Some real estate professionals are concerned technology will depersonalize their business. But not David Johnson, executive vice president and chief information officer at Jones Lang LaSalle in Chicago. Johnson considers technology a supplement to personal service–something that will enable brokers and other CRE pros to provide information and analysis more accurately, efficiently and consistently.

As head of the Information Technology Group, Johnson is responsible for and delivering technology products and services that support the firm’s strategic vision and annual operating plans. He’s currently managing the implementation of several key worldwide initiatives including the company’s recently launched podcasts, improvements to the firm’s infrastructure and technology operations and delivery of a single enterprise platform for managing its businesses.

A former practice leader and senior manager in the real estate and technology groups at both Price Waterhouse and Ernst & Young, Johnson has more than 20 years industry and technology experience. Here’s what he has to say about the role of technology in commercial real estate.

GlobeSt: Why is the commercial real estate sector slower to embrace technology than the residential sector?

Johnson: The residential and the commercial real estate sectors are significantly different because the customers are significantly different. Residential real estate is a volume business. Millions of people are looking for homes or apartments on a daily basis. Far fewer corporate real estate execs or investors are looking for space or property at any given time. So the market in terms of the number of customers is much smaller in commercial real estate–and, as a result, the number of customers per broker is much lower than in the residential sector. This yields a big difference in expectations.

Residential customers are used to a far less personal experience because they are “one in a million.” They’re also searching for property on their own time, not generally as part of their job, so they’re more aggressive in looking for ways to shorten the process and the time associated with the task. Technology has filled that role nicely in residential real estate for that reason.

Commercial customers, however, are used to a personal experience with personalized service. The business is relationship based and the broker with the relationship usually gets the sale. Commercial customers like it this way because it is very efficient for them, since the broker does the work. A shift to more web buying, so popular in the residential market, would not be viewed as customer focused or friendly at this time.

GlobeSt: So what role does technology play in the commercial sector?

Johnson: Technology in today’s corporate real estate world is focused more on operation of the property than on the marketing of the property because that’s where it provides the most return on our investment. From a future perspective, as it relates to the transactions portion of our industry, our job as commercial real estate technologists is to provide tools to enhance the personalized experience the customers already get from their established relationships, not to replace those relationships. It’s a different product play and will most likely be aimed first at making the broker more efficient and then tying the customers into better, more reliable and more easily prioritized information sources. It will be a way to filter content and distribute it in ways that make it easier to process for everyone in the workflow.

GlobeSt: Do you expect the role of technology in the commercial sector to evolve in the next few years?

Johnson: I think the way people buy commercial real estate will change in the next five to 10 years as today’s web generation moves into positions of authority and the value of personalized service is lessened by gamers, bloggers and instant messengers. But we have some time to figure that out and go to market with product that is targeted specifically to the needs of the next generation of real estate owners and occupiers.

GlobeSt: Are CRE brokers today generally embracing technology or more content to stick to the status quo?

Johnson: It’s a mix. Brokers will only really change when the buying habits of their customers change. Today’s market is very efficient for the customer because the broker does a lot of the work and those with the relationships get to keep the cash. The more aggressive brokers understand that change in buying habits is inevitable, so they’re asking for tools and sources of information that keep them most efficient to their clients…or, in essence, making them more valuable and reliable. The less aggressive broker looks at technology as a competitor to their business, as something to be feared because it may “take my job away.” Luckily for Jones Lang LaSalle, we don’t have many that think this way. So I’m constantly being challenged to provide efficiency in the form of technology innovation for our agency leasing and tenant representation businesses.

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