Hands-on computing

Judging from Oxford Properties Group Inc.’s property list alone, the firm is at the top of its game. It owns 30 million square feet of Canada’s prime office pads, including the Merrill Lynch Tower in Edmonton and Toronto’s Royal Bank Plaza. But even though this cursory glance at the portfolio suggests Oxford is a winner, tenants rated the company a loser in another respect.

Oxford asked its clients what they liked and what needed improvement. The company’s vice-president of customer service, Steve Smith, said tenants enjoyed certain amenities, but building maintenance services were not among them.

“The three areas of weakness were ease of contact, response time in dealing with (maintenance) requests, and resolving requests,” Smith said. “All this led us to believe that we needed to centralize our administration of work orders for the properties across the country – to be able to capture it in a system.”

Oxford devised a multi-faceted, high-tech solution. In April 2000 the company gave maintenance workers BlackBerry handheld computers. These palm-top wireless e-mail devices from Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) proved to be fine points of contact for the maintenance crew.

Now when a tenant requests a light bulb change or cleaning services, operators in Oxford’s call centre forward the request via e-mail to maintenance. Maintenance responds with messages like “REC” for “message received,” “ARI” for “arrived on the scene” and one of many “completed” codes.

Oxford also designed a system to capture and track those messages. Software customized by Burntsand Inc. takes the e-mails and updates a database automatically. If tenants want status reports, call centre staffers have the requisite information at hand.

The practice helped Oxford respond quickly to client requests for service. It also improved customers’ perception of the firm.

“At the end of the day, it’s not so much the colour of the marble or the granite in your lobby, it’s the communication between the property manager and the tenants,” Smith said.

Oxford’s experience, coupled with other examples, suggest handheld computers such as RIM’s BlackBerry have found a market sweet spot with enterprises. Users point to improved productivity and increased mobility as some of the benefits these portables afford.

“Our fellows here are independent contractors, but they’re also licensed sales people who rely on [handheld devices] when they’re on the road to assist them in their jobs,” said Wayne Bollman, general manager of Royal LePage in Winnipeg. “It’s their computer away from the computer.”

Others, however, remain skeptical of handheld computing. They say the technology is not ready for enterprise-wide deployments, citing security concerns, more work for the IT department and questionable return on investment as reasons to avoid it.

“Even though the handheld device seems to be making headway in the enterprise, I don’t think it has found a secure place yet,” said Warren Chaisatien, an industry analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto.

Depending on who you ask, these tiny computers are either just right for the enterprise, or some sort of IT pariah. Nonetheless, observers agree that Canadian corporations should consider seriously the technology’s pros and cons, lest they find themselves stationary in an increasingly mobile world.