by Edward Qualtrough

JLL CIO Chris Zissis interview – Empowering business innovation and digitisation

Jun 12, 2017
IT StrategyProfessional Services

JLL CIO Chris Zissis says the commercial property and management services organisation does not like to shout about innovation because of a “belief that innovation is part and parcel of what JLL should be doing all the time”.

Appointed CIO for the EMEA region of the US-based professional services and real estate investment management firm in April 2013, Zissis is a member of the 2017 CIO 100 and has been driving a digital transformation throughout the firm so JLL can create new markets, products and services that engage their clients in unique ways.

The CIO, who reports to EMEA CEO Guy Grainger and was also made CIO of JLL’s newly-created global Capital Markets business, said that for an organisation with origins dating back to 1783 disruption was both an opportunity and a threat.

“Both in thinking about innovation and diversifying, and disrupting ourselves or being disrupted, we take into account the fact that there are going to be certain foundational fundamental technology deliverables that we have to do to run a business that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said.

“For us innovation or delivering services and products is a balance, whether those are technology-led or process-led. That’s why we don’t talk about technology and innovation; we talk about technology, data, business transformation and innovation, automation and digitisation.”

Empowered innovation

Zissis says that one of the biggest dangers of boxing innovation in a silo is creating a complacent culture in which people are not encouraged and empowered to come up with ideas and strategies which could improve the organisation.

“Two, three years ago we removed the innovation team because we felt like it absolved everybody,” Zissis said. “So if you think of the thousands of colleagues we have in the business, we absolved those thousands of colleagues from doing innovation.

“We drive technology innovation through business innovation. But we also have within the IT teams and the technology teams and data teams – globally and regionally – some really smart innovators and some really smart people.”

Zissis said that while pockets of innovation were emerging across the organisation, it was still necessary for IT to be involved and consulted.

“We’ve broken the notion that all of this can and should be managed, controlled and provided by IT,” he said. “But we do feel strongly that we should have a seat at the table at least in terms of making the decision, of helping inform the decision. A lot of our business innovation is driven through our businesses, who have very strong dialogues with our clients who tell us and work with us on how they would like us to support and service them.”

Transformation and doing things differently is a core tenet of the agenda at JLL according to Zissis, who said that innovating was a natural output of challenging the status quo and how things have always been done.

“One of the principles we live is we do not build or try to deliver in our own guise,” he said. “If we constantly are looking for things to justify the way we currently do business, we will basically just create very shiny technologies but not ultimately transform the business.

“So one of the principles or ethos we have right from the top down is we constantly challenge ourselves to transform, improve and make our business more efficient.

“If you’ve got that ethos, you end up innovating anyway.”

Executive buy-in

The CIO, who previously worked at PwC and Barclays, said that this mandate for change comes from the top with the organisation’s most senior leadership having recognised that data was at the heart of the JLL’s business which has pushed IT to the fore.

“Technology and data has therefore become a real facet of our corporate strategy,” Zissis said.

“If I think back in my early career, IT was very much support. Our job was to make sure that the corporate strategy was deliverable but had very little influence or sway on what the corporate strategy was.

“That has fundamentally changed in the last three or four years under Colin and now Christian,” Zissis said, referring the firm’s current and former CEOs Colin Dyer and Christian Ulbrich.

“Technology and data is part of the corporate strategy and also informs the corporate strategy.

“The reason we’ve done that is not because we want to be smarter than everybody else. It’s because we’re realising as consumer behaviour changes, so does corporate buying behaviour.”

Zissis credits CEOs Dyer and Ulbrich, who took over in October 2016, with pushing the digital, data and technology agenda.

This has resulted in a culture radiating from JLL’s global and regional leadership that investment in technology, data, and partners who offer something new to the company is something the business will continue to embrace, Zissis explained.

Fail fast

The modish, lean startup notion of being able to fail fast has been adopted by a number of larger organisations in recent years and is also being appropriated at JLL.

Having space to experiment was crucial, but Zissis said that this was due to JLL finding its feet in this space rather than because it was trying to emanate a desirable startup culture.

“There is a very clear understanding that organisations like ourselves will have to go through a learning curve, so we need to keep a very strong balance on what we invest in and is it generating value,” Zissis said.

“We need to learn and then move away if it’s not generating value. And when I mean value I’m not only referring to profits but value for our client relationships.”

Value-add CIO

These initiatives chime with how much time Zissis has spent on operational IT and how much time the CIO is spending as a strategic business and technology leader. The end goal, the CIO says, is for the CIO to continue to drive value when business-as-usual IT has been automated.

“I have spent a lot of my time doing value-add activities, but some of my time doing more administrative and operational tasks, so how can the organisations through applications and automation help me not do as many of those administrative and operational tasks, so that I can continue driving value?” he said.

In this environment of business innovation, Zissis said that it makes employees accountable and able to drive change, while also breaking the notion of IT being ‘all-knowing’ problem fixers rather than business partners.

The CIO said that this has resulted in a host of benefits. Three years ago, Zissis explains, the technology department “was probably 90% support”. However, of the current team of 170 in 28 countries, Zissis estimates that “just shy of 40% are support, maintenance, enhancement and run the business” and the remainder are business engagement, programme management, development and delivery of services.

This has involved a large amount of up-skilling and retraining of staff, Zissis said, with employee skillsets continuing to evolve every two or three years to drive the organisation’s transformation agenda.

Internet of Things

Responding to the 2017 CIO 100, Zissis noted that that virtual reality, deep learning and the Internet of Things were the emerging technologies JLL was investing in which the organisation expected to have the biggest future impact in its sector.

Internet of Things applications are a big area of opportunity, Zissis said, as a client proposition using sensors or beacons for data aggregation and operational improvements.

He said: “Another application which I think we will embrace more and more, is how do we use the Internet of Things to do things like predictive maintenance?

“To do things like measure with clear KPIs the green credentials and footprint of buildings. And I think our industry will struggle to define exactly where we will get our biggest bang for our buck – not because we don’t want to but because I think clients are prepared to pay variable amounts for these values.”


JLL’s culture of openness regarding innovation extends to working practices and mobility, with Zissis explaining staff were able to use a device of their choosing. The CIO’s own experience of joining a company where the technology offering was perhaps less advanced than at other organisations influenced this.

“We are quite an open organisation in terms of allowing our staff to use devices and collaborate,” Zissis said. “If you walk around JLL you can see we’re well equipped.

“You’ll see people with Windows laptops, Macs, iPads, iPhones. When I joined that was my first real bugbear; I left an organisation where I had a nice fancy computer and device and then I came to JLL and felt like I’d taken two steps back. And I’m not that young, but even for me it was a bit of a shock.

“As an organisation globally we have a secure but open environment. We monitor it, we secure it, but it allows for collaboration.”

This has enabled mobile working, an important part of the organisation’s workplace strategy. The CIO himself does not even have his own desk let alone office, which he describes as “quite cool” but quips it can be the source of occasional frustrations.

These mobile working practices are underpinned by and hosted in a cloud environment using Office 365 and a number of their own business applications with the aim to create an open and accessible environment to provide real-time data to staff and clients.

Working with startups

At the end of 2016, JLL entered into a partnership with Berlin-based machine learning and artificial intelligence startup Leverton to increase automation of its lease management operations and digitise key processes. While JLL works with the biggest tech vendors including Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, NTT, Google and Verizon, Zissis believes that working with startups is an important part of JLL reaching its innovation ambitions. However, he admits there is a structure in place that makes it easier to work with the established players.

“The big traditional players have very clearly defined commercial frameworks,” Zissis said. “They are preferred suppliers to us; we have long-standing relationships.

“That entire paradigm is very different when it comes to startups. Leverton has been a great learning curve for us and also a very good proposition in terms of what we are achieving and trying to achieve, but it was really hard work to get there.

“Another piece is do startups really have the capability to do what they say they can?”

Fundamentally, Zissis said that there is no CIO in the world who will invest in something that is risky, and that sustainability often outweighs the pace that some startups want to move at – something the CIO said could frustrate startups if they could not appreciate how corporates work.

Aside from working with the ‘proptech’ startup Leverton, Zissis said that other emerging technologies JLL was investigating were in artificial intelligence, virtual reality for the viewings of properties, and machine learning to create automated valuations based on reams of data that banks will support. This property valuation exercise was being launched in Spain, which is emerging from a depressed market with the lenders under pressure to speed up their release of these assets back into the market.

Finding balance

With his key strategic aims for the next year to focus on JLL’s people, enable new data platforms, and push forward with digitisation – while dealing with growing cyber threats, upcoming EU GDPR legislation and the implications of Brexit – Zissis still hopes to challenge the business, CIO role and positioning of the IT department.

“One of the things I’m still ambivalent about but I think will resolve itself, is do you change the business process and buy the IT as it is out of the box, or do you maintain your old business process and then try to create the IT around the traditional business process?” he asked.

“I think it’s both. I think in some business lines where the process works IT needs to wrap around the process. But in certain instances I think the process is archaic and not well thought through.

“In those cases we need to challenge our business colleagues, and that balance is something I think our industry is going through at the moment.”