In our property, our tools shape us

As I’ve written elsewhere, albeit in a slightly different context, the following aphorism, attributed to the late Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, sums up neatly the implications of advancing technological change for configuring the spaces in which we work and live: “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

Against this promise, we now have the best private social technologies ever invented for capturing, developing and disseminating knowledge across any community and any network in pursuit of insights that can inspire superior accommodation solutions.

By using them, we can advance the quality and sophistication of, arguably, mankind’s most important tool (food production aside, perhaps), which is the property that shelters each of its most important activities.

In the Learning Economy, in property, as in all other businesses, key management and investment decisions will increasingly be data-driven, based on “hard” (“Big” and quantitative) or “soft” (social, qualitative) data.

Against this need, through now-pervasive social internet literacy, Facebook-era social technologies have delivered a gift for owners, developers and investors of any kind of property.

It is a connected society and body of knowledgeable and articulate users ready to be engaged in advancing the resourcefulness any property-interested business wishes to develop in mastering its own learning for commercial advantage.

Wherever they can be identified, its discrete occupier communities know what they need, and if asked, will express it.

By listening to their views, those providing the property they occupy can improve, track and take much risk out of the solutions they offer.

In the Learning Economy, however, many businesses will also face an unprecedented competitive burden based on needing to keep up with the disruptive, faster learning capabilities of established rivals.

On top of this will come the risk of market entry by previously unseen startups coming to their industries with new insights but unladen with the legacy baggage of incumbency. (Example: Airbnb.)

Yet, new ways of understanding customers’ and users’ real-time built space needs will help smarter property providers understand how to develop superior products and experiences and to capture greater, lasting value by meeting better their targets’ unique and evolving accommodation requirements.

The following is not comprehensive, but illustrative, and we list beneath some specific learning challenges for property providers of different varieties in the Learning Economy. But, first we also address some recent learning from our own experience.

Even some of Australia’s most prominent and best-resourced property providers may not yet be learning sufficiently

Our attention was alerted when, in the light of the Learning Economy, in the course of our own research on workplace strategy, the senior researcher of a top, ASX-listed Sydney CBD office owner told us how little it knew of how its tenants used their spaces.

We immediately wanted to ask, how many other property providers unwittingly sacrifice such customer knowledge so critical to their own learning?

The minds occupying its properties represent that owner’s “knowledge community,” something to which it has frequent and ready access.

In property, a knowledge community comprises a unit with a shared and often committed interest in improving the nature of both the facilities it occupies and, possibly in combination, the related services it receives or is offered.

As a group, it cannot avoid developing deep knowledge, strong opinions and expectations about the spaces it occupies. And it can tell you exactly what needs to be overhauled and where attention would be best spent.

Its experiences and insights should not be wasted.

A knowledge community may comprise the individual users of a single office unit, or those across a whole city-centre office building, a retirement village or community development.

A city block packed with knowledge workers naturally represents an extremely rich and diverse knowledge community.

In the Learning Economy, each has many and varied intelligent, communicative, socially literate and vocal customers seeking their own form of satisfaction.

And from the Learning Economy point of view, a property is an optimal opportunity to learn more about an identified community’s uses and users to develop new knowledge of how to satisfy its target audience’s need, and therefore how to attract others like it with new and novel bundles of products and services.

Managed well, little can compare currently with the qualitative marketing and development data its members can deliver. In the Learning Economy, this knowledge is not a resource to be squandered.

Learning challenges for public property companies

If yours is an ASX-listed property company in the Learning Economy, its business is subject to the coming pressures that all others listed on the exchange face, which is that of demonstrating conclusively to investors how it is learning and adapting, such that both its product and its people-management practices stay relevant and prepared in the face of pervasive digital transformation.

If you are in the business of providing commercial CBD office space, this challenge will be exacerbated by the changing, diminishing demand for your product, if only because, through the effects of cloud-driven workplace digitisation, most modern organisations will require much less of such space in the prime locations in which your organisation is, most likely, most used to supplying it.

Smart investors will quickly learn and perceive that current business models almost certainly won’t survive contact with the coming, accelerating forces of advanced, digitally driven tenant learning.

In property, as in all else, the “trap of the vanishing status quo” holds that the world is going to change; whichever way things go, the status quo, no matter how robust it appears in the moment, is going to disappear.

New scope for learning across property sectors

If you are a commercial office tenant in a learning economy, within your learning mix, a workplace is a vessel you will wish to select and optimise to make your organisation leaner, smarter and more agile, and its learning processes more seamless and effective. As a core of workplace strategy, internet social literacy can enable this configuration.

According to your interests, the Wikipedia definition of workplace strategy holds that it “is the dynamic alignment of an organisation’s work patterns with the work environment to enable peak performance and reduce costs.”

We already know, through prior research, that the smarter businesses get about buying office space, the less they take, and this trend is not going backwards on any foreseeable horizon. It works directly to your advantage.

Although this definition omits learning explicitly, in your workplace strategy, against this expectation and possibly even to achieve it, you will most likely want to:

  • Push ever more work and collaboration out into the cloud to bring down the cost and inconvenience of occupying workplace property.
  • Learn how to negotiate and reconfigure your space to get the best value available per head of personnel who must use it.
  • Eliminate unnecessary space such as board rooms, such that these are only shared with others.
  • Occupy only the best available mix of geographical locations, including coworking spaces, to attract and retain the best staff.
  • Brief and configure the space you use according to the interests of those who occupy it, and their views of how it may best enable the organisation’s learning and strategy.
  • Use end-of-lease opportunities to negotiate with landlords about all of the above.

If you are a commercial office property owner in a learning economy, and you wish to build competitive advantage, a workplace is a space into which you will want to pump services that can make your tenants better able to achieve their learning goals, and through which you can learn from them, as providing better thought-out learning tools and resources can bring you closer to them as customers. Advanced internet social literacy offers the best path to the data on which to nurture such relationships.

In accommodating tenants’ workplace strategies, you will most likely want to:

  • Learn to evolve your business model and management skills, such as to retain relevance to their business, by providing a mix of working facilities that meets their strategies, from traditional office through to access to geographically distributed satellite coworking spaces.
  • Find opportunities to know their businesses better in order to understand and to be able to attract others like them.
  • Provide learning-driven fit-out services as inducements to tenants to lease space that encourage them to share at least some property-related occupation data with you.
  • Understand their learning goals and how these may be accomplished, such that you can, if and where possible, contribute by offering such support as a service.

If, in a learning economy, you develop any form of residential property, customers’ internet social literacy is the vehicle you will use to understand better your occupiers’ satisfaction and desires, such that you can learn from them how to offer better-fitting homes, housing, products and services. Internet social literacy can provide the best qualitative data on which to base future research, learning and marketing decisions throughout the sales cycle.

You will most likely want to:

  • Engage the feedback and opinions of both prospective and actual new occupants in a private social internet space by offering a “virtual concierging” application that, with you as an attentive provider, engages and sustains their goodwill.
  • Use the feedback to identify improvements that can be added to what you’ve built, and as briefing materials for what you will build next.
  • Use this new, trusted relationship to identify the possibility and scope for providing other fee-generating services.
  • Use and test the information you’ve captured to brief and sharpen the pitch and appeal of every subsequent development’s promotional campaign.
  • Evaluate your suppliers’ and agents’ marketing performance, and the effectiveness of all points of contact throughout that purchase cycle.

If you fund or are a commercial property investor in the Learning Economy, internet social literacy is what you will wish to engage to understand how to fit products in your portfolio better according to your investment criteria, built on understanding the actual and constantly evolving needs of buyers, tenants and user communities occupying and benefiting from those spaces. For best portfolio management on the basis of meeting real human need, internet social literacy can yield data against which to adapt to your market’s real, if as yet unspoken, requirements.

You will most likely want to:

  • Know how each of your properties performs on a qualitative rating among its users and occupiers, for fit, comfort, satisfaction and aspiration.
  • Turn qualitative ratings into a running, usable source of data that may be interrogated and presented to persuade and anticipate and answer the enquiries of current and future investors.
  • Use this information as the basis on which to acquire new properties, and to balance your portfolio, according to your investment strategy.

If you are an aged care developer in a learning economy, essentially all of those making decisions about the future care of elders, both the potential residents themselves and those assisting them, will be fully socially internet literate. Besides all of the above points, if your business is going to adjust to shifting, evolving demand and to provide users and their interested others with perceived value that meets or exceeds expectation, integrating competitively differentiating social feedback and learning into the design and marketing of superior facilities is a competency your business will need to understand and master.

If you are an hotel developer in a learning economy, providing comfortable coworking facilities may prove key to future business growth and success, in which case your services must be as good as those against which you are competing in the commercial business mainstream. Therefore, all the same rules that apply to those commercial office providers above will apply to your business, too.

Wrapping up

In the Learning Economy, a sub-optimal and unresponsive property sector can act as a brake, not just on quality of life, but on social progress itself, as the quality of property we occupy can have either an amplifying or retarding effect on community learning.

But, essentially, whatever the market segment to which you provide accommodation or facilities, your customers’ use and expectations of the internet, and the quality of the property-related services it can deliver, certainly don’t look likely to go into decline at any point in the foreseeable future.

Thus, the competitive opportunity to engage its people’s internet social literacy in your own business’s learning is the challenge up to which you must face.

Issues of construction quality, energy efficiency and materials sustainability aside, applying intelligent technology to the human factors of better design quality and user satisfaction is an equation all property providers can now advance and learn from.

And in the Learning Economy, whether and how they learn from it is now a measure of their new competition.

Disclosure: This page’s content is provided by Shiro Architects, whose co-director Graham Lauren is also the founder of The Learning Economy.