Can anyone fail in 2018

Success through failure - How the digital change is taking place in the administration company, and how it can be done better - a field report.
05/18/2020 Edition: vdivDIGITAL 2020

For years we have been reading, hearing and seeing every day how we and our companies have to change in line with digital change in order to be satisfied and successful in the future. Day-to-day business leaves little time to deal with it appropriately. So a mountain grows out of failure, to which one ultimately surrenders instead of conquering it. I would like to save you from that - with this report on the digital change in our company and the mistakes we have made.

First the facts: Our digitization offensive began in 2014. It was successfully completed in 2018. Since then, the workload has dropped significantly and employee satisfaction has risen significantly. We have doubled the number of managed units, but no more staff than before the start of digitization. Our customers are also noticeably more satisfied. We have stopped all advertising activities. New business comes naturally.

So much for the good news with which one likes to present oneself to the outside world. They say nothing about what happened in and with our company in the four years: We did not digitize voluntarily, we did not have the topic on our screen, made many wrong decisions, had to start over several times. We wanted too much too quickly, thought too little, planned too little in a structured way.

The rude awakening
Up to 2014 we were classic, conventional property managers: property managers with a lot of island knowledge, sticky notes, paperwork, files, and the phone kept ringing. If the person in charge was not there, the caller was left empty-handed. We might have muddled through this for a while - if the departure of half of the staff in 2014 had not brought us into a situation that was as unexpected as it was through no fault of our own: Not only was the staff gone, but also the undocumented knowledge of the properties.

At this point - especially in times of a shortage of skilled workers - it became clear to us that we had to change our “processes”, which at that time nobody was called that. We would have needed a plan, but instead only had an emergency: there was a lack of staff, information was not available, digital transformation was not even a foreign word for us, let alone the silver lining.

In the search for a solution to relieve the remaining staff, three focal points came into focus: documents, processes & communication as well as our ERP system, the property management software, which was of no help to us.

We were looking for new employees and new approaches: From now on, all documents should be scanned and digitized and stored in the IT in order to establish process management using software with a suitable search function - with the least possible time and financial effort. We introduced an inexpensive document management system that ran on the existing office server, acquired a better scanner and relied on a free open source ticket system that we integrated into our homepage web space. The definition for process management was stored in the office software. To cut a long story short: We failed terribly with it.

force of habit
The ticket system was free, but nobody wanted to use it - neither we nor our customers. It was too cumbersome, simply not suitable for our purposes, and hardly usable on smartphones. So the phones kept running hot and we kept busy making notes on slips of paper. The processes that were carefully stored in Office were never touched by anyone, the habit was stronger. Only the document management turned out to be useful and relieved the day-to-day business. Nevertheless, we have now also replaced this software with another one. Fortunately, this did not fail, although in retrospect it was quite irresponsible: Our backup strategy, which we had not adapted to the new situation, could have been difficult to get on our feet.

New start with gain in knowledge
With a new team member, a somewhat more relaxed work situation and very motivated, we started all over again: We had to rethink the entire company, this time developing a plan for digitization in our company. Three components emerged in our concept, which interlocked like gears: We, the technology, our customers. On this basis, we formulated our new requirements: independence in all software areas from a single provider and from your own IT infrastructure, doing as much as possible yourself in order to understand better. As a result, everyone should have to work less, but with more attractive tools that adapt to our needs. For such a solution, we were ready to invest in our future.

The search for it turned out to be difficult, however, and suitable offers were rare. Lots of discussions and the willingness to work with providers in pilot phases when a solution seemed suitable, finally led to the goal. In autumn 2016 we found the right solution for communication, process management and ERP, signed contracts and started implementing it in the company. At the turn of the year everything was ready to be filled with data, communicated externally and used - three new products at once, parallel to the annual accounts of the rental and residential property management that were usually due at that time. Not a good idea: We have completely paralyzed the company. It took us months to work through that, during which we sometimes updated master data on the weekends with the help of friends and family in order to make them available for day-to-day business. In our enthusiasm, we had totally underestimated the implementation effort.

All good things come in threes, including bad things
Despite our new tools, not much has changed in our workflow. The phone rang much less frequently, there was no more island knowledge, but nothing really wanted to flow. A team meeting revealed that our decision-making structures were hindering us. So now it was time for the “social transformation” of our company. It should go hand in hand with digitization, but it is far more important. We have abolished all hierarchies, everyone has decision-making authority; we use agile methods and Scrum. We were able to use the findings from three failures: We work completely web-based, without our own expensive and maintenance-intensive infrastructure and without worrying about data backup. We work anywhere, with any device, as long as there is an online connection. We employ people with physical disabilities who can work again thanks to the web-based tools. And today we are curious to see when we will fail next - and why. At least that doesn't scare us.

10 tips for how you can do it better

1. Digitization affects companies, technology and people. Without the social structural change, it offers no added value.

2. Every company is different. Imitating what competitors are doing is not worthwhile. Find the path of transformation that fits your company.

3. Do not rush. Get your employees on board. Discuss, consider and plan together what makes sense. Use the practical knowledge of your team.

4. One after the other. Avoid replacing or deploying multiple tools at once, and plan to implement them during times of low workload. Such a process can take years.

5. Failure is part of it. Methods and tools want to be tried out, discarded, changed. Rigid plans will only get in your way.

6. Beware of blind actionism. Don't be pressured to act quickly. Keep control of your digital transformation and choose your own pace.

7. Keep the reins in hand. It's about your company, and your employees need you in the transformation phase - as a visionary, for support, as a leading figure, as an expert on the company.

8. Do what is possible yourself. You learn more, and the result is more in line with your own ideas and can even save costs. Employees can be included.

9. The most convenient is not always the best way. A provider is often not the expert for all desired solution areas. Rely on professionals for the respective subject. It pays to be more broadly positioned if you want to change a provider because a better solution is in sight.

10. Information is everything. Don't forget to let your customers know when there are changes in availability, communication channels, etc. Share innovations, test them on a selected circle and get feedback.

Photo: © SFIO CRACHO /

Process management, document management, IT infrastructure

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Managing owner of Niesen Hausverwaltungen e. K., Düsseldorf