Digitalisation cannot replace human skills
As I sat pondering what a smart strategist would do to battle through this Covid-induced economic uncertainty, three things happened:
I received an email advising me ‘…with the growing potential for a global recession, businesses that are not yet digitally-focused, will be forced to adapt.’
I discovered that 90% of traditional real estate organisations see PropTech as an opportunity ‘…but the property sector remains notoriously behind the curve technologically.’
I had a conversation with a few colleagues regarding the challenges our firm currently faces and, he was relatively optimistic about it.
I wondered if the combination of underutilisation of expensive office space, (precipitated by the adoption of physical distancing measures) and WFH would increase the momentum towards the (further) digitalisation of our processes and procedures. Afterall, digitalisation would reduce medium/long term costs and increase competitiveness, in what could be a tough trading environment.
Yes, an expensive CRM (Client Relationship Management) system could underpin our client retention and acquisition ambitions.
And I appreciate that AI could improve the speed and efficiency of our research and analytical procedures.
Technology has already revolutionized the residential property sector; augmented investment strategies (think crowd funding); made us more efficient (think smart home technology and shared space management) … the list is extensive.
But I kept coming back to my sanguine colleagues. They believe that our silver bullet is not the big hits with AI, automation or digitalisation, but upskilling the firm. They argue, for example, that a CRM system will not improve our client retention, but the smarter use of our existing platform and the behaviour of fee earners will.
They contend that we are a people business therefore the latest software will never be a substitute for a conversation, a meeting, or even an enquiry about a non-work-related issue.
They believe that upskilling colleagues is the silver bullet and I think that they are right because all businesses have three tiers of skills:
- Technical skills
- Business skills
- Inter-personal skills – face to face sharing of opinions, developing relationships, understanding client needs, etc.
From a technical viewpoint, we have great tools already available. While there will always be enhancements, we should support each other to ensure we get the most out of our existing tools and train our teams to better exploit the efficiencies and opportunities they create. Thanks to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and companies’ in-house training programmes the property industry, like other professions, has a high level of technical skills across the board.
Business skills development are largely based on mentoring and training. Most surveyors I know have a good understanding of ‘the business of our business’ (balance sheets, cash flow, profitability, etc) but a few stumble when it comes to running their own ‘commercial centres’. For them, the strategic and financial imperatives of accurate costings and the importance of invoicing as soon as possible and chasing tardy paying clients are sometimes lost. It takes time and coaching for the majority to become business savvy.
The technical and business skills are all there in the background. I believe that our real challenge – and the area for significant upskilling – sits in the ‘inter-personal’ skills quadrant. Boring repetitive tasks can be delegated to AI and automation, but ‘soft’ skills are an area we should be focusing if we want to be truly relevant to our clients.
According to a recent Deloitte’s report, by 2030 66% of all jobs will depend on soft skills. Skills we all think we have but, in reality a proportion of our profession lack. Skills such as:
- Cognitive flexibility
- Perspective taking
- Empathetic listening
- Even self-control.
It is commonly perceived that these skills cannot really be taught formally in a classroom, but are learned from being around people who have them – as an aside, it is interesting to note that junior employees, who are currently WFH, are missing out on this hugely valuable aspect of their learning.
These are life-long skills, which are transferable between companies – as we carve our way up the north slope of our careers.
When AI and digitalisation creates a level playing field and makes all our processes more efficient and consistent, I believe it will be those, with acute soft skills, who will breast the tape first and emerge as winners.
But the profound underlying question is, can emotions and insights be taught, or are they something we are born with. If they can be taught, how can you evaluate and monitor the impact the training has had.
One thing I am sure of is that even in these troubled times, soft skills training should be right up there, at the top of the agenda.
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Tom is a Partner at Matthews & Goodman, the leading property consultancy. A Consulting Valuer, Tom's speciality is advising real estate finance providers, corporates, prop-cos and investors on UK commercial property (valuation) issues.