Trammell Crow Co. leaves little doubt about its view of technology. It describes its proprietary web-based platform as its “central nervous system.”

It’s called ELITE–short for software that enables its Entrepreneurs to Leverage Information, Technology and Expertise. The Dallas-based commercial real estate firm, an independently operated subsidiary of CB Richard Ellis Group, uses ELITE to process about $10 billion in active acquisition and development projects. asked Jim Groch, the company’s West Conshohocken, PA-based chief investment officer and president of funds and investment management, to discuss the platform and its impact on the company. What were your primary objectives for ELITE?

Groch: Our objectives were:

  • To leverage the productivity of our entrepreneurs and the people who support them.
  • To facilitate transparency and risk management.
  • To better serve our clients. What exactly does ELITE do?

Groch: ELITE integrates the functions and capabilities of our people with our projects and associated data. Integrated capabilities include:

  • project budgeting, cost tracking, contract management, and draw processing (1,500 assets)
  • project document and photo management (17,000 documents)
  • Investment Committee review and processing
  • project/company-wide forecasting (earnings & cash flow)
  • company-wide tracking of project status
  • standardized cost categories
  • automated report subscription
  • integration with Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint
  • marketing and research tools
  • online training
  • LEED certification tracking
  • a variety of embedded tools, processes, and best practices
  • CRM (customer resource management) currently under development

Trammel Crow calls ELITE its central nervous system. Why did Trammel Crow develop the product? Was there a specific need you were addressing or were you simply looking for increased organization of data, convenience or some other benefit?

Groch: Trammell Crow Co. was determined to utilize technology to:

  1. Leverage the productivity of our people by applying technology in a way that would be embraced by entrepreneurs who are accustomed to a “job shop” type of environment.
  2. Facilitate Transparency & Risk Management by enabling automated real-time reporting and decision analytics.
  3. Better Serve Our Clients by delivering consistent, high quality reporting, and extracting value out of comparative data for projects around the country. Was it developed in-house or from a third-party provider?

Groch: We needed a platform that met the objectives I’ve outlined above. We began with a focus on effectively meeting and integrating the wide range of day-to-day needs of our people. We looked hard, but could not find an application that met our needs, so we developed ELITE in-house. It has been an intensive effort over the last four years, and the result has been a deep and intuitive platform. Our employees have come to rely on ELITE. Can you tell me about the development process, including the time it took from conception to implementation?

Groch: After reviewing applications available in the marketplace, and having experienced the difficulty of gaining adoption of new applications within our industry, we knew this project required a different approach. We began by creating a vision of what we believed would meet our objectives. We hired a recent college graduate, Matt Hartman, with a degree in Cognitive Sciences to provide a full-time, dedicated focus on actively designing, testing and constantly adapting prototype modules.

Developing an application requires an endless number of trade-offs at every turn. This was not a design-by-committee process–we built prototype modules based on what we believed we needed, tested them with real projects over time, solicited feedback, and made definitive decisions with our greater objectives in mind. We were cognizant that striking the right balance would determine whether or not the application ultimately succeeded, or whether it would fail under the weight of its own complexity.

We operated a number of business units on the prototype application for an extended period. Next, we engaged our internal IT Application Development Group to build a professional application on an enterprise-level platform and worked together to further improve and extend ELITE’s capabilities and relevance to our business. When was it put into use?

Groch: We started running numerous business units on a prototype application in 2005, continued to develop the prototype over the next two years, and rolled out our enterprise application in September of 2007. Is this a tool used primarily internally or is it shared with clients for specific purposes?

Groch: The platform is used by Trammell Crow Co.’s employees. However, the analytics and reports it generates are shared with clients. The product seems capable of digesting and analyzing vast amounts of information. What kind of reactions have you received? Is it significantly superior to anything you had in the past?

Groch: ELITE is vastly superior to anything we have had in the past. Over the years, reactions have migrated from skeptical to indifferent to extremely positive. Anything else you’d like to share about the technology?

Groch: Now that we have a couple of years of collecting data in consistent formats, we are finding new ways to extract value. By example, when a new project is submitted to Trammell Crow Co.’s Investment Committee, ELITE will use an algorithm to automatically select five similar projects from within our database and compare detailed line-by-line budgets.

After four years of development, ELITE has met our original objectives. However, we’ve really just begun to leverage the capabilities of the system, which continues to evolve and extend. ELITE has become the ‘central nervous system’ of Trammell Crow Co. and a competitive advantage within our industry.