If knowledge is king in the highly competitive business of commercial real estate, then the sales force at J.J. Barnicke Limited are privileged members of the court, with easy access to a wealth of information literally at their fingertips.
It wasn’t always that way. A few short years ago the J.J. Barnicke sales team, when taking to the road, had roughly the same access to information as, say, the average university freshman – about as much as could be crammed into a briefcase.
But when interactive pagers hit the market a few years ago things began to change, thanks in part to far-seeing IT leadership.
“Very early on we saw great opportunities in mobility and pioneered a lot of attempts at using mobile devices in a conventional mode – a mode for simply e-mail use,” recalled Mario Kovacevic, Vice President, Information Technology and E-Business. “We looked at the competitive products at the time and developed a very quick affinity for the turnkey business effectiveness of those devices.”
Like many other companies in those early days, J.J. Barnicke had quick buy-in of wireless devices at the top tier of the organization. The trick was to leverage that senior level buy-in to push the technology down through the organization. Fortunately J.J. Barnicke’s early adopters had the vision to recognize this.
The company’s most senior executives wanted to arm all of the firm’s employees in the field – the sales team, the research staff, and various mobile subgroups – with comprehensive upto- the-minute information on properties that could be relayed in real time. It was a vision that could only be realized slowly, in lockstep with the required advancements in technology. But as Kovacevic noted, the company has now executed “well past that challenge”.
The life of a road warrior
Early attempts at pushing the technology down to the sales force had modest success. Every month there would be new users, and sales staff gradually made the transition from just having a mobile phone to also having an integrated data and voice device.
“We had this wonderful transition occurring,” said Kovacevic. “We’d put together appropriate programs and upgrade packages internally, and as soon as we had some kind of critical mass, we asked ourselves, What other kind of gains can we achieve from mobility?”
As mobile solutions took hold, they began to have a significant impact on the success of the real estate agent in the field. In the past, when agents showed their client a building, they relied on information contained in a booklet. If a building across the street tweaked the client’s interest, the agent was unable to provide information on it, other than what he or she might personally recall about it.
“What we tried to do early on was give people the tools to very quickly answer those client questions,” explained Kovacevic.
The initial approach was a simple one: use a small form-factor device that people were already comfortable with (the RIM BlackBerry), provide communications access through a single carrier, and create simple applications for the device and push them out gradually to a large user community.
This approach gave research staff the necessary tools to update data on properties in real time – for example, they could record that rental rates on a building had dropped by $3 per square foot from the previous day. And this in turn impacted every other group in the organization – in particular, the sales team.
The results were immediate. “All of a sudden, our agents were able to answer those client questions very intelligently, and quickly, on the fly,” said Kovacevic.
The ongoing need for speed
One of the keys to J.J. Barnicke’s success with mobility lay in its careful approach to rolling out new capabilities. Users loved their BlackBerries and were comfortable with the way they received their e-mail. They liked how quickly they could open messages and attachments. Kovacevic realized that it was important to maintain this level of comfort.
That meant resisting the temptation to push out big data stores to users, such as building photos and various types of supplementary information. Doing so would mean users would have to endure unacceptable wait times of several minutes.
“We were using a successful device and we had to deliver to users’ expectations of it,” he noted. “That’s a challenge in and of itself, and it’s where you really have to get acquainted with what’s happening in the whole networking space. What are the realities that are here today versus what’s coming tomorrow, and how are those realities going to dictate how we use our limited resources to push applications to this device?”
Even as recently as two years ago, J.J. Barnicke continued to deploy clientbased applications on the BlackBerry that mimicked the e-mail experience so that users could do very quick queries. Data was stored locally on the device for quick and easy reference, and users could go through the familiar process of getting a bit of the message and then asking for more information.
“You mimic the success you’ve had with the native device – you leverage that experience in favour of what you’re trying to promote,” said Kovacevic.
What J.J. Barnicke wanted to promote was access to more data. That was one of the biggest hurdles the company faced when dealing with the mobile user.
Kovacevic pointed out that when users talk about their experiences with other types of mobile technology, they always preface their remarks by saying ‘… but I have to connect’.
“We got away from all those ‘but’ issues by keeping the experience consistent, providing users flexibility so they could store information locally on the device if they needed to, and keeping that level of support high,” he said. “People saw this and thought it was great. They didn’t see the speed levels go down every time they accessed an application. We always had to be very conscious to preserve that level of performance and deploy to that expectation.”
Changes in the networking space
For J.J. Barnicke, success in the area of mobility has come in the form of a tiered set of events. New processes are introduced, those processes receive great acceptance and create opportunites for excellent user feedback. And this has translated into outstanding user commentary on future adaptations that people would like to see.
Kovacevic and the IT department facilitated this continuum, all the while staying aware of what was happening in the real mobility space – what was happening with CDMA, Mobitex, GSM/GPRS networks, what was happening with network speeds that might all of a sudden change things for the company.
Before the arrival of high-speed wireless networks, J.J. Barnicke had to develop client applications to give users the necessary speed at the device. With the increased speeds now obtainable in the field, this step was no longer necessary. The company could develop its conventional applications, then make a browser or a mobile version available, and immediately deploy it safely and quickly on its mobile devices.
“3G EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) Service was the starting point where we began to rethink how we were deploying, and it also brought down the costs of deployment,” said Kovacevic. “But EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) Network Service has really revolutionized things for us.”
Why? Because it provided DSL grade speeds to the company’s mobile users, whether those users were looking at their BlackBerry or whether they chose to tether it to their notebook to provide clients with a full screen view of maps, aerials, GIS profiles and more, all courtesy of these new networks.
“We’re continually doing that environmental assessment around what’s going on in the industry. How do we continue to nurture the seed that was started many years ago, and grow it?” said Kovacevic. “We continue to see great and interesting opportunities. Now our user community is sending the challenge back at us. They’re saying, ‘This is the situation I find myself in. It would be great to have a mobile solution for that’.”
Need for alignment with carriers
Although J.J. Barnicke is a mediumsized company in Canada, it is an important adopter of mobile solutions in its vertical space.
“Never mind the size of our organization, we’re very substantial in terms of actual total numbers,” said Kovacevic. “In this particular vertical, we’re very large and very serious. Our adoption rate for mobile solutions is higher than any other single technology we’ve ever deployed. So we’ve got some serious numbers to represent back to the carriers.”
In spite of this, Kovacevic says it’s been difficult to get alignment with the carriers. Part of J.J. Barnicke’s strategic advantage is the fact that they are much more nimble than some of the large multinationals in the commercial real estate space. And part of that nimbleness is its ability to quickly leverage technology opportunities.
According to Kovacevic, sometimes the carriers don’t provide the support needed to really drive this kind of success.
“The telcos are professing to us that their single largest area of profit growth is in wireless data,” he said. “I interpret that to mean that they’re going to devote more energy and resources to the task of lining their services up with our business demands.”
As yet, however, he believes the telcos have not had an opportunity to fully integrate their traditional landbased service delivery model to the wireless space. For example, he noted that telco sales representatives working in wireless may have to service up to ten times as many customers as their land-based .counterparts.
“I know that’s an unfortunate reality we face,” he said.
But he added, “I see a collision of good things happening, where the carriers say, ‘We need to devote as much energy on the wireless data side as we focussed on the traditional land-based side of things.’ The DSL grade speeds that are coming to market in wireless will make people rethink how they run their business and their IT operations. So there is a serious belief that some time soon their thinking on this topic is going to change. And therefore, the relationship that we have with them should improve. That’s my anticipation.”
Kovacevic noted that J.J. Barnicke’s device manufacturer, Research In Motion of Waterloo, Ont, has been responsible for overcoming many of the issues in the carrier space.
“Their vision and their push through the carriers is incredibly meaningful to our success,” he said. “Where we might look to a carrier to deliver some services, we actually look to RIM to provide the expertise. They’re able to provide the engineering capabilities to answer questions about the ‘application’, which has been a very interesting experience.”
Naturally, as J.J. Barnicke increased access to information for its mobile workforce, the issue of security took on increasing importance. According to Kovacevic, RIM also made a huge difference in this area.
“With the adoption of that particular manufacturer’s device, methods, technologies, and processes, we effectively put in place an absolutely acceptable security model, simply by adopting that approach. For us that was meaningful because we wouldn’t have had the staff to devote to a long security study on how we would have to modify the conventional security we had in place.”
As J.J. Barnicke looked to deploy other types of data streamed through the device, the security issue was always dealt with in the generic release of that product. This allowed J.J. Barnicke to focus on the business-critical elements without having to be concerned at the security layer.
“It was an excellent situation for us. If we had been forced to deal with this issue independently, it would have hindered us dramatically, setting us back months or years,” said Kovacevic.
“To this day, the “out-of-the-box” resolution to security is probably the single biggest fundamental principle you’ll hear touted from any IT professional when they talk about adoption of BlackBerry,” he added. “They’ll say ‘It’s turnkey for me. It’s turnkey from every angle that I attempt to slice it’.”
Naturally, training is also a big part of the company’s success with mobile technology. As Kovacevic noted, “We take training very, very seriously.
The company wanted to ensure that its internal constituents had a good view of everything being deployed that was strategic to the business.
“We went through years of training efforts, where we spent one-on-one time with users. We also had online training modules going,” said Kovacevic. “We were adamantly attempting to demonstrate to our constituents how those tools get used.”
That happened slowly, he admitted. “We have bright people working here, but they’re incredibly busy so it’s quite difficult to nail those people down and provide training to them,” he said.
“But truth be told,” he added, “if you don’t provide a tool that is easily interpretable by the user, you face an incredibly uphill path. So, out of the gate, BlackBerry provides that simple-to-understand framework and encourages quick adoption. Compared to conventional technology tools there is almost no training involved.”
It wasn’t until tier three, when there was heavy adoption in the mobile space, that a trainer was employed to show people the connection between what they do on a desktop and what they can do in mobile mode. This eventually became an easy component of the training, and one that the company continues to push forward today.
Looking forward a year or two into the future, Kovacevic believes strongly that when we think of wireless mobility, we’re going to think well outside the Wi-Fi, Wi-Max context.
“We’re going to think about the kind of feature function set you now enjoy while sitting at the office, tethered to your corporate network. This same service will be available in a well advanced cellular-type network, accessible to you while you’re sitting outside on the patio with your notebook,” he said. “So, all of a sudden, I see a wonderful expansion of form factors that are available for the same type of network services.”
For J.J. Barnicke, this means deploying to remote users anything that would be conventionally deployed to the company’s desktop users. This includes portal applications, as well as businessto- business type services.
“We’d like to give people ultimate flexibility in choosing what they want to use, whether it’s a notebook in a client’s boardroom or it’s their BlackBerry while touring with a client on the road. We want to give them that wonderful rich experience that they’re used to, literally sitting at home or even at their desk in many cases,” said Kovacevic. “That I see as a reality a year and half to two years from now. Between now and then is a kind of grey zone in which you must ask yourself, ‘How big a leap do I make knowing that these advances are coming?’”
He adds that it is now very important to make sure your mobile strategy aligns with whatever you’re doing in your conventional desktop space. “We know it’s coming, so we have an opportunity to plan accordingly.”
The key success factor
On reflecting on J.J. Barnicke’s success in the mobile space, Kovacevic underscores the key factor that made it possible: time.
“Much as everyone wants this to be a turnkey overnight success story, the reality is that you must have the fundamental belief by users that this thing is going to provide a meaningful difference to their business,” he said. “You have to layer services on slowly. Don’t overcomplicate people’s experiences. Give them time to adapt and adopt to this, and then you can load it up with more features and functions and derive greater value.”
J.J. Barnicke’s mobile workforce is now able to access roughly 90% of the most important data sets they need to get to from the field – with ease and in a format they’re familiar with. As a result, usage rates continue to rise at a very healthy rate. A good news story all around.
–David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is editor of CIO Canada.