• Are MLSs innovative? One side says no -- too much red tape and bureaucracy.
  • The other side said yes -- they create the structure through which innovation can take place.

NEW YORK — What’s an Oxford-style debate? It’s a competitive debate format featuring opposing sides with a clear winner chosen at the end. And at Inman Connect New York, the two sides of this particular Oxford-style debate examined whether the Multiple Listing Service limits progress.

(Moderator David Charron, CEO at MRIS, wanted to name the debate, “Does the MLS kill progress?” However, he was overruled.)

The panelists: Greg Robertson, co-founder of W&R Studios, and Rob Hahn, managing partner at 7DS Associates, took the “yes, the MLS does limit progress” side. Celeste Starchild, the senior vice president of professional software at Move, and Chris Carrillo, CEO at CRIS Regional MLS, argued the “no, the MLS does not limit progress” side.

The opening summary

Robertson decided to start off his summary with his own version of a rap battle, which included lines such as, “There’s too many of you — you might need to cut back” and “It’s not about cooperation or compensation — it’s about true innovation we seek.” Mic dropped.

Carrillo’s response: “MLSs are not about cooperation and compensation,” he said. “It’s about how fast you can innovate and how quickly you can implement.” He noted that IDX was originally seen as a disruption — but today, it’s led to more consumers doing their homework before they ever talk to an agent, which makes agents’ jobs easier.

Carrillo also noted that MLSs culled 100 from their own number in 2015, dropping from 860 to 760.  “As businesses, we’re doing it ourselves,” he said.

Then it was Hahn’s turn. “Who are we kidding?” he demanded.

“It is 2016. We still have MLSs that require that you use Internet Explorer, and we still talk about innovation? Are we serious about this?” He noted that Zillow spent $23 million on tech developments in the third quarter of 2015 and wondered what the largest equivalent amount of money spent by an MLS might be. “Y’all don’t spend the money — you don’t,” he concluded.

Starchild finished up the summary introductions.

“I feel like the train is careening along, but we’re way off the rails,” she said, noting that before anyone could decide whether MLSs inhibit innovation, “we have to define what we’re talking about.” What’s progress, for example?

Starchild said we could define progress as “making processes fluid.”

Cooperation and compensation help do this, she noted, and therefore, by definition, the MLS doesn’t limit progress, it creates business rules around which progress can be built.

Defining an MLS

Robertson and Hahn were asked how they’d define an MLS. “The MLS does create the conditions for innovation,” allowed Hahn, “but at no point is the MLS itself innovative, and it often limits innovation.”

He also noted that blocking innovation isn’t always bad, likening MLSs to the Federal Reserve. “I’m not sure that I want the banking system to be all about innovating all the time,” he said. “What I really want is certainty, that’s what the MLS can and should deliver.”

What opportunities are MLSs creating for brokers? Starchild said that the MLS helps agents find buyers for properties and delivers technology advantages, like IDX. Carrillo cited the reliable data.

And Hahn and Robertson were asked if they were also castigating brokers for the progress-blocking nature of the MLS system. “Of course I blame the brokers. They’ve all been standing in the way of progress. That’s just historical fact,” said Hahn. MLSs, he said, innovate only when forced to, and the amount of red tape they throw in the face of others’ innovations is disheartening.

Starchild didn’t have much sympathy for that argument. It’s not the responsibility of an MLS to help agents compete against one another. “Their job is to bring technologies that leverage the collective, the group, the culmination of the data that’s produced by all the members,” she said. But the “really cool, innovative technology — that’s the brokers’ and agents’ job.”

“Is it also the MLSs job to layer in multiple layers of red tape to get anything done?” asked Hahn, rhetorically.

Summary arguments

Hahn gave the final summary for his side: “Our argument is straightforward and simple. Historically, looking at all the facts, it’s indisputable that the MLS has not innovated.”

And Starchild rebutted: “Our job is not to answer the question whether there are too many MLSs or whether they could innovate a little bit faster.” Does the existence of the entity limit progress? She said “no.”

So who won? It seemed like at the end of the session, most of the people in the MLS track supported Starchild and Carrillo.

But Hahn and Robertson still converted a significant number of audience members to their point of view.

What do you think?

Email Amber Taufen

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