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The Great Enabler

15 November 2007

(l-r) Gleave, Brookes, Fenwick, Tantrum, Prodgers, Bacon and Sumpter

Can technology deliver practical solutions in a real life FM environment? A group of experts were brought together recently by Integrated fm to discuss what information technologies are available now and what might be round the corner

AS FM DEPARTMENTS COME TO PLAY a broader and more pivotal role in the strategic management of their organisations the pressures on them are clearly increasing. The purpose of this ‘round table’ discussion, chaired by PFM editor, Jane Fenwick, was to explore the role of technology in helping to meet these new challenges.

Panellists were drawn from a variety of organisations (see right) and asked to give their views on the key pressures facing FMs at the moment and the opportunities they could see for technology to play an integral role in day to day FM into the future. It was clear that the management of large volumes of information was at the heart of many of these challenges.

“From an FM perspective we have to take management information from a wide variety of different systems, pull it all together in real time and use it to make strategic decisions,” Wayne Tantrum commented. “Gathering that information in a new building equipped with all of the necessary metering and measuring systems is relatively straightforward but this can be considerably more challenging in older buildings,” he added.

Adrian Brookes concurred: “With a mixed portfolio you end up with different levels of transparency and visibility, so you have some elements of information in spades, with an appropriate level of granularity, and then have other areas where you can only make broad brush assessments”.

Another complication is the use and ownership of different systems. “Very often the information will be shared between different people, such as the landlord and the tenant, so you end up with a multiplicity of systems and a very complex scenario,” Lionel Prodgers observed. “On top of that, the FM may be required to use internal management systems that do not deliver what they need.”

Responding to CSR
This need to gather information is being further complicated by a range of drivers that are impacting on the information required from the FM department, as well as the FM’s ability to access that information. Environmental issues as a component of corporate social responsibility (CSR), changing working practices and the rising numbers of mergers and acquisitions were all cited as important influences on the collation and analysis of information.

The panellists were. agreed that environmental concerns are now exerting a more significant influence on the nature of the information being requested. It was felt there has been a change in attitude at board level in recent years, with a higher level of interest for information on issues and environmentallyrelated KPIs. Much of this information is held in FM systems.

In the case of outsourced FM, FM providers are now expected to be more aware of environmental issues and to help their clients reduce their carbon footprint, though they are not necessarily willing to pay extra for this. “Addressing environmental issues needs to become a by-product of the way we do business because there won’t necessarily be any extra margin to play with – it’s a way of adding value,” Brookes pointed out.

It was also noted that some organisations have a genuine commitment to minimising their environmental impact, while others are using CSR to steal a march on the competition. As a result, they are gathering information but not from the point of view of environmental good, simply to tick the appropriate boxes.

Nevertheless, it was felt that CSR and environmental issues are going to be significant in the future, irrespective of the underlying motivation. “Over the next few years rising energy prices and shortage of resources are going to change the balance of the decision making process,” Matthew Bacon predicted.

There was also some doubt as to whether improved information management systems would be introduced simply to address CSR issues. “I can’t see that we would be using these systems just to enable FMs to report on issues such as CSR – in fact that would be an awful waste of the system,” Dominic Sumpter suggested. “The system should be implemented to drive efficiencies and, as a by-product, help with CSR,” he asserted.

Working practices
Another issue affecting the majority of FMs and creating a demand for better and more meaningful information is the move towards more fluid working practices. With more mobile workforces, it is no longer as easy to understand what resources people need or how best to support them.

“A nomadic workforce is no longer contained in the convenient box of a building but it still needs to be supported, so we need to think about the technologies that will help us do this,” Prodgers warned. “It is now much easier to access systems and share information remotely so we no longer have to do things conventionally around the built envelope, we can take the lid off.

He continued: “There’s always going to be a mix of fixed space, temporary space, hotelling, home working etc. At the end of the day, FMs have to get to grips with what they are supporting and measuring – and what their role is. And the role of the FM is to be supportive and responsive, which means managing these many variations of work settings by bringing information together to determine the most efficient cost in use.”

Alongside the move towards more mobile workforces is the aspiration of many organisations to reduce their asset portfolio, often by consolidating staff from several old buildings into one new building. However, such a move cannot be considered solely from the perspective of the condition of the buildings.

Wayne Tantrum warned: “It’s not just about the efficiency of the buildings when you’re considering moving people from several buildings to a new building. You also have to look at the individuals and the services they perform or the products they sell from that building. The asset may be inefficient but if moving premises creates a risk losing workers and skills that are critical to the business, can you afford to take the chance they won’t leave?”

Information gathering
All of which leads back to the importance of information in gaining a true picture of the assets and their performance. Gathering that information, however, is no picnic.

“There are lots of good systems but the underlying issue is the aggregation of data and the integration of the different systems if you want to get meaningful information that you can do something with,” Sumpter argued. “You have to get down to data level, work out the data elements in the system and how they can be shared with other systems. I see this as the next step for FM systems,” he added.

Bacon agreed: “You have to start by saying what information you want, how you are going to use it, how you need to bring it together and what you need it for. If the FM has one solution, the landlord has another solution and the tenant has yet another solution, then you have to break it down from all these perspectives”.

In achieving this, however, there are a number of obstacles to be overcome. These range from the different types of systems used at different levels within an organisation, to the different types and formats of systems being used by different divisions or companies that make up the total enterprise.

“Larger businesses have a wide range of reporting tools and each business unit will have individuals responsible for reporting – but the people using these systems don’t understand the data,” Bacon observed. “You end up with all of these completely different views of the same data, leading different people to different answers, which confuses the whole of the decision making process.”

Bacon continued: “The other blocker is that when large companies invest in enterprise systems they are very expensive to implement, so they are only implemented at a high level to deal with the big decision making processes. They don’t get down to the operational level where they are needed to bring about change. The result is that you end up with a gulf between the enterprise systems and the ‘spreadsheet jockeys’ working at the coal face, who don’t have the tools they need to integrate the information back to the centre again. Consequently there may be a number of different strata in the organisation, which actually makes the data even more diffuse.”

Information islands
“We think of these as islands of information,” Sumpter added. “The ‘super users’ pull off information and pass it down so you end up with islands where the data is manipulated and spun out to somewhere else. By the time it gets back to the high peering system some of the figures are wildly off”.

The situation is even worse when an organisation has been through mergers and acquisitions (M&A), bringing together a wide range of different systems within organisations that have different cultures. And, financial institutions might pay a lot of attention to the compatibility of business-critical systems in an M&A scenario, there is next to no chance of CAFM systems being treated with the same priority.

“Very few M&A decisions will depend on having common CAFM systems so you end up going to the lowest common denominator that everyone can read – which is often a spreadsheet,” notes Brookes.

A similar situation is even to be found in a single building, where different monitoring and control systems are based on different protocols. While there has been a lot of talk about interoperability between such systems, in many cases the manufacturers, in trying to differentiate themselves from competitors, have hindered a more open approach.

Open systems...
For all of these reasons there are strong incentives to move towards more open systems that are able to share information easily, as Andrew Gleave explained. “The idea of open systems is that you have a business process layer which then interacts with different systems – and the business process is agnostic of the systems. The key is that it can touch different systems, because they are based on open standards”.

This concept has led to the development of ‘smart’ systems that are able to extract data from disparate databases and bring it together in a common format for ease of sorting and analysis.

“A major advancement in this respect is the extensible nature of XML, which allows it to reference a combination of open data sources and use open standards to bring it together,” Bacon enthused. “We used to talk about federated systems where we bring all of the data into one place but we don’t have to do that anymore. The organisation can break the information down into silos and establish policies to determine who is responsible for managing and maintaining which silo. To do this effectively, though, the business needs to understand what it wants from its data resources,” he warns.

...and dodgy data
Open systems capable of supporting this ‘tower of Babel’ approach are already entering the market but, several panellists noted, these will only be as good as the information that is available to them. If the data that the ‘smart’ system can harvest is of poor quality, the decisions based on it will be equally poor.

“Supplier records are a common example of this issue,” Bacon noted. “Within any business there may be half a dozen locations where information about suppliers is stored. Which is the right record, where is the truth – or is the truth an abstraction of a number of these?”

Gleave added: “The key here is to have hubs of information that can be of different varieties but can synchronise with different systems to give one version of the truth.”

“The other problem,” Bacon continued, “is that in the real world people don’t use the systems properly. They forget to close the help desk job down, or to swipe their card as they leave the building. There are many processes that rely on closure for data to be given the correct status. So we need to have technology that is more robust and less dependent on people doing what they should do.”

Overcoming the human factor could well depend on wider implementation of automated systems. For example, it is already possible to detect an identification card carried by a member of staff and follow their movement around a building. And while concerns of ‘big brother’ continue to mitigate against the implementation of such pervasive systems like this at the moment, panellists felt they were definitely on the way.

This approach, Prodgers suggests, is one way in which technologies can help FMs handle changes in the workplace and move towards a ‘cost in use’ approach that overcomes many of the problems they currently encounter. “If you take a drink from a ‘fridge in a hotel room it is detected and added to the bill, which is automatically printed and which you pay by swiping a card – there’s no typing in of information,” he noted. “I can see facilities management going the same way, with the utilisation of smart cards and detection systems.

The system would then know when you’re on the network, when you’re in the room, when you’re at the desk – that’s cost in use. Until now we’ve been trying to do this by drawing lines on plans and allocating space trying to measure what resources people are using. In one go, all of this goes away, along with the human activity of trying to apportion and allocate use of resources.

The overriding conclusion of the discussion was that FMs need access to more information, which has to be accurate and available to them in real time. At the same time, changes in the significance of CSR, working practices and organisational structures are all contributing to increased demand for a broader spectrum of information.

Currently, some of this information is relatively easy to access, particularly in new buildings, while some of it is only partially accessible - and often only in an aggregated form that reveals very little fine detail. The situation is exacerbated by the wide variety of information formats in use and their incompatibility with each other, making it difficult to collate information in a meaningful and timely fashion.

Panellists felt the new open standard technologies, combined with new techniques in monitoring and tracking usage of assets, hold the key to managing this information flow in the future. So-called ‘smart’ systems are able to gather information from a variety of sources, convert it to a common format and make it available for analysis in real time. This, in turn, means that information can be held in many different locations within an organisation yet still be accessible from a single location.

However, it is also apparent that such systems can only fulfil their potential if the underlying data is accurate. Introducing processes that ensure only one version of each item of data resides in the organisation’s systems should be apriority, to enable the benefits of open systems to be fully exploited.

Link: Integrated FM

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