The architecture of CRE big data

A new model shows the scope, complexity and connectivity of corporate real estate and facilities activity. Looking at the big picture could help to drive integration.

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By Richard Jordan and Susan Spiers

Work&Place Journal Issue 2 – February 2013 Pages 08-11

Tags: information management • real estate • facilities management

Every day, millions of people enter their workplace oblivious to the Herculean behind-the-scenes effort that has gone into ensuring that the workplace is able to support them. Their only interaction with the myriad of people, systems, and processes that make it all happen is the occasional service request, relocation, or renovation. Most workers don’t give a second thought to all that went into their workplace as they routinely go about their work.

They would be shocked to see the full scope of information management systems that corporate real estate and facilities deploys in order to provide a warm workplace in winter, a cool workplace in summer, a clean workplace every morning, and a workplace that supports the work they do day in and day out. They would be surprised to see the integration required of their organization to accomplish this feat. In a like manner, given the scope and complexity of the systems and processes, it is likely that few within corporate real estate and facilities (CRE&F) see the big picture and understand the complexity of what they are accomplishing on a daily basis. To help improve this understanding, RealComm developed a diagram; it made its debut November 12th 2012 at CoreTech in Chicago.

To see graphically the scope and scale of CRE&F functions and the processes, activities, systems and assets involved is a bit humbling. In many companies, CRE&F was transformed long ago from “the guys that make cold rooms warm” to a sophisticated organization managing the largest asset of the enterprise.

Does the diagram embody every organization’s model? Given the broad range of tools, talent, complexity, size, scale, and maturity of CRE&F organizations, the answer is “not exactly.” That said, here is what Howard Berger, managing partner of RealComm and the leader of the team of industry experts who developed the model, has to say about it:

“The diagram represents early thinking and is essentially a rough roadmap of potential opportunities for data and application interoperability in CRE enterprises. The possibilities are endless and I think IT will play an important role. The more that IT understands the business, especially the data relationships, the more fruitful the insights derived from the information mashups. Meanwhile, I think CRE needs to drive it and needs a vision, good data, solid processes, and the analytical tools to get the ball rolling.”

However, according to Brad Sill, Walmart International Real Estate’s director system & strategy, “This diagram actually does well represent many large corporate organizations like ours as real estate is not our core business but is a major component in our information supply chain. In many cases, we have found that real estate has the foundation information that many other parts of the organization use for master data in their parts of the organization.

One of the biggest opportunities for large corporations is figuring out the center circle of Consolidated Data / Analytics & Business Process Automation when dealing with the reality of diverse business areas with differing data models depicted on the chart. This is no small feat to accomplish but this is a very good diagram depicting the reality for many of us in the corporate real estate space.


I believe that the diagram advances our understanding of the corporate real estate and facilities space. It takes into account the systems we now see across our industry; the systems we own, leverage, link to, want or dream about during idle moments. It links them together in a manner that minimizes the physical connections and emphasizes the focus and function. It graphically highlights the interactions with the other corporate functions within the enterprise. And it accomplishes these things while rarely calling out a system per se, excepting the industry standard generic systems (CAFM, ERP, etc).

The diagram serves as a starting point for discussions within CRE&F about who we are and how we best serve the enterprise, and it should guide our stewardship of the assets under our management. Building an understanding of the full scope of what an organization does, and how it interacts with not only the rest of the corporate functions but with itself, should lead to a more integrated, focused, collaborative operation. It offers a path to the future, if not a definitive model. Lawrence Melton, Assistant Commissioner, Public Buildings Service, GSA, suggests that “while this diagram may not represent the facilities/real estate organizations of today, an ideal organization will provide these market offerings seamlessly in a future full service facilities management organization.”

A starting point

While the diagram may not be your model, there is great benefit in an analysis of the organization to gain clarity. The initial challenge is to understand fully where your functions reside, where the responsibility is, and whether the interactions and connections make sense given the unique parameters of your organization. To Howard’s point, the diagram is a rough starting point, but there is a great deal of truth to it. The organization in the diagram is logical and not encumbered by the usual politics and bias that has driven so many organizational designs.

The diagram may be accurate or it may need further development, but it should be used to drive the conversation about integration of all the functions, systems, activities, and data that currently exist within a CRE&F organization. Aligning the functions of the organization so that they work together and support each other with relevant, timely, actionable information has the potential to deliver huge gains without buying, configuring, and implementing yet another tool. Turning all the little bits of data that already exist within a CRE&F organization into a large pool of data that can be mined for insight is an opportunity that should not be overlooked.

Standardized processes

An underlying assumption of the model is that all the business processes supporting all the activities within the boxes are efficient, effective, and, to the extent they can be, globally standardized. It makes no sense to build, analyze, and take actions based on patterns and trends from non-standard processes. Further, if a process is standardized, then every attempt should be made to ensure that it is efficient and effective. While it might seem unreasonable to think that there are inefficient, ineffective, yet standardized processes, there are many examples. Using insights from this kind of data would have greatly reduced value. It could also have unintended consequences for the functions and processes that have interactions with, provide support for, or are dependent on the output. Making sure that your business processes are efficient, effective and standardized is a golden opportunity for a CRE&F organization, and should be prioritized above adding or abandoning tools. A current tool may actually be able to perform if the process was fixed, and a new tool will be less effective if the process it supports is defective. Garbage in, garbage out, only faster.

The bubble at the center of the diagram serves to highlight a critical set of activities, the breadth of their influence, and the scope of data sources that can be drawn from. For most organizations, the reality is that while there are systems, programs and processes in place (or planned) to carry out all the identified functions and activities of CRE&F, the likelihood that even some of them truly share and use data is low. Rarely is there any true consolidation and analysis of all the data available from all the various data gathering programs in place. Intuitively we know there should be, along with an effort to align the organization (and therefore, the organization’s focus and efforts), with the data.

Lawrence Melton, looking forward to the future state, notes that “we (Public Buildings Service, GSA) have seen the importance of organizational alignment with these programs, and while most see them as a support function of the real estate organization, we see them as part of the solution and market offering.”

Bottom line? The enormous scope and scale of consolidating the data, combined with the traditional separation of the functions, hinders the CRE&F organization from really leveraging this data to derive any significant benefit.

Integrated internal data

There was some discussion during CoreTech of the data within the CRE&F system being integrated, but at the same time isolated from all the other data available around it. The new workplace is connected, as is the workforce. Consider the massive amount of data that all of those devices employees are bringing into work and onto our networks could provide – who does what, where, and when. One of the components of what work “looks like” is the location of network activity – email, texts, phone calls, web access, etc. Imagine the incredible value of having a clear understanding of the work practice inside a building, the understanding it would provide about the resident population. Knowing this information within the workplace will go a long way toward informing the design of the space and the design of the networks that support that space.

External influences

CRE&F should know as much as possible about what goes on inside the building. Only when an organization reaches the point where they have all the internal data sources aligned, can truly informed decisions be made. Adding external data sets that time sync with the internal data sets would be even better. Imagine the insight from seeing the changes in building performance contrasted against external conditions! Not only the weather, but local demographic conditions – sports, parades, events – even seemingly unrelated things can have influence on what happens within a building.

When Apple releases a new model iPhone, imagine the impact on the buildings near their stores from the lines of people, changing traffic patterns, etc. Changes in building access and egress patterns, a lighter HVAC load due to “sick days” of employees getting the latest model, the impact on network security from all the people in line trying to access the network, etc. Events such as these have an impact on CRE&F, but there is an opportunity to understand, predict, and have a ready response. Having outside data included in the discussion would help show cause and effect rather than invent a root cause that may or may not have anything to do with the anomaly.

CRE&F data scientists

Turn your attention to the data consolidation function at the core. “The graphic reflects what we’re seeing in the industry, a strong movement towards a true enterprise operating model. This model requires an increased need for strong data governance & analytics that extends well beyond the traditional source system interfaces and mining a data warehouse.” Christina Dorfman head of global workplace technology strategy & architecture at Bank of America sees the opportunity that is present. CRE&F needs to redesign the function and organization at the center of the diagram. First, they should develop a mission that frees the CRE&F analysts from ongoing fire drills. Then, it’s time to turn the focus to the organization, starting with the role and function of the analyst – a typical entry point for CRE&F. The people who manage the function that serves both as air traffic control for all the data that this model seeks to gather, link, coordinate and centralize are also the source of potentially groundbreaking insight – and this function is staffed with the wrong set of individuals. The roles should be filled with “Data Scientists” along the lines of the definition put forward in the Harvard Business Review1. This is not a typical analyst, but someone trained in the science of data mining – looking at big data sets – to look for patterns and trends. This may well reduce or even eliminate the possibility of the person being from CRE&F.

Patterns & trends

When analyzing big sets of data to get an accurate picture of a situation, you look for patterns and trends. Why might we benefit from having a non-CRE&F person looking at CRE&F data? If the analyst already has an idea of what should be found, they may not see something else that truly is happening. Further, they may only look for patterns that are familiar, rather than atypical patterns that have not occurred in CRE&F. This bias may not be a conscious one, but it does exist. CRE&F can take a great leap forward if we leverage all of the data we have gathered to help us understand what the building is telling us, what the resident population’s behavior is telling us, and what our own behavior is telling us, in order to manage, support, and execute better.

Where to go from here

This diagram is a very good representation of CRE&F Information Management Systems (IMS) enterprise architecture. It can serve as a model and be highly effective. It can also serve as a starting point for an organization that wishes to develop an understanding of its own IMS architecture to better align and leverage what already exists, while at the same time assessing the IMS needs and priorities of the organization. It highlights both the need for and the importance of a centralized analytical function to manage all available data. The opportunity in the central bubble highlights a need for individuals who can truly understand and analyze big data sets and find the opportunities for improvement for CRE&F – the CRE&F Lab, staffed by data scientists. The scientists need good data, and good data comes from good processes, so part of building an effective architecture is aligning and standardizing CRE&F processes.

Once all of this is done, the next step is analyzing the CRE&F data set with other, external data sets to learn the influences that drive changes in CRE&F portfolio data. This diagram should open many discussions that lead CRE&F organizations to greater understanding, improved asset management, and enhanced productivity. The challenge to you is: What are you going to do with it? W&P

About the Authors

Richard Jordan and Susan Spiers

Richard Jordan is principal at Ebusiness Strategies. He consults on CRE business processes, transformation management and workforce mobility, and helps clients align business processes on a global scale through CRE best practices emphasising a cohesive technology strategy. His insight into CRE comes from over twenty years in the industry as an end user, managing portfolios, bringing locations online, and executing transformations on a global scale. Rich was formerly at Sun Microsystems, where he was tasked with the design, roll out, and management of Sun’s Global Innovators award- winning Alternative Workplace Strategy (iWork) program. He is a frequent guest speaker on technology, AWS, and social media. He is also active in the CoreNet Global Workplace Community and served as the Communications Team Leader. Susan is Leader, National Business Development (USA) for EBUSINESS STRATEGIES. The company works exclusively with corporate real estate and facilities organizations helping them to develop an enterprise-wide workplace strategy and roadmap, a workforce mobility strategy, operational and technology alignment and business process optimization. Susan is also Secretary of CoreNet Global Midwest Chapter.


1 H. Davenport and D.J. Patil. (October 2012) Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century, Harvard Business review.

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