Your people and company culture matter more than the technology you use.

Coming back from Inman’s Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco and putting all the information into practice can be daunting: Where to start implementing all the new shiny toys, the ideas and concepts shared by thought leaders, and the upcoming products and services coming from real estate technology partners?

Over and over again, in the hallways of the conference site and at lunches and in presentations and the Q-and-A sessions that followed, I heard individuals struggling with issues of permission. When talking about social media the most common reflection I heard was "I’d love to do this, but my broker won’t let me" followed shortly by "I’d love to do this, but agents just won’t do it."

Another common fear: not using a technology the right way — for example, being afraid that by using Twitter they will turn off potential customers. A lot of people said they are trying to find the right way to use various tools. This is difficult to learn in a large, general presentation — especially for social media, as the "right" way will vary for each individual, company culture and audience.

The killer complaint, which is true whenever anything new is introduced, is that of time. How much time should be spent using something? Will it yield results and ultimately save time if you spend the time to learn to use it? And so on. Usually this sort of question is attached to issues of return on investment (always hard to determine when there hasn’t yet been an investment, as with many new technologies).

How you might help spread technological innovation and growth through your company will likely depend on where you sit within the company hierarchy. Those toward the top may be tempted to mandate new tool usage from those below. Those nearer the bottom may be tempted to endlessly proselytize or else work outside the normal company structure. Sometimes those are the only ways change can happen. But there might be better ways to get things done. Let’s look at some.

Brokers, owners and other bosses

If you sign checks for other people or otherwise hold some sort of job-security-related position over others, here are some things to help you get your subordinates trying and using new tools:

  • Acknowledge that your subordinates already have full-time jobs. Give them training and support that doesn’t increase their workload. For example, if learning to use something new means your subordinates will lose a weekend or two of their lives, they’re likely to start from a position of resenting the technology.
  • Acknowledge that your subordinates have strengths that may not match well with the new technology. Not every one of your agents will be a good blogger. But they may have another skill or interest that can be put to use either directly or in support of someone else who is producing. It’s your job as a supervisor to find that skill or interest and help that person grow.
  • Start using social media tools for internal purposes to build familiarity with these kinds of tools in a safer, nonpublic way. For example, you could set up an internal social bookmarking account to share links with everyone on the team (this is a great way for nonbloggers to help those who blog, by the way).
  • It’s very helpful to give people a safe environment to try new tools and the time to experiment. Google is famous for giving their employees 20 percent of their time to work on anything they want. That’s like giving employees one day a week to do whatever. Not everyone can afford that amount of time, perhaps. But it’s worth noting Google has become such a force in business while investing 20 percent of its human resources budget in letting their employees do whatever inspires them most. …CONTINUED

Agents and others who need permission to act

The temptation, on returning from a conference full of new ideas, best practices and technologies, is to start jamming these ideas down the throats of your co-workers and bosses. This is rarely effective. Here are some tips to help bring technological change to your organization from a grassroots perspective:

  • Get familiar with the measures your company uses to measure success and learn to measure your efforts in the same way. Having numbers ("200 visitors via social media links last month, three of whom filled out the lead form," for example) usually helps when dealing with those not as enamored of concepts like "engagement" and "the conversation."
  • Avoid taking it as a given that these tools work when talking with your co-workers and bosses. Even if you believe wholeheartedly in a technology or best practice, frame your use as "testing it out to see if it works." This keeps you from being pigeonholed as a wide-eyed zealot, and works great in combination with the first tip.
  • Keep an accurate store of anecdotal successes (and failures) of using the tool. Ideally, these will be your own successes and someone else’s failures. But either way, having narrative examples of how using the tool or concept helped you solve a business problem will be useful talking points with others around the water cooler.

Turbocharging: Launch an R&D program

While the basic business model of real estate has remained the same for many years (Redfin notwithstanding), the tools used to reach customers and help them with their housing transactions have changed dramatically in recent years. That rate of change does not appear to be slowing down. Dealing with a state of constant change in how, where and when to reach your customers may require a coordinated approach.

Consider setting up a task force of a few people to evaluate uses for new technologies (real estate tools as well as general tools that your audience may be using). Ideally, the membership of this task force would rotate so that everyone in the organization participates and is able to provide their perspective. Here are some thoughts on establishing your own real estate research and development program:

  • Establish measurements at the outset of any R&D project. This way, the team can report on whether the tool or technique appears to work or not. Don’t forget to include human factors in your measurement system ("Was it easy for the team to use?" is important — and an important reason to keep a technophobe on your R&D team).
  • Many tech partners are happy to give a 30-day demo of a product. Set your R&D team on using the product fully for the complete 30 days and evaluating it thoroughly.
  • Mix up the R&D team — assign new teams with different members at regular intervals. This will help spread knowledge throughout your organization and ensure that your R&D team has recent experience in the day-to-day challenges of the real business.

Ultimately, it’s people who use technology. Getting the right match and balance between investing in your team and in your technology is a challenge. As you head back to the office with a ton of great new ideas and tools, remember that technology rarely solves cultural problems in an organization. Work on the people issues just as much as you work on the new toys.

Author’s note: As an aside, I saw some Twitter chatter about "engagement" being unattached to ROI. I’d like to write about this in a future column. If you or someone you know is making active use of social media technologies (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or anything else along those lines) who would be interested in being a case study, please drop me a line.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors. He will speak during a Bloggers Connect workshop at the upcoming Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, which runs from Aug. 5-7.


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