Use technology to solve business problems, then audit the results to ensure you are getting what you need. This is the prescription of Scott Zimmerman, chief information officer MIS (CIO), CenterPoint Properties, Oakbrook, Ill.
In recent years, CenterPoint Properties has been lauded for its practical use of technology. In 2011, it placed 16th on the “InformationWeek 500,” a popular IT magazine’s annual ranking of the 500 most innovative users of business technology. Further, the company was named number one IT innovator in the Consulting and Business Services category by the same magazine. Not bad for a 120-person company with an eight-person IT department.
“CenterPoint has always had a philosophy to hire a few really good people and then outsource when bulk is needed,” explained Zimmerman. “Of the eight people in the department, two or three are dedicated to the help desk and three to developing new or integrating software. Almost everyone in the department has a Masters Degree in computer science.”
With little turnover in the department, its people are not only immersed in new technology and innovation but also in the commercial real estate business. “Our people are a great combination,” Zimmerman continued. “Besides having the IT skills, they also have the knowledge of our real estate business and can work closely with a developer or someone in leasing or accounting. They act as a business analyst/programmer to solve problems quickly.”
Zimmerman said that one element that makes CenterPoint different from many others is that it is heavily focused on business processes and then it audits those processes. Employee compensation is tied to successful audits.
“CenterPoint decided about 15 years ago that processes and IT systems are two sides of the same coin and put them under one roof, which is in my department as CIO,” explained Zimmerman. “We figure out how to make them more efficient, increase revenue, have better controls and then apply the right technology to leverage that even more,” he said.
Avoiding Garbage In, Garbage Out
Zimmerman offered a simple example of technology combined with business processes overseen with audits. “At a certain stage in buying or constructing a building, specific information about that building is put in the system, including such things as number of loading docks and number of parking spaces. If leasing, marketing or selling that building, the information is used to automate the creation of brochures and a website.”
But how do you know if the original information that was entered is accurate? The information is inputted by the dealmakers, according to the CIO, and re-used until the property is disposed of. To avoid the old “garbage in, garbage out” syndrome, an auditor will go out to the building and check all of the information. “If we’re told there are 200 parking spaces in the parking lot, we go out and physically count them. If the count is off by one or two parking spaces, perhaps the parking lot was restriped at some point. If the auditor comes back with only 132 parking spaces and there are supposed to be 200, we need to know that. Information on a project is right because of our reliance on process and systems. This has been a real competitive edge.”
What should a commercial real estate company do first to employ technology? “A critical initial step is to have the CIO report directly to the CEO of the company. Secondly, give that CIO a seat on the executive board. Real estate is still about relationships and location but in this hyper-competitive world, any edge you can gain is quite meaningful,” noted Zimmerman.
New App for the Field
In another example, Zimmerman said that CenterPoint has developed an app for the iPad, which was created to solve business issues. This app supplies both operations and development people with critical information in the field, allowing them to make a decision quickly rather than come back to the office and check that information on their desktop computer.
CenterPoint has spent much of its business life in and around Chicago but now it is expanding nationally. How will those people who met at the water cooler or in the hallway maintain that same closeness thousands of miles apart? According to Zimmerman, it is a big challenge but the company will use social networking to help close the gap. It is creating what amounts to an internal Twitter network. It will be an informal way for people to chat and keep up with what everyone is doing and to answer questions.
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