Dustin Strydom Open Box

How one South African company is helping ditch the spreadsheet

The poor spreadsheet has become shorthand for a situation where data is stored in inaccessible silos, living in different departments, in different platforms and in different formats, and sometimes even in hard copy…in 2019. With spreadsheets it’s easy for human error to creep in, mistakes are difficult to spot, as are seeing trends and gaining a single view of the truth, writes Dustin Strydom, director of automation services at Open Box.

As in other markets around the world, leading South African property companies are untangling their reliance on spreadsheets and other legacy, standalone data stores, and starting to think more strategically about how they can put their data to better use to wow their customers, gain a competitive edge, work more productively and generate better returns.

Altus Group Report

First, some global context. The latest innovation report from Altus Group, “Innovation opportunity in commercial real estate: A shift in proptech adoption and investment” provides statistics around the shift away from spreadsheets and data silos. It’s worth noting that the report includes feedback from property leaders on every continent except Africa, so we’re hoping our case studies below can expand this view.

According to the report, although there is a shift away from spreadsheets towards integrated software solutions, quite large islands of spreadsheet dependency remain. Reporting is the most egregious example at 60% spreadsheet use, with valuation and cash flow analysis at 51%, and budgeting and forecasting at 45%. Other processes, such as benchmarking and performance analysis, and accounting and property management, are by no means exempt from still using spreadsheets as their primary tool.

The report says this may be a symptom of legacy data silos and the absence of a strategy to manage or integrate their data. It warns that this impacts on firms’ efficiencies in data administration and management, reduces their data-driven insights, and increases the likelihood of human errors.

What is happening in our market?

Although Open Box has clients across Europe, the UK and the US, our home base is South Africa. Here too we are seeing firms moving towards integrated software solutions and automation to replace spreadsheets, but, more importantly, to enable the firms to work in better ways.

For instance, back in 2016 one of South Africa’s oldest real estate investment trusts (REIT) realised it was not sustainable, nor futureproof, to continue manually compiling property and financial reports from multiple data sources. The data was extracted from various property management systems used by the third-party property managers who manage the REIT’s properties. This process was labour intensive, time consuming and prone to error.

The REIT also wanted to build a data warehouse for enterprise reporting but needed to accommodate the various third-party systems and they had no reliable way of getting data into Argus Enterprise.

The solution, a custom data integration system, which leveraged what was already in place using an integration approach. It gave the REIT the ability to investigate and analyse consolidated property data in a more timely and efficient way. It also established a technology platform to support future data integration between third-party property management data and key internal operational systems, and enable consolidated property reporting initiatives. In addition, staff members are freed up from onerous reporting tasks, and the manual errors are eliminated.

Another customer of ours, a self-storage company, knew they couldn’t promise a convenient and stress-free storage selection and booking experience if the experience was bogged down in paperwork and manual processes. We worked with them to build the country’s first completely online self-storage booking system, including electronic signing of lease agreements and online payments.

Users have the ability to track and approve storage unit rental queries and extensions, monitor availability, view sales opportunities, and perform on-site inventory purchases. An added bonus was that by streamlining the front-end by putting everything online, this could easily plug into their payment system and back-end, providing real-time visibility of inventory and bookings.

Finally, going beyond software integration, and harnessing the power of automation, we are working with a progressive South African property management firm to automate the leasing process and digitise bringing new tenants on board. Agents use an iPad to capture information while meeting with the prospective tenant at the property. This data immediately enters the digital workflow and, using our Real Estate Automation Engine, is verified against the know your customer (KYC) information already collected.

If all is in order the client can sign the contract digitally for the letting department to process. The entire experience is faster, hassle-free and avoids human error and multiple versions of information in various formats. It also means agents can stay out of the office for longer, doing the things that really matter to owners and tenants.

These are great examples of South African companies not only releasing their grip on spreadsheets, paper and manual processes, but also doing something that progresses their business and customer service today and sets them up for success in the future. While, in the background, some of their competitors are still only debating their tech approach.

Open Box is an automation system for real estate business processes.

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