Most people see real estate as a very traditional industry. It’s large, complex with many verticals that require a lot of resources, research and manpower. As a sector, real estate has sustained and thrived over the years, staying on a steady course with only minor disruptions along the way.
But as more and more business processes are becoming digitalised, many traditional industries have experienced disruption at the hands of new technology platforms – think about Airbnb’s impact on the lodgings business, or Uber’s effect on taxi companies. It’s clear that technology is changing the competitive landscape in the real estate business now too. It’s shaping the future of the built environment, it’s changing the way we work, how we shop, play, and it will change how we transact real estate in the future too.
As a professional services company, JLL’s job is to serve our clients’ real estate needs. And more and more we are looking at ways that technology can solve their problems. That means helping companies be more productive and cost-efficient, and helping them use data to make smarter decisions about their real estate portfolios.
In this increasingly tech-enabled world, real estate companies have to take an agile approach to technology that will allow them to meet the needs of today while preparing for the opportunities of tomorrow. And that goes for how we operate our internal processes as well, and in particular the finance function – the one that I’m responsible for at JLL in Asia Pacific.
Keeping up with the speed of change
I am continuously amazed at the pace of change we’ve witnessed in the finance profession. When I first started out, I was in the internal audit department of a company and we spent a lot of time lugging heavy files around. The good news is we’re doing a lot less of that these days given how much of our data is in the Cloud rather than on paper.
But as a CFO, I know that one of the key challenges we face as a company is making sure our finance processes stay apace of the changes to our own business and our clients’ businesses.
As more business processes are becoming digitalised, many traditional industries have experienced disruption at the hands of new technology platforms
It’s an inevitable shift that we need to embrace rather than resist. In finance and accounting, we have to see technology as an enabler or risk being left behind.
Despite the gradual switch from manual work to automation, some organisations are unwilling to change and leverage the benefits. Due to such reluctance, even the availability of a ground-breaking technology which has multiple advantages will not make a real difference if the organisation is not willing to embrace the change and innovate to stay ahead.
People first approach
The way we are approaching this as a company is that we put people and culture before technology and process. We’ve made it a priority to find the right internal champions, the right people to execute the change, and a team culture that values those skills. These changes are certainly impacting the profile of the type of people we are hiring into finance roles. We need professionals who are forward-looking, digitally literate, well-rounded, and prepared to continuously upgrade their skillset to adapt to the changing business environment.
People like me, who have been in finance for a number of years, need to think about how we can apply our skills in the face of rapid technological advancement. It can be challenging because as a profession, accountants tend to be skeptical of new systems. Trust is our currency and it takes time to accept new ways of doing things. But the Millennial generation that is now rising through companies is digitally adept and quick to adapt, which is a positive thing for the profession.
Technology-enabled shared services
As a global leader in corporate real estate outsourcing, our goal is to deliver value to our customers and investors through innovation. That’s why we’re leveraging the opportunity of shared services, or outsourcing of certain functions, to build a world class delivery network.
Finance was the first to adopt this because of the many procedures that require standardisation across all locations. We opened our first shared services centre in China with eight people in Dalian. The centre now provides services to JLL’s operations in China, Korea and Japan. Currently, JLL has around 200 people in its China shared services centre and another 350 in its shared services centre in India to support the rest of Asia Pacific.
We see a huge opportunity in leveraging the twin benefits of outsourcing and technology when it comes to the finance function. We’re exploring the use of Robot Process Automation (RPA) and data analytics to increase productivity. We know it will make us more efficient and, in turn, better able to serve our clients. In Asia Pacific, we’re really leading the way in this. The high growth environment in this region and a young, motivated workforce means we’ve been able to achieve a lot in a short time.
Going forward, the finance function will transform alongside the increasing power of data analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and distributed ledger technology or blockchain. We’re confident that these new ways of doing things will open up new opportunities for our people and our business to develop and grow. Because if we don’t embrace change we’ll get left behind.