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Learning Curve

14 April 2008

Facilities management in the education sector brings a number of challenges that may not be found in other sectors. This can impinge on how facilities managers can make the best use of their CAFM software, as Steve Dingley explains

EDUCATIONAL ESTABLISHMENTS OFFER a number of challenges for FMs that would not be found in other sectors, not least in the ways that they can deploy computer aided facilities management (CAFM) to full effect. And even within this broad sector there is much variation between different types of establishment, dependent on the type of education and the nature of the building portfolio.

For example, an FM department at a university or college will generally have a number of large buildings, with varying functions, on one or more campuses. A typical mix might include teaching spaces, laboratories, cellular and open plan office space, sports facilities, student accommodation, libraries and outside spaces.

Where there is a dedicated FM resource for schools, perhaps to a group of schools constructed under a PFI project, the buildings are simpler and may cover a wider geographical area. However, there is still a mix of spaces with different requirements and often very limited resources available for managing the facilities.

On top of that is the diversity of people who use the facilities and the activities they pursue. In a school, for example, the FM needs to meet the requirements of pupils and teaching staff during the day and then, very often, adapt to meet very different needs of local people using the resources in the evenings. In a university environment, there is a major shift in usage from students during term time to conferences and other activities in vacations.

For all of these reasons, the CAFM systems that are needed, or at least highly desirable, to deal with much of the routine work need to be very flexible and responsive. In addition, there is a need to manage a lot more data, analyse it and generate reports and a central help desk to deal with reactive calls and management of resources such as rooms and sports facilities.

In a university or college, though, the key question is who should be allowed to access the help desk and how best to offer that access.

Clearly, there may be concerns about the potential for pranks or abuse by students if the system were made widely available. On the other hand, students using the facilities are ideally placed to spot any problems and report them at the earliest opportunity.

One option, which many institutions have tried, is to filter all such requests through members of staff. This has the additional benefit of minimising duplication of requests but is quite a cumbersome approach and increases the workload for staff. As a result, it can lead to long delays in response times so that service levels suffer, as does the reputation of the FM department.

In this respect, the widespread use of technology has the potential to come to the rescue. Most higher education students are now given access to the college or university network with personal, password-controlled access. If this facility is combined with an intranet-based help desk facility, the requesters’ details are known from their login details so there is little potential for abuse. As a result, problems can be reported quickly and easily with the minimum of involvement from staff. A further benefit is that such a system should also help to spot any duplication of requests.

Similar principles can be applied to the booking of rooms and other resources, though with a number of safeguards built in. Room use will differ widely between the teaching day and outside of teaching hours, and there are also leisure-based activities to account for. These include multi-purpose halls, squash and tennis courts, bars and other spaces that might be used by students, staff or outside organisations. Many of the larger establishments will also hire out facilities to organisations during vacations, to increase revenues, and these will often include accommodation as well as meeting spaces. These organisations need the flexibility to adapt their booking system to meet all of these requirements.

Again, the intranet offers a useful mechanism but in this instance direct access for individual students is probably not the best way forward. Here, tighter control will be achieved by limiting access to staff and authorised representatives of clubs. The ability to establish a hierarchy of permissions can be used to control who is able to book what. For example, a club’s student representative may be allowed to book a room but not to order catering.

Another key consideration with so many potential requesters involved – and a relatively high turnover of requesters - is to make access to the help desk easy and intuitive. So developing an easy-to-follow user guide is advisable and its existence needs to be flagged up to new students and staff.

Where older buildings form part of the portfolio there may be additional challenges posed by the nature of the spaces available. More enclosed spaces, often of non-uniform shape, can require considerably more work in calculations for recharging as well as managing moves.

Using space management software that retains all of the relevant information in a database can streamline these tasks in two ways. Firstly, it will help in calculating floor space for recharging across all of the rooms occupied by a particular department. Secondly it can help with managing moves by simulating the move on a computer first, checking that everything fits before physically moving the actual items.

An additional benefit in an organisation with a high proportion of part-time and peripatetic staff is the ease of communicating the details of a move by e-mail. As much of the information about staff will be held by the human resources department there are also benefits to building in some integration between FM and HR departments so they can share up-to-date information.

The need to share information also highlights another challenge increasingly faced by all FMs but perhaps more so when dealing with a diverse portfolio. While academics may be somewhat sheltered from harsh commercial reality, the same is generally not true for the FM department in an educational establishment.

In most cases there will be a need to produce strategic reports on help desk efficiencies, use of sub-contractors, how well various bookable resources are being utilised and many other related FM issues. Some of this information will need to be gleaned from a variety of sources and, quite possibly, will arrive in a range of formats. Using IT tools designed to assimilate data and convert it to a common format for analysis will not only make reports more accurate, it will also save a great deal of time.

While many of the issues faced by FMs in the education sector mirror those in other sectors there are certainly unique factors that need to be addressed. Identifying those factors and defining where an off-the-peg CAFM solution won’t do the trick is the first step in arriving at the most practical and cost-effective solution.

● Steve Dingley is Managing Director of Integrated FM.

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