Tim Robinson Knight Frank

Laying out Knight Frank’s digital roadmap

Tim Robinson, head of consultancy and chair of the tech board at Knight Frank, sat down with Paul Unger to talk about the global advisory group’s five-year roadmap to ‘significant digital transformation’.

PU: Can you tell us where the tech board’s work is up to?

TR: We have got full sign off for a significant digital transformation of the business which means basically approving a five-year road map.

It’s something that is a really interesting exercise. We are working with an agency called Think who are a digital agency. They won clearly over three or four other businesses. Collaborative is overused in business but they worked in a really collaborative way, with about 150 people from our business, who were carefully selected. We did a four-month project working with all of these teams – commercial, residential, business services, finance, HR – across the board to actually understand the pain points of what we could do better with different pieces of technology.

The one thing I’m keen to do is identify a problem and then go and find the technology that might help. A lot of people look at really good technology and think ‘how can I embrace that? How can I bring that into our business?’ I think that’s the wrong way around. I think you need to identify the problem first.

Are there a set number of problem areas that you are addressing?

There are three or four. There’s internal communication which, as you appreciate these days there are so many different platforms where there’s WhatsApp, email, text, Microsoft Teams, everything; there are so many. Whilst that’s all brilliant technology, actually if you or I have to check that every day, that’s probably taking another hour or two out of our day. Trying to rationalise that and make it most appropriate.

Also trying to introduce transparency to our clients over transactions. Again, property is shrouded in secrecy. Once a deal goes under offer, it’s with the lawyers. No one really knows what’s going on and why does it take so long? It’s similar when you buy a house. It sits with the lawyers for what seems to be weeks or months and then you get a mortgage offer. If we can introduce transparency to our clients and say, ‘right actually it’s at this stage, Paul has just done the following, he’s spoken to the lawyer and in a day’s time you’re going to have this.’ Actually, I think a lot of our clients would prefer that. It’s just a very simple concept.

Another area is trying to be more coordinated about a lot of the technology that we are embracing. So, when we had our first sessions with this digital agency, it was really a discovery session, everyone had to say ‘right, what are you doing’ and, I’m almost a little bit ashamed to say, the amount of stuff that came out that we are doing where a particular business, whether it was in the UK, Paris or the Far East were adopting something and we didn’t know they were doing that. If we use that piece of technology across the whole globe for Knight Frank, we would have saved a huge amount of money. People are being brilliant for their businesses but not thinking bigger.

Can you tell us the solutions that you’ve come up with or who you’re working with?

We haven’t got to that stage, yet.

So, what’s the next step then after the board approval?

We’ve come up with 23 initiatives, such as virtual reality tours, automated document reading and so on. The next step is we’re doing six-to-10 weeks of real in-depth analysis of each of the initiatives. We are going to do a real deep dive into each of those to work out where’s the true business benefit? How do we monetise that? Which of the service lines – is it Cap Markets, is it Management, is it Lettings that will really benefit? It’s very easy to say that with all this in place, and the digital agency are saying it, we’ll release you 40% of your time, you’ll generate another £20m of revenue. We’d need to be really convinced about that because it’s a very significant investment. I think it will.

You see this as profit making rather than a cost?

Oh yeah. Because we are a partnership. Not so much as profit-making but it has got to wash its face over, probably, a three-year period. The first year definitely will cost us money. The second year would be nice if it’s beginning to balance out and third year, should boost additional revenue.

And that’s measured by, as you say, some efficiency savings?

Efficiencies. More time. We could analyse people across the business. What do they genuinely do every minute of the day-to-day? Then, do it again in a year’s time and see how that changes. That’s sounds a bit Big Brother. As equity partners, we should be prepared to do it to ourselves.

What’s the risk of doing away with so much time that you end up losing people? The whole threat on jobs from AI?

There is always going to be that concern. People are worried about their jobs. The way I would look at it is by embracing it. We’ll take away all the boring stuff. Technology is there for process. Get rid of process. Technology can deal with that. Then, you can do a much more interesting job. We had one example where, if you’re a young Cap Markets Agent Graduate today, you would regularly spend two to three days doing a development appraisal on a piece of software. That can all be done with AI. The equivalent of three days’ work can be done in less than five minutes with AI. Actually, then, they can be going and speaking to the clients and doing deals, rather than dealing with numbers.

A lot of our readers are interested in the internal management. How companies set themselves up. How they communicate, find ideas, get clearance for things. What worked well going through the board? What didn’t work so well in terms of winning the argument for these initiatives?

What worked well? I think it was a realisation of what our competitors are doing. And being significantly more coordinated than we’ve ever been. Probably the strongest point that came out is this agency….Let’s say we went to PwC to ask them to help us. Now, I’m going to be harsh here to them maybe. They might have said ‘we’ll do that project’, three months later slapped us the book on digital transformation and charged us a huge amount of money. With the people that we work with, actually in a very clever way, we did the work. They pulled the ideas out of us. What’s your problem?  How can it be solved? How could we do this better? It wasn’t them lecturing us about digital transformation. It was us saying we’ve got a problem. It was almost like professional coaching where someone gives you a teaser and then you come up with the idea.

How did you identify the digital agency, the consultants that you work with, Think?

We have non-executive directors who sit on our board and they had a couple of ideas. It was people from within the business who we knew. We interviewed a very long list. We reduced that down to about five, then down to three and then the big pitch from the final three.

What’s the most important thing for 2019, given this starting point?

We’re just naming the project, which we haven’t done yet. There is a competition with a magnum of champagne to the winner who can name the project, so we need to give it a name, give it identity so we can constantly inform people. Then it’s delivering on those 23 initiatives and seeing a result from it. We’ve got to be able to measure it. Part of that exercise, as I was saying, we’ve got 6-10 weeks of intense work, is to understand how to measure. For example, an easy one, how many people visited our website today? We broadly know, you can tell that. We want to be able to provide proper analytics. How many are going to resi? How many are going to commercial? What services are they looking at? Then, we’ll do the same in a year’s time. If that’s quadrupled, then that’s probably successful.

What’s the setup, the internal roll out and responsibilities? Who makes it happen?

I don’t know if you’ve heard about KFX which is a programme about bringing our better, young people into the business and involving them in decision-making and so on, acting as a bit of a funnel for great ideas. Joshua Morris runs our Cap Markets, a great guy, very technology enabled. He chairs that group so they will be the filter for the smaller ideas and the tech board will now be championing the digital transformation. We are trying to find a project lead, who will be in an interim role to actually run that, so he or she will report to the board. It will be an external person. Someone who is used to delivering. They’ve got to be digitally enabled but not complete techies. They’ve got to be able to work with a really broad range of people, and with Think as well, to make sure we deliver this stuff. They probably will be from outside property.

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