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Software for Hard Facts

18 March 2011

Without the software systems developed since the 1980s, facilities management could not have become the force it is today. Compton Darlington explains how the development of FM software has mirrored the rise of the role of the facilities manager

THE STORY OF CAFM’S EVOLUTION over the last 25 years dynamically reflects the adoption and acceptance of IT as a business tool in the enterprise. It charts the shift from mainframe computing to the arrival of the PC in the workplace, client/server architectures and the spread of Windows, followed by the Internet and fully web-enabled applications that take the benefits of the software direct to the end-user.
Although it had been around in its earliest form since the1960s, by the time FSI arrived on the scene in 1987, CAFM software was still seen by most people as a mechanical or engineering solution for a niche – and often hidden – facilities management function. FSI’s CAFM platform, Concept™, was itself born out of a requirement to take feeds from basic BMS systems, riding in on the growing demand for Computerised Maintenance Management
Systems (CMMS).
Its gradual absorption of a comprehensive range of other hard and soft FM services and its metamorphosis into a user-focused, modular package, breaking through sequential barriers of perception facilitated by each generation of technology, has underpinned the rise of FM itself as a business-critical function that is still embracing new areas, from energy and portfolio management applications to room booking and catering facilities.
A quarter of a century ago, desktop technology was still the preserve of larger organisations – technology-based and blue chip companies who had substantial property portfolios that they were managing them themselves. An early PC in the average FM contractor’s office would have been a rare sight.
And even where there was access to a CAFM system, it would have been via a traditional code-heavy DOS front-end, with a black and white or green interface, running on the company’s expensive and mysterious mainframe computers which were probably housed in their own datacentres.
As computers shrank, software developers in corporate IT departments wrote their own CAFM systems, taking advantage of emerging office automation tools such as spreadsheets and databases, that slowly broadened CAFM’s basic reach into asset management and maintenance, and some cost management. But these systems were relatively inaccessible to all but hardcore FM users.
Systems like Concept™ 100 – the first generation of FSI’s platform, which hit the market in the early 1990s – helped to break the mould because they were Windows-based and promised a new user experience with the possibility of opening up access to the application, and its business benefits, for the first time. The next version – Concept™ 300 – took this a stage further but still ran on its own proprietary database, meaning that the vision of being able to pull in a variety of data from diverse sources still lay in the future.
A true client/server iteration – Concept™ 500 and Concept™ SQL – finally arrived towards the end of the decade, based on Windows 98, and allowed any ODBC or client/server database to be used with the platform. This meant that for the first time, a CAFM solution could claim to be a genuine ‘enterprise’ system, albeit one whose appeal was still mainly limited to the technology-aware user.
At that stage, the emphasis in corporate IT remained on the computer itself rather than the software as an operational tool, and CAFM adoption was often driven by the IT manager who saw the idea of a single application running on a server as infinitely more manageable – and cost-effective – than multiple installations of a desktop application on end-users’ PCs.
The evolution of the technology helped to effect a sea-change. As users became more computer-literate, CAFM moved out of its niche to become an application with widening business appeal, opening up a host of development and market-making possibilities for CAFM software providers. Much of this occurred organically, as easier-to-use technology encouraged contractors to request tighter integration between the CAFM platform and other core business systems.
CAFM-skilled professionals began to emerge and take their competence with them from company to company, and the software achieved greater recognition as an operational tool for delivering, managing and monitoring a variety of FM services, rather than simply being considered a back-office technology tool.
Integrated document management and workflow capabilities, as well as real-time reporting functionality, all helped to raise CAFM’s profile as a business system that held value throughout the organisation – and all the way to the higher levels of management – rather than being the sole preserve of the FM department.
Even so, little more than a decade ago, most CAFM implementations focused on planned preventative maintenance (PPM) and Help Desk functions. But the development of workflow technology, combined with the arrival of the Internet as the model for intra- and interbusiness communication, subsequently helped to unleash a wave of business system integration potential. Today, across Europe and North America, the benefits and reach of CAFM into all areas from room booking and inventory management to post room services and temperature control are widely understood and used to make the business case for investment in CAFM technology.
As early as 2000, it was becoming clear to FSI and other leading CAFM vendors, that with the web catching on as the preferred user interface in so many organisations, a web-based approach to CAFM delivery would be the next milestone in the evolution of their platforms that give staff and remote users standardised access to software and eradication of the delays and errors associated with hybrid paper/technology processes.
As many traditional CAFM applications started moving across to the Internet, they could be joined by a host of other applications that embraced 21st century business models and – for FM service providers – afforded a real opportunity to automate portfolio management and deliver a more proactive set of services.
Along with other software products, Concept™ initially answered this need in 2001 with a web portal for its client/server architecture, heralding the arrival of a fully blown end-to-end webenabled platform, Concept™ Evolution, in 2008. And with it came the opportunity to deliver the software as a hosted service, allowing clients and contractors to outsource the platform and its attendant communications and hardware requirements, and focus on the needs of their users rather than operating the technology.
There is a certain irony in this. In many ways, an FM professional from the pre-desktop era would not find the principle of a central – or hosted - system on a server, accessed by multiple users, too much of a leap for their imagination. Even the CAFM applications behave much as they used to. But of course there is a world of difference in the power and integration of the systems themselves. Higher bandwidth and the sophistication of tools now
available to software developers have revolutionised CAFM. And user awareness is driving demand for ever more customisable solutions that tie in with the processes at the heart of the business, helping to bring FM into the mainstream.
This revolution was not achieved overnight. For some FM professionals, the idea of a self contained software package that sat on their own desktop and generated its own sense of ownership was very appealing. The realisation that this was simply a stepping-stone in the evolution of CAFM technology to a corporate, web-based application, occasionally incurred resistance from more technical users. There was also a challenge for software vendors who, having established a market for CAFM that stretched way beyond its original definition, had to take on board the requirements and demands of an extended, web-savvy user community with high expectations of any application they are given access to.
In this respect, the advance of technology has enabled the marketisation of CAFM, particularly when it comes to linking the benefits of the software to managing the environmental and health concerns that have risen up the agenda in the boardroom during the first decade of the 21st century. Users have taken control of the market and are feeding a constant stream of demands for increased functionality and integration back to the software vendors.
Take a smart building project, where the organisation wants to make the facilities as reactive to real-time requirements as possible. The arrival of particular personnel can trigger a chain of CAFM-enabled processes from switching on the air-conditioning and lights in pre-booked meeting rooms to finding out available space from the car park entry system.
It’s a world away from the old core functions of planned maintenance and Help Desk call management, and it’s the direct consequence of the development of integrated, workflow enabled technology.
The escalating speed of technology evolution, particularly during the last ten years, has helped CAFM software vendors to move quickly to develop intuitive front-ends for their systems, meet user’s high expectations for ease of use and seamless integration.
Twenty-five years ago, CAFM software was principally the automated enabler for the delivery of a conventional set of hard FM services. Today, thanks to the powerful arc of evolving technology, it gives FM organisations the chance to fully exploit the information that a high quality CAFM system, potentially integrated with an unlimited array of business tools. That’s a quarter of a century of real progress.
Compton Darlington is Business Development Director, at FSI (FM Solutions)
 FSI, Microsoft Gold partners, design, develop and implement Concept™ CAFM Software. Concept™ is widely regarded as a leader the market and FSI is noted for innovation within the FM industry. The Concept Evolution™ fully web-enabled CAFM solution is a flexible and easy to use software platform which leverages the web to provide a single, integrated view of facilities and maintenance activities
HISTORY: Although the term CAFM – Computer Aided Facility Management – is now a widely used term in the FM sector, it owes it origins to Tony Leppard, MD of FMx Ltd, developers of CAFM Explorer, who in 1986 applied for and was granted the CAFM trade mark. Images of IT from the 1980s – a desktop PC and the now defunct ‘floppy’ disc.

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