March 17, 2021
David Bender, Associate Director, Digital, discusses Fiera Real Estate’s journey to becoming a truly digital business.
Practical lessons from our real estate investment firm’s digital transformation journey — from doubt to conviction, and silos to scalability.
Our modest journey towards a digital future, with tighter alignment between teams, scalable technology, and more expanded use of data and analytics, began in earnest well before I joined the firm in September 2019. But since that time, I’ve been proud to see our progress and evolution into — whether we even realise it some days — a truly digital organisation. I thought it might be helpful to reflect on three key themes that have helped us get to where we are in a relatively short amount of time.
First, some background. We are a mid-sized real estate investment manager with close to 30 years of investing in both core and value-add projects, an executive team that has been together for the better part of a decade, and a firm place in the traditional real estate investing ecosystem in the UK. So, no tech start-up here.
Second, some highlights. Since this time last year, we have been able to;
- Entirely re-design over 10 key processes through custom web apps for our teams — expanding access, visibility, and removing blockers like Excel files or version control issues
- Organise, clean, and centralise over 20 core datasets, including the ability to share them via download or our custom API
- Automate data extraction from nearly all of our key business applications and property managers
- Rapidly increase our time-to-value for internal tools and applications — often turning around digital projects in days, rather than weeks or months
So, what approaches have we taken to make this happen for our teams? In short, from my perspective the following three things have been the most impactful…
- “Build it, and they will come” — trusting that the business will see value in digitising our processes and data, and will ultimately want to be included in the process. We brought our business partners right into the design process when building our custom web apps and analytics dashboards — including time spent on some of the deeper technical aspects of how data is created, moved, and integrated across our stack. Admittedly, this approach is rare within the real estate investing industry but the reality today is that everyone in our business must be, and often unwittingly already is, a member of the software development team. Digital strategists should lean into those opportunities through no and low-code application builders, interactive visualisations, and embracing a culture of teaching.
- “Data-centric, not application-centric” — focusing on our end-state to leverage data for decision-making forces our allegiance first and foremost to clean, structured data rather than to any particular application. We consider data access and digital scalability as core capabilities and, therefore, we have not been afraid to strip down an application to its relevant data outputs, and abandon it if it is not fit-for-purpose… or to build our own. The always useful “separation of concerns” principle applies well here, as a collection of well-understood, smaller components integrated in the correct way can often exceed the capabilities of one monolithic application. The path towards a digital organisation functions in much the same way. Particularly as we prepare to scale our business substantially in the coming year and beyond, we are committed to constantly re-calibrate our internal functions to meet the growing data needs (and wants) of our investors, tenants, and partners.
- “Pick problems with compounding solutions” — orienting towards the root causes of complexity helps to find simple fixes with benefits across multiple problem areas. Digitisation is really about understanding your organisation and team’s activities in practical terms, and we have had our biggest wins when we have drilled down into our processes and seen “horizontal” issues. If one can resolve those type of challenges, it can be a major unlock for the organisation as a whole — creating data assets that have usefulness across the entire business. In practical terms this means tight alignment across both the business and operations teams, to ensure that when an issue arises for one stakeholder we can proactively solve it for all.
One big worry when we began to re-factor our processes and approach to technology was the impact of “stepping back”. Would we lose progress and momentum with our partners, investors, and colleagues? The actual result has been the opposite, as our deeper understanding of the needs of those groups has already helped us to develop valuable solutions, which necessarily depended on a foundational reset. Interactive data visualisations have replaced time-consuming PowerPoint decks, automations have eliminated manual entry tasks, and response time to investors and partners are beginning to drop significantly.
By no means has our pathway been easy or straightforward, but in many ways I don’t believe that it can be effective any other way. The scrapes and stumbles are important to clear the path of debris. But armed with a few simple principles — and no small degree of bull-headed focus on what makes sense for our business — we’re only getting faster and stronger.