Industry technology pros at the 2015 OPTECH Conference & Exposition highlighted one fact that is often forgotten: Technology is supposed to simplify our lives, but it has made IT more complicated.
Moderator Bob Lamb, vice president of information technology at Gables Residential, underscored this, saying, “The thing that seems to be forgotten as innovative solutions are added is that you still have to support what is already in place.”
As more companies enter the marketplace, they offer potential solutions to a host of apartment operations challenges. The panelists agreed that system integration is one of the biggest challenges.
“A number of vendors are talking about making it easier for platforms to integrate. I think companies are listening to the demand but it will take some time for true plug-and-play as the architectures are evolving,” said Mike Baldwin, vice president of information technology at UDR, Inc.
He noted that they are always looking for a single sign-on solution because “it’s harder to adopt new solutions without this.”
Rich Voinovich, vice president of information technology at Equity Residential, agreed, saying that “integration is a real challenge because everyone wants a new system to be rolled out immediately. It’s important to get the business to understand that it takes time for full integration of a new software.”
Another challenge is executive buy in. James Hamrick, vice president of information technology at Bell Partners, noted that “technology is not completely understood at the top. It’s helpful to have a priority system to stress the importance of certain needs, especially when it comes to infrastructure requirements.”
Baldwin agreed, adding that you “need to have frank conversations. Sometimes you need to show and tell by bringing in an old and a new PC and ask the C-suite which one they want.” He underscored the need for this dialogue as a way to “keep the top engaged in solving the problem.”
Lamb added that it helps to have “a constant conversation with the end user to find out what the needs are. To do this, Gables has focus groups, conference calls and ongoing discussions.” Hamrick added that Bell Partners has an IT steering committee so that business owners can present ideas and solutions.
As tech pros look to the next five years, they all agreed that moving to the cloud is the future. Hamrick said that he is now “figuring how I can buy products as managed services because a lot of systems are so complex that you would need a dedicated person to operate the system. This really changes the staffing model. Now we’re looking at having a cloud administrator and are focusing on system integration.”
Voinovich added, “We are looking at operating expense versus capital expense.” Hamrick said that “fee managers add another layer of complication because they use capital dollars. Bell Partners is trying to address this by spreading the cost across all properties.”
Responding to the increased demands to IT departments, an audience member asked if the pros if they had a recommended ratio of IT professionals to apartments. None of the panelists had a specific ratio. Instead, Lamb suggested taking a look at how long it takes for help desk tickets to be resolved. If there’s a trend where tickets take longer than half a day, then it’s time to evaluate resources.
“In thinking about how fast you are responding,” he said, “consider how long employees are not being productive because of the problem.” Lamb said he uses “the NMHC study of employees per unit when I need to make a business case. It can be helpful to see where you are on that spectrum and use it to justify an increase in capacity.”
When asked about the biggest resident- or property-based tech challenge, pros looked to advanced portal services. Hamrick pointed to package tracking, saying that “operations may not know the questions to ask,” so it’s important to keep tech experts involved in the process.
Smart-home technology provides opportunities for building operations systems, but much of it was designed for single-family homes. Incorporating this technology into a management system has to be done carefully. Lamb concurred, saying that “IT should be a sounding board because once a building is built, a retrofit is expensive.”
The tech experts were also cautiously optimistic about the use of wifi to resolve cell and data service issues within apartment communities and units. The solution presents problems including who pays for the coverage and how to provide data security for common area wifi.