big Thing.
Surveyors are also notoriously slow on the uptake. Again, this is not always their fault, as many are just too busy to research new techniques. Ironically, that may be because they are bogged down working with old and inefficient software. Most change is incremental, says management guru Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting. Property software is very limited compared with tools for sectors like facilities management. ‘It’s known as the T-syndrome,’ he says. The downstroke is where a program good in depth in one area. The topstroke is the thin layer where it tries to do lots of other things – often not very well.
This thin line comes from customers constantly asking for more functions. ‘Software is responding to the market rather than looking for bold new products,’ says Waller. During the dot.com boom these tended to come from big groups with large resources, such as Jones Lang LaSalle’s hugely successful Capital Markets Exchange [CMX] transaction platform. Smaller firms are now generating the excitement with cheaper off-the-shelf products.
‘There are now many good solutions which save time and money, and are not linked to expensive systems,’ says Waller. He picks out smart-DOCS <www.realdecisions.com>, which uses the PISCES system to speed transfer of real estate information. Another is eHouse, which manages property particulars on-line and produces both web brochures and printed brochures much faster. <www.ehouse.co.uk>.
One big name also gets high ratings. Trace <www.tracegroup.com>has long been a favourite among managing agents for its TRAMPS software but has now decided to break into investment. ‘This is looking outside the box,’ says Waller – which is apt, as the program is called BlueBox.
Trace saw a gap in the market for investors to use an in-house system to track assets, provide information for asset management and generate forecasts for strategic investment management. ‘We decided to offer a dedicated package rather than pursue one size fits all,’ says the firm. Industrial specialist Ashtenne has placed ‘a significant order’ while ING Real Estate and Larrik Property are interested, says Trace chief executive Richard Wolfe.
Meanwhile, old favourites like Estateman quietly mature like old wine, adding a little more flavour every year. Two decades after Stephen Bolton launched the property management program he has added a new report wizard and health and safety information. Some feared Estateman would whither since Bolton joined forces with Wealth Management Software <www.wms-plc.com>, which is heavily promoting LISA. But he assures the 500-plus users that his old faithful will continue to be developed.
LISA, which is aimed mainly at larger groups, is also being upgraded this year with an integrated helpdesk and web-based contact management. This attempts to meet the long-demanded need to tie together all the players in every transaction such as client, consultant and manager, says Bolton. Each decision automatically generates an email to keep others in touch.
Another big name, Circle, <www.circlesoftware.com> has been concentrating on expanding into the lucrative US market but says this will feed back into advances on this side of the Atlantic through upgrades later this year. First-hand knowledge of real estate investment trusts is being acquired just at the time they are spreading to Europe. The aim is to make the software more accessible for small investors and capable of processing and analysing assets of any size, says sales and marketing manager Claudia Wieninger.
Crossover has also brought business centre specialist RJmetis <www.rjmetis.com> into the scope of property companies. Traditional management software cannot cope with the increasing demands for services from tenants, says the firm. It is developing a branded intranet to provide this scope and earn extra income for landlords through advertisers.
Raindrop has responded to demands for integrated solutions from managing agents and occupiers with a new version of Manhattan <wwwmanhattansoftware.com>. Major enhancements to accounting, for example, cover sales ledger, purchase ledger, tenant ledger, service charges, client statements and bank accounts. Manhattan can be used via Raindrop’s web-based application service provision (ASP).
Landmark, <www.landmarkinfo.co.uk> the market leader in property search information, is offering higher detail to its 13,000 Promap users through Ordnance Survey’s new MasterMap technology. But it has also re-jigged charging so users pay only for what they need, says Landmark Property MD Richard Pawlyn.
But perhaps the most significant launch this year is neither a breakthrough nor property specific. Microsoft <www.microsoft.co.uk>is often criticised for making incremental changes and then charging high prices. Yet every small business should consider moving to the appropriate version of Office 2003, which includes programs like Word, Excel, Outlook and Power Point.
New extras and improvements such as contact sharing and document ‘locking’ are geared to the increasing importance of team work. Security is also improved - a critical factor overlooked by businesses running obsolete operating systems.
Many have welcomed news that support for Windows 98 and ME has been extended to the end of next year but automated security ‘fixes’ have not. New management software will also demand the latest Microsoft versions.
Smartnav: You’re lost and late. Smoothing a fuming client’s feathers will mean missing that special dinner your wife has been planning. To top it all, there’s a nasty clunk coming from the engine. You press a button and a nice lady promises to send profuse apologies to the client, flowers to your spouse and warns a 24-hour rescue service to stand by. Cars now offer navigation systems that would have once been limited to James Bond movies but market leader Trafficmaster has gone several steps further with the ultimate gizmo for road warriors. A satellite-guided central computer spots traffic jams immediately and changes the running commentary. Maps are also kept up to date rather than relying on periodic CDs through the post. A backup live connection to a concierge service can also prevent a crisis spiralling into disaster as you get lost another dozen times while juggling with a mobile phone. Trafficmaster also claim it costs less than the £1500 for similar systems. The equipment is around £580 plus £150 installation and an annual £120 subscription. Extras include speed limit warning and stolen vehicle tracking for another £14/month.
Logitech io Pen: The paperless office is still a dream for most businesses. You can switch to email and scan every page that comes in the post but what about those hasty notes of phone conversations and over drinks in the corridor or pub? As regulations tighten about saving every scrap of information, Logitech has made a fair first stab at the problem. The io digital pen scans while you scribble and then dumps the notes into a PC. Special software will even translate it into type that others can read. The pen requires paper with hidden dots for the scanner to read but this is easily available and little more expensive than conventional notebooks. There are even Post-it notes. It might seem pricey at around £150 [plus extra for the software] but the io is the equivalent of a hand-held notetaker rather than just a humble Biro.
Olympus W-10 Visual Voice Recorder: Digital voice recorders are becoming a must-have for site visits. Chat into the pocket-sized gizmo then download the notes into a computer back in the office as a sound file which can be typed up as a report. But pictures tell a thousand words, so surveyors and valuers rarely venture out nowadays without a digital camera. Add a mobile phone and a PDA and pockets begin stretching to breaking point. Olympus have come to the rescue with a slim little recorder which also manages to pack in a camera. Up to three hours of soundbites and 250 pictures can be downloaded through the USB port common on all modern computers and arranged in folders to avoid searching around to match them up. Prices are around £100.
Xda II: It won’t be long before mobile phones can make a fine cup of cappuccino. In the meantime, manufacturers are cramming in a vast range of more businesslike functions that are blurring the boundary between pocket computer and humble message carrier. O2 seems to have completed the merger with its new version of the Xda, a Windows pocket PC and mobile handset. This includes internet browsing, multi-media messaging, colour games, Bluetooth for connections to headsets and PCs and tri-band phone capability for use across the world. It also manages to cram in a digital camera. Price around £350 with 12-month contract.
Brother MFC 8820DN: With rents taking a big chunk out of office budgets, combining functions is not limited to mobile technology. Copying, faxing and printing are now being handled by single machines which save space and provide a gateway to the true paperless office. Versions by Brother has been supplied to several property firms by IT support specialists Kinitron because it links to networks rather than a single desktop and is cheaper to run than rival inkjets, with copying at less than 10p a page. Extra benefits come from scanning paper into Word files, saving more rent on filing cabinets. This kind of system can also enable faxes to be forwarded as email – or vice versa when out of the office and a client demands a fax. Kinitron fits these for under £1,000 plus around £25 for each linked PC.
Keyring Wonders: Carrying around information has became a whole lot easier with the spread of tiny devices that plug straight into PCs and act as hard drives. Why tote a notebook when you can store enough on a keyring to do the job? Crucial aptly call theirs the Gizmo (about £25 for 128MB version). Another use is locking away private information. The Saint (about £30) will hold private files accessible only via the user or trusted colleagues. Other keyring candidates are the Mo-Go NK33, a power source which overcomes that embarrassing moment when your mobile phone runs out of juice (about £2). The Mo-Go SIM Card Backup (about £10) stores all those important numbers that vanish with lost or stolen mobiles. Available from most online gadget sites.