JLL’s Wilma Gerber talks about the importance of human perspective in digital transformation

She is evangelical about the synergies between real estate and tech when the latter is applied with a human touch

Wilma Gerber, the now four-year chief operating officer for project and development services in Asia Pacific at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), is no stranger to leading companies through digital transformation.

Beyond her executive functions, Gerber, who is based in Singapore, helped usher JLL through its own widespread adoption of new digital technology. She helped lead the company’s efforts to merge all project management data, including information from some 20,000 past and current projects, onto a single global technology platform.

Gerber, who originally hails from South Africa, is a relatively new arrival to the real estate industry. Prior to JLL, she spent seven years with Cisco Systems in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and before that worked in mobile product development in the UK.

“What happens during a digital transformation? A lot of people’s minds immediately jump to AI, machine learning, and very advanced forms of technology,” she says. “But if you’re in an industry still running on spreadsheets, you need to build a foundation first.”

The construction industry, she says, offers one particularly interesting case study since it isn’t historically regarded for its swift embrace of new technology.

JLL’s construction business—and indeed, the company more broadly—has seen first-hand the benefits of comprehensive digitisation. Having completed the transformation process from end to end, it now has access to highly reliable, up-to-the-minute data that can easily be visualised. This covers everything from sales data to procurement to health and safety information, and everything in between.

“Imagine if you have all the data at your fingertips and it’s real-time and accurate. What happens then is you get really fast decision-making and it’s much more accurate,” Gerber points out. For property firms keen to take the road to virtualisation, her advice persists: “Think about it from the human perspective—in the end, it’s all about the people.”

Digitisation has the potential to streamline the construction process from end to end, offering access to reliable, up-to-the-minute data that can easily be visualised. AlfonsoVennari/Shutterstock

Gerber illuminates on how technology can address basic questions that managers are asking: What problems does the company want to solve? How does it want employees to work differently? And how can the business use data and technology to accomplish this?

What are some of the main opportunities around digital transformation in the real estate industry?

One of the biggest opportunities is using technology to drive sustainability. Buildings consume around 40% of the world’s energy, so there’s a huge opportunity to optimise energy usage. Something like 30% of energy in buildings is wasted. There are new technologies that you can deploy in HVAC systems, for example, that allow them to run more efficiently.

Another area is sensor technology, which help both landlords and tenants better understand how spaces are used. Data from these sensors may be leveraged to design spaces in a more optimal and efficient way to increase asset utilisation.

There are also a lot of opportunities in construction, which is typically lower on the digital maturity curve. The sector is still very paper-based: checking people in to construction sites, doing site inductions and health and safety compliance. Technology exists to do all that. Managing projects—everything from schedules, budgets, and so on—can be done through a single platform instead of on spreadsheets or other standalone ways.

If you want a successful digital transformation, it needs to be pervasive throughout the business. Even though we’re talking about technology, the bigger issue is the psychology of change. People need to feel they are a part of it

You’ve talked about companies using technology to “extract more value.” What are some of the keys to this?

What I mean by extracting value is return on investment. Companies spend money on technology, and the reason they do that is because they think they’re going to increase revenue or improve productivity. But sometimes that doesn’t happen to the extent they expect.

The reason is often because the focus was 90% on the technology and only 10% on how to use the technology—the human aspect. I’ve seen this happen across many companies, not just in real estate. Generally, what happens is there’s a large management focus on what technology platforms to deploy, and a lot of time spent developing and rolling out this platform, and not much time spent on driving change around how everyone needs to work differently as a result of the technology.

How many people in an organisation are typically involved in the process of digital transformation?

If you want a successful digital transformation it needs to be pervasive throughout the business, and it absolutely needs to be leader-led.

I think it’s a mistake to have one team in the company that is somehow expected to digitally transform the whole business—it needs to involve everyone. A lot of this comes down to psychology. Even though we’re talking about technology, the bigger issue is the psychology of change. People need to feel they are a part of it, that they can engage with it, and provide feedback.

People embrace change they initiate themselves—when they feel they are actively involved in the change. But when someone forces change upon them, that’s when you see more resistance and box-ticking behaviour.

Companies need to enable their people to understand how the technology and data benefit the business. If they see its value, then they can start having that conversation with clients. How do you get people in the company to talk about the value of the technology when they haven’t experienced it themselves?

Gerber believes that technology can be a key driver for sustainable real estate, with the optimisation of energy usage in buildings among the ways it can be usefully applied. MarleenS/Shutterstock

Are any of these technologies being leveraged in unique ways to mitigate the impact of Covid-19?

At JLL we have spent the last few years digitising the whole landscape of our business—from our data around sales, to the way we manage governance, health and safety, procurement, even client satisfaction surveys. We can now see how our risk landscape is changing, in real time.

From a single global platform, our project managers get a real-time view of where risks are being driven by Covid-19. This includes risks of delays, how many sites are closed or at risk of closure due to the virus, and other risks. That’s the power of having data that’s digitised and accurate. Prior to the pandemic, most people haven’t experienced this level of ambiguity and uncertainty. In APAC, we could see site closures in China, then in Hong Kong. It was happening at different times in different countries.

If you’re in a leadership position, you’re trying to process in realtime all of these changes that are happening very rapidly. How do you do that if your business is not fully digitised?

Your background is broadly tech-focused. What brought you over to the real estate side of technology?

It’s a time in the industry where technology and real estate are converging. It’s a definite moment of change, and I think the real estate industry is in need of more people with technology backgrounds.

The real estate industry provides a unique opportunity to make a difference, particularly around sustainability. That is my true passion. There’s huge value in how we use technology to make the world more sustainable. If you want to be in an industry where you can make an impact on the sustainability agenda, then real estate is one of the key industries to be in right now.

The original version of this article appeared in Issue No. 163 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine