Smart spaces & places

A blog brought to you by Chris Kane 

Twenty years ago, I found myself balancing a demanding role at the Walt Disney Company whilst completing my studies for an MBA and as part of my research I came across Martha O’Mara’s insightful book ‘Strategy and Place’. It was a pioneering effort which she began writing in 1994 and completed in 1999, as the result of her taking an MBA at Harvard Business School and being one of the first to question “the important role Place plays in the behaviour of an organisation.” Her professor at the time replied “Hmm, interesting question but hardly anyone has studied that in organisations”.

The resulting book, ‘Strategy and Place’ is described by Harvard Business School Professor of Business Administration Rosabeth Moss Kantor, an influential expert on change management in her own right and the woman behind Kantor’s Law as, “ illuminating the organisational, cultural and performance implications of corporate facilities” In other words O’ Mara’s work highlights that all-important link between business strategy and real estate.

So, for anyone concerned with the strategic management of corporate real estate and the workplace this is a worthwhile read, even though it was published back in 1999. Over the last two decades it has provided me with some important insights which have stood me in good stead and ones that I still hold true. Leafing back through Martha’s book I was struck by how much of her thinking remains even more relevant in today’s complex and uncertain business world, but I also found it interesting to note that many of the big-name occupiers cited as case studies are no longer around today, such as Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle) and Digital Equipment Corporation, (which became part of Compaq, which was subsequently acquired by Hewlett Packard).

‘Strategy and Place’ provided me with an introduction to the concept of using the office as an enabler of the business. I found it fascinating to read about how spaces and the places they are located in play an important part in the behaviours and culture of an organisation. In Martha’s words “The decision you made about Place and its daily management must emphasise maximising its value in helping your organisation to compete and thrive”. This is one of the book’s key points for me, which still remains relevant today: namely that property is of no value to an enterprise if the real estate does not support the objectives of the business, regardless of its value in the property market. Unfortunately, this truism is sadly lost on many practitioners, even today.

However, as a student of business strategy at the time, the discourse on how corporate property plays its part in a company’s value chain made real sense from me and the principles in ‘Strategy and Place’ had an enormous impact on my professional career. Little did I realise then, that in a few short years after reading this material, I would get the opportunity to demonstrate how to make corporate real estate into a true strategic asset for the BBC.

Another significant learning point for me was getting to grips with the concept of competitive advantage and how the corporate portfolio could play a role in sustaining or improving on this factor. Given today’s volatile and ambiguous business environment, it’s critical to be able to link real estate strategy with supporting the brand and helping attract and retain the best talent.

It left me pondering on the question of the role of workspaces in todays’ world and how they can be a positive catalyst or an inhibitor of improved business performance. I wonder if this is fully understood by CRE practitioners. Do we have this type of strategic mindset or are we moored to the weeds of operational efficiency and cost cutting?