Michael Bertha
Duke Dyksterhouse
by Michael Bertha and Duke Dyksterhouse

CBRE’s Sandeep Davé on accelerating your AI ambitions

Oct 05, 20237 mins
Artificial IntelligenceIT Leadership

The commercial real estate giant’s tech chief is a strong proponent of laying a foundation for experimentation before evaluating use cases. The results speak for themselves.

Sandeep Davé stylized
Credit: Sandeep Davé / CBRE

Sandeep Davé knows the value of experimentation as well as anyone. As chief digital and technology officer at CBRE, Davé recognized early that the commercial real estate industry was ripe for AI and machine learning enhancements, and he and his team have tested countless use cases across the enterprise ever since.

And those experiments have paid off. Over time, using machine learning and AI, CBRE has managed to reduce manual lease processing times by 25% and cut positive false alarms in managed commercial facilities by 65%. CBRE has also used AI to optimize portfolios for several clients, and recently launched a self-service generative AI product that enables employees to interact with CBRE and external data in a conversational manner.

Recently, the company announced a significant milestone: deploying its AI-enabled Smart Facilities Management Solutions at more than 20,000 Global Workplace Solutions client sites, totaling 1 billion square feet. Even so, “we are still in the early innings” with AI, says Davé. 

Davé and his team’s achievements in AI are due in large part to creating opportunities for experimentation — and ensuring those experiments align with CBRE’s business strategy. While many CIOs may still be wondering how to begin their organization’s AI journey, Davé’s work at CBRE shows that facilitating experimentation, even if it leads to some failures, can deliver outsize success.

Here’s how Davé has made AI experimentation work for CBRE’s bottom line, as well as his advice to IT leaders looking to do the same at their organizations.

Build a self-service foundation and capture ideas

Eager to deploy AI, many organizations begin by defining and ranking use cases. But those who have success with AI know training data is key. So, a better approach might be to build a data foundation and give your people time to explore the possibilities first.

Davé and his team made did just that when they recognized the power of data at scale. CBRE has a vast amount of transaction data, as well as a plethora of asset intelligence from sensors, workflows, and human interaction with physical space within the billions of square feet the company manages globally. This early work has enabled automation in areas of the business such as lease abstraction or automating work order classifications.

With hype around generative AI exploding of late, the CBRE team developed a multi-LLM, self-service generative AI platform that enables employees to use gen AI for a range of tasks, such as gaining insights from proprietary data and documents, using chatbots to work through problems, generating new content, and translating forms. By making the platform widely available, “we’ve created an appetite and an interest across the organization,” Davé says. “[The product] has hundreds of users and is growing weekly. And it’s unlocking a lot of productivity.” It’s also setting the stage for more innovation across the company. When the technology is available in a self-service manner, “lightning can strike according to its own schedule.”

Still, Davé stresses the importance of safety restrictions when it comes to AI. “You’ve got to be careful how you use [AI] and how you educate your users,” he says. “Human intervention is still necessary. Validation is still necessary. And it’s very important to remain mindful of technical limitations — such as hallucinations — and legal obligations with respect to how we use client data.”

Choose use cases aligned with business priorities

Once you’ve given your people time and resources to experiment and you’ve captured good ideas, it’s time to select the best opportunities to pursue. Here the key is to separate the flashy from the substantive. “We’ve seen so many initiatives fail when it’s technology for technology’s sake,” says Davé, who suggests two means of avoiding this mistake: prioritization models aligned to your business strategy and strategic partnerships.

Let’s start with the models. Davé and his team filter use cases using a simple, time-honored method: plotting them in a two-by-two grid that takes as its axes “value” and “feasibility.” Davé starts with cases that are both high-value and high-feasibility for quick wins to generate excitement and buy-in from stakeholders. “These have the most potential because, typically, they draw on data we already have access to and that we’ve already made good use of,” he says. “In the case of AI, many of these are productivity enhancers. They eliminate manual and repetitive processes.”

The quadrant Davé’s team attacks next is either “high-value, low-feasibility” or “low-value, high-feasibility,” depending on their objectives. It’s a choice between low-hanging fruit and big investments. For AI, the high-value quadrant is where you’ll find most predictive modeling. “These are not easy, but they have a big impact if you get them right,” says Davé, adding that IT leaders should consider picking a use case from each of these two quadrants: one that’s high-value and one that’s highly feasible. That way, your team can demonstrate early results while helping to develop momentum for the larger initiative.

As elegant as it is, though, the value-feasibility matrix suffers one serious drawback: It’s plagued by the same ambiguity that almost all prioritization models face. After all, how do you assess the value and feasibility of use cases that rely on an emerging technology so little understood, or that require building capabilities that may not immediately yield benefits? Here, partnerships can make a huge difference in both risk mitigation and improving time to market.

The importance of strategic partnerships

The right technology partners can dramatically sharpen your estimations of value and feasibility. The best ones will draw on extensive experience with their respective technologies and tools to help you ensure no use case too difficult is underestimated nor any quick win relegated to the bottom of the backlog.

Great partners can also help create value you otherwise would have struggled to produce on your own. This is partly why partnerships have been integral to CBRE’s strategy. “We’ve always held this philosophy of ‘build-buy-partner.’ We don’t have to do it all, and we can accelerate time to value,” Davé says. “We’ve identified a set of prioritized areas where we see interesting CBRE-focused AI innovation, and against each of those we’ve identified potential partners. Alison and her team play a huge role here.”

He’s referring to Alison Bell, CBRE’s global head of digital and technology strategy acceleration and digital partnerships. Bell and her team support a robust capability that many other companies try to build off the side of their desks. She and her team develop digital and technology strategies, study emerging technologies and companies in the proptech space, and evaluate how to integrate the best ones tightly into the CBRE ecosystem.

“When you look at the partnerships or investments that we’ve made in the proptech space,” says Bell, “you can see we partner or invest to capture strategic value. All our partnerships or investments are focused on enabling our core business and client outcomes.”

Through these strategic relationships, CBRE and its partners create something that can neither be built nor bought, a kind of symbiosis in which each is learning from the other and making each more competitive, more distinct. It’s a kind of evolution Davé thinks will separate today’s digital leaders from tomorrow’s. “The traditional CTO role … is about execution,” he says. “Digital is very much about strategy and being a trusted advisor in the business. It accelerates revenue growth and embeds technologies that transform the core business.”

By infusing AI into strategy-led operational workflows and combining a data foundation with a deeply integrated network of strategic partners, Davé, Bell, and their teams at CBRE have propelled the organization beyond cost-cutting and run-of-the-mill ideas toward more compelling innovation, a capability that will serve them well as new technologies emerge.

Michael Bertha

Michael Bertha is a Partner at Metis Strategy, a strategy and management consulting firm specializing in the intersection of business strategy and technology. Michael is the Head of the firm's Central Office, where he advises Fortune 500 CIOs and Digital executives on the role that technology plays in differentiating the customer experience, developing new products & services, unlocking new business models, and improving organizational operations. Prior to joining Metis Strategy, Michael spent 9 years in the IT Strategy practice at Deloitte Consulting, where he focused on working with senior leadership teams across several industries on strategic, IT-enabled business transformations. Michael has an MBA from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in the Management of IT from the University of Virginia.

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Duke Dyksterhouse
by Duke Dyksterhouse

Duke Dyksterhouse is a senior associate at Metis Strategy, a strategy and management consulting firm specializing in the intersection of business strategy and technology. Duke is a part of the firm's Central Office, where he advises Fortune 500 CIOs and Digital executives on the role that technology plays in differentiating the customer experience, developing new products & services, unlocking new business models, and improving organizational operations. Duke earned his MBA from the University of Southern California, and degrees in economics and communications from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.