Silo syndrome holds back software

Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004


Electricity is wonderful stuff. Invisible, powerful,  essential to almost everything we do – and totally unintelligible to the layman. But do you really need to know about conduits, busbars, amps and ohms to switch on a light or cook a meal?  Technology breeds a similar cynicism. Users don’t care how it works, just whether it works. Anything else generates glazed looks and stifled yawns. The trouble is, they have far too limited a view on what that means.

  Consultants call it the silo syndrome. You dig a hole and concentrate on making it as comfortable as possible. Valuers hone number-crunching programs into ever more esoteric language. Designers disappear into a world of images indistinguishable from reality. Project managers boast they can track every nut, bolt and brick of a construction project. Yet few make any effort to interact.  That generates  ludicrous  situations such as asset managers rely on systems to organise responsibilities such as rent collecting and lease renewals while separate teams of  property managers use different programs that run the same premises.

   Outsiders cannot grasp, for instance,  how valuers can do their job without knowing how  buildings work. Surely they should be able to feed into their equations the age and condition of the air-conditioning?  Not under traditional leases, which abdicate responsibility for repairs and management to tenants. Nor where tenants care more about location than efficiency when negotiating rents.

   But times are changing. Occupiers are demanding more information on running costs. Investors are looking more closely at potential costs five, ten and 20 years down the line when they may have to replace equipment. Builders are realising they are decades behind other industries in the organisation of  dozens of specialists.    Emphasis is moving from individual ‘tools’ to the way the whole toolbox can  improve performance and that can only happen through closer integration. The specialists need to come out of their silos and communicate.

  Meanwhile, technology as a whole is being stripped of its mystery. Managers have overcome fear and ignorance of the new-fangled to realise that like electricity, it is just a tool for improving efficiency. The sea change can be seen in two major exhibitions being held in London next month. Building Performance was launched last year to reflect the demand for whole life costing. This time around it includes a spin-off called PropIT following a surprising number of inquiries last year about how technology can contribute to issues such as energy efficiency, partnering, security and facilities management. ‘These weren’t IT people but general managers,’ says Charlie Salter, managing director of Building Performance.

   A few weeks later that perennial highlight of the property technology world the Property Computer Show  will move into new territory under a new name, PC Expo. This reflects inclusion of a range of speakers and workshops geared to wider business issues. Again this is in response to feedback from users that see technology as part of management rather than some special zone for technicians. Some familiar names have a foot in both camps. Major software groups such as Raindrop and Circle are doubling up as they shift emphasis to demand for life-cycle costing. Extra modules covering such areas as  facilities management would create integrated suites ranging from valuation to maintaining the heating.

  The main message is not about add-ons, however, but viewing each program not as a stand-alone but a link in the building cycle stages:

Getting those talking the same language is a major task of joint PropIT sponsor  Pisces,  which has set the standard for exchange of electronic data between landlords, tenants and agents.  Reducing running costs and increasing value and productivity are key aims, says Pisces director general   Roger de Boehmler. British Land director Steven Spooner will speak on the firm’s experiences. The other main sponsor, Avanti, is also involved in integration. The government-backed group concentrates on the other end of the property spectrum,  promoting data sharing between groups at the design and build stage.

    New names will include equipment suppliers such as Cisco and HP. These global giants are making a concerted move to persuade developers and landlords that future value rests on advanced building  systems – which, of course, they can provide. Integration with designers and developers at an early stage mean these can be included in new buildings. Wireless networks built into the fabric will mean tenants can move into and around   premises without disrupting internet and internal office connections, giving landlords extra flexibility and the chance of a premium on rents or income from selling broadband services.

   But integration could produce massive extra savings by eliminating telephone and data networks altogether. Communications could be carried on existing building management networks by switching over to IP – shorthand for the protocol used for the internet.   IP will become the fourth utility after water, gas and electricity, says Salter. If that happens, technology could truly be said to have escaped its silo and become part of the mainstream of development.

PropIT runs from 6-7 October at London’s Olympia

PCS Expo is from 19-20 October at the Business Design Centre, London