by Mark Chillingworth

Cushman & Wakefield CIO Kelly Olsen interview – Disruptive space for change

Sep 28, 2015
IT LeadershipProfessional Services

Chief Information Officer and head of project management Kelly Olsen is preparing the yet-to-be-disrupted commercial property sector for the inevitable impact that the internet and technology will inflict. The housing market has already been completely reshaped by the likes of Zoopla.

Cushman & Wakefield is one a trio of commercial property organisations that dominate the market in North America and Europe, and at the time of CIO UK meeting Olsen, a merger between DTZ and Cushman and Wakefield was in progress – the deal was reported to be worth $2 billion.

A privately-owned organisation, CushWake is collegial in its services to clients, Olsen told us at its London head office. The firm has a major presence in Europe, the US and Asia, and, according to the CIO, has been joining up its operations in recent years.

“This is a people business. The teams know, and are passionate about, commercial real estate,” she enthuses.

Interestingly, despite the increases in mobile working and the continuing economic issues, Cushman & Wakefield has not seen a drop in demand for office space. “Five years ago, we were very, very local and it is a cyclical business, so we have moved to global systems run from the cloud. That means my role is to make sure that our IT is aligned.”

Joined offices

In May, DTZ and Cushman & Wakefield announced their plans to join forces. Both organisations are privately owned, and as a combined entity Associated Press reports they will have annual revenues of $5.5bn and manage over four billion square feet of office space. By joining up, the business will become the second largest contender in the market. Currently, CBRE and JLL have the top spots on the commercial property podium.

As International CIO, Olsen reports to the Global CIO Craig Cuyar, and she is responsible for the information and technology strategy in the European, Asian and South American operations of Cushman & Wakefield.

“I wear a dual hat with my responsibility for the global project management office (PMO). One of the reasons I joined was to be closely involved in the strategy, and I wanted to be part of that. Most industries have, or will, be disrupted. So we have to look for new ways of doing things. We are trying to build an innovation framework to disrupt ourselves. As things become more commoditised, we have to think about where we are more important to the client.

“We want to use our data to harness the knowledge that our people have, and be predictive about the services that we give to clients. We have formed a tie-up with Pielabs in Shoreditch. It has come in with live online demonstrations rather than presentations,” Olsen reveals of the beginning of changing the way customers are served.

“I’m finding the pace of change is so exciting, and it is great to be an experienced CIO using a leading edge start-up. They are forcing me to think differently about stuff.”

Olsen is using the change of pace to change the approach to technology at Cushman & Wakefield, and for her as a CIO. That new approach is to focus on the user experience, and to help Olsen and IT become leaders in the field.

“Technology comes last. Look at the personas and journeys, and then the technology. We are constrained as a Microsoft shop, but we map the user experience on to that. And we do all the mapping with the users from around the business.

Olsen takes inspiration from Shigeru Miyamoto, the famed Japanese games designer, who brought a great deal of design thinking to the games he created.

“We are trying to adopt that style of design thinking. Working on how somebody feels when a product is put in front of them. There will be people who want to work in a Rolodex way, but there are also people that are used to WhatsApp and Slack, so you need to be flexible,” she says of the need for IT departments to support a myriad of working fashions in order to enable the organisation to please, retain and prosper from the talent it has. As Olsen has already stated, organisations such as Cushman & Wakefield are reliant on their teams, and the relationships those teams have with clients. With so many businesses and services becoming commoditised by software, the need for organisations to have strong relationships with their clients and a strong culture is key, and the CIO plays a crucial role in this.

“The cloud, and for us Microsoft Azure, are making it easier to stand something up. Prototyping allows us to work quickly though our ideas and we want to do a lot more,” Olsen reveals of the change in culture and operations.

“This year, we plan to have a team, dedicated to prototyping. Once it’s proven that we can get real value out of innovation, we will create a lab. Bimodal IT means nothing to our partners, while prototyping does.

“We have given people targets, so that part of your journey at Cushman & Wakefield is to take part in our creative journey. If innovation projects are done off the side of the desk, it just won’t get done. Thinking time is so little in business today, and we have recognised that. Look at Lego, it gives people time to play. We have some way to go in commercial real estate,” she says of building a creative culture.

“Taking constraints away from people means you need to act like a founder but ensure that they feel empowered, otherwise it can really constrain thinking,” Olsen says of how a CIO must act in today’s organisations. She describes the role as not being dissimilar to the culture of the Great Britain, where we have liberties not rights, but there are limits to liberties.

“You can do what you like, until someone tells you to stop,” she says with a smile. “We provide the platforms that both protect and give access to the information,” she adds.

“The mobile phone has become the office, and that means our colleagues can work off a tablet or phone. Surveyors used to go out to an office to survey and then spend three quarters of a day writing a report. Now a tablet with a reporting app and Bluetooth can be used, and the business can see the savings. With tools like Viewit360, we can provide a vision of buildings to our project managers,” Olsen reveals of the new working methods Cushman & Wakefield are experimenting with. As a leading provider of office space to corporates she says that the organisation is also keen to exploit how technology is reshaping the traditional office.

“Smart buildings and the Internet of Things (IoT) is a really big thing and an increasingly innovative area. We have seen a few start-ups already to see how we can better connect people and skills in this area. It is very exciting when you think of technologies like Hive and Nest for a wider environment,” she says of the home control devices from British Gas and Google respectively that have become incredibly popular.

“Could meetings be recorded and an actions list auto-generated?” Olsen asks of the increased services the building can offer to its tenants.

Building information

Cushman & Wakefield has already realised that as commercial property experts, it is an organisation with a wealth of information, and that all businesses today are publishers and information providers, who can provide extra value to their clients or future clients. An app developed by Cushman & Wakefield provides clients with easy access to that information.

“We have a lot of research and have put it on the app and use of that research is up by 1,000%. That is just a change in the access that can be really simple,” Olsen argues.

Apps and innovation cultures can, however, only be created when the senior IT team is free to drive change, not run operations. “We moved more to global platforms so that our technology is globally sourced and locally serviced rather than the other way around,” she says.

Smart buildings are not a new area to CIO Olsen. During a six-year career with outsourcing and service integration providers Capgemini she was closely involved in smart metering projects. “I worked on smart energy in the Nordics with Capgemini and they were way ahead in smart meter roll out, and we did some interesting work on the challenges of collecting the data from them,” Olsen says of the two years she was COO of the Capgemini Smart Energy Services business. “Smart meters are just the start. One of the reasons that I joined Cushman & Wakefield was that I see myself integrating parts of the business. Let’s get right out of IT. We have to focus on integration,” she says of how technology is integral to all business processes, opportunities and objects.

The CIO UK Profile pages have been awash over the years with male business technology leaders who ‘relax’ by taking on challenges such as sailing and cycling, and just as being a transformational CIO has nothing to do with gender, nor does the need for a challenge away from the day job. Olsen too takes to the roads on her bike, and she’s taken part in some of the most demanding sportive road rides in the UK.