Embracing the technology to lead digital disruption

It has been almost half a century since American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler made business and governments sit up and think with his bestseller Future Shock. Described variously as illuminating, provoking and frightening, his take on economics, technology and social change discussed the rise of new business, the emerging global civilisation and overwhelming, rapid change.

Toffler also made some startling predictions. In 1970, his suggestion that in the future, fewer jobs would require employees to be physically present in an office, was outrageous. When he wrote that homes would one day resemble electronic cottages and allow a better work-life balance, it strained the imagination of the corporate world.

Toffler also predicted that instead of thinking in terms of a career, the “citizen of the superindustrial society will think in terms of serial careers”. “Not infrequently the new job involves not merely a new employer, a new location and a new set of work associates, but whole new way of life,” he wrote. The past half-century has proven Toffler right on many of his predictions that were so shocking in the 1970s, yet the workplace of the 21st century shares similar fears for the future – the rapid pace of change, technology and work-life balance.

Today though, change is accepted as inevitable, and there is little room for future shock as recruitment companies are armed with information to track trends in the future workplace for the benefit of both individuals and organisations.

It is with this in mind, The Brief has spoken to three leaders, outside the sector, who are not only facing disruption, but revelling in it.

When Damian Hackett started in the real estate game in 1991, the internet was the domain of researchers and scientists who used it to send information to each other.

There were certainly no practical commercial applications and the concept of using the internet in real estate seemed out-of-reach - remember, there was no “online” other than twirling around the backyard on the clothesline.

Hackett, the CEO of real estate agency Place Estate Agents, has developed his thriving business by incorporating evolving tech and believes only those who are willing to embrace it will likely reach the heights of true success.

“In the last decade, we have witnessed the biggest change in the history of the industry through technology,” Hackett said. “It has changed just how quickly we can reach potential customers and send out messages through digital and social platforms.

“The availability of information to buyers and sellers gives us a huge opportunity as well. Back in the early 90s, real estate agents would hold all the information; now, it’s all readily available online, including sale price information, sale history etc. which is beneficial for buyers, sellers and real estate agents alike.

“We have recently undergone a website transformation where we’ve put a lot into building our SEO to ensure we can target our customers with valuable information that is relevant to them. This technology is incredible useful and we would never have been able to collect as much data without these technical tools.”

Hackett remains keenly aware that the tech itself is never going to create a viable concern.

"In a lot of industries, if you’re mediocre and don’t add value, you are at a huge risk of being replaced by technology and artificial intelligence,” he continued. “Online platforms offer alternative ways of selling and buying real estate in the marketplace.”

“However, if you are the best at what you do, have incredible customer service, and an ‘excellence mantra’, you can offer real value to your clients. This is something that can’t be replaced in the near future through technology.

“Digital disruption has allowed us to focus on ways of improving the service we deliver, rather than being defensive against technological change and disruptions.

“The real estate industry is yet to face any serious disruptions because of the complex nature of the transactions. Agents have face-to-face contact and personal relationships with clients during major life transitions; it could be challenging for artificial technology to compete against this deep, emotional understanding.”

Hackett said Place has created a Head of Innovation role to help navigate the company through future digital disruption and to ensure it is ready to respond to any challenges as they evolve.

“Our Head of Innovation has an in-depth background in the technology space and constantly looks at different parts of our business operations and how we can better improve our processes and services, particularly relating to technology,” he said.

“This ensures we are at the cutting edge and maintaining a competitive advantage.”

This philosophy extends to the company’s hiring practices, with HR and recruitment team being “very proactive” in developing and nurturing talent and relationships with potential future employees to ensure a strong talent pipeline exists.

Hackett explained that the biggest challenge they face as a business is securing buy-in from staff, while ensuring they understand the process of change management that is inevitable in today’s business world.

“People don’t always like change,” he added. “Clear communication is absolutely imperative in all our change processes and whoever is leading that change has very robust communications agendas set up from the beginning to be able to measure and reassess the implementation process.

“And we were able to do that because we had learned the lesson of re-assessing the business case and potential impacts of new pieces of technology rather than jumping in too quickly [to adopt new tech].”

While ensuring buy-in from staff, Hackett said it was just as important to have clear lines of communication with your customer base, “to continue to reinforce the narrative around what we are focusing on achieving and what is important” through all forms of communication”.

Hackett said the key to businesses navigating digital transformation lies in being open to it rather than being negative towards it, while sustainability comes down to quantifiable success.

“It’s important to spend the time fully understanding what the client needs, how to solve their problems and what value you add,” Hackett said.

“My advice is to focus more on how you can improve your business offering through the technology, rather than becoming defensive towards the disruptor.

“Sustainability is about focusing on excellence and building repeatable and measurable systems and processes. We focus on people first, our staff, and so the recruitment and training process is paramount and have a deliberate innovation agenda.”

Hackett jokes that with hindsight the only major change to his approach to digital disruption would include being more open to other opportunities - namely picking up REA shares for $1 each in 2004 (now, they’re worth $112).

But more seriously, he continues to urge business to embrace and adopt the technology that has proven successful, or face extinction.

“I think in the next 10 years we will see those who are mediocre struggle to exist against technology,” Hackett said. “But there’s real opportunity in our industry for those who provide exceptional customer service and have a huge amount of experience and expertise in marketing and negotiating.”

Read Sarah Hosking’s story here Reader Tony Nash’s story here

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