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Network Control to FMs?

15 September 2005

Converged building networks means that from voice and data to BMS, security, fire detection and even vending machines, the future is on one IP network. But whose network will it be? Philip Ross argues that the FM should take control.

OVER THE NEXT DECADE, new technologies are set to transform the workplace and the nature of work at a pace never witnessed before. Radical advances in the power and performance of mobile devices, ubiquitous building and urban digital networks, the death of distance and personal area networks are just some of the technological drivers of change that will require the workplace to be reinvented.

For over 120 years the office has been dominated by fixed technology, from the Remington Typewriter and Bell's telephone in the 1880s to IBM's PC in the 1980s; there has always been heavy equipment on desks that has tethered the office worker. Before the mid-1800s the workplace had no technology at all - clerks with pens at simple desks or benches were the predominant model. We believe that we are heading 'back' to an under-engineered, technologically sparse workplace environment, at least in the eyes of the user or occupant. As the Financial Times stated: "Fifty years ago computers were absent from office life. In 50 years time things will be much the same. There will be no machines on our desktops." (September 27 2004)

Heavy desktop equipment has for a century tied the worker to his or her desk. But this approach to workplace technology is increasingly redundant. People no longer sit behind desks. In fact research shows that the majority of desks in an average office are empty at any one point in time. Having a telephone extension number that represents a piece of furniture or a room is archaic in an age of fast communications.

Changing rules
Now, with the introduction of mobile, portable technology and the ability to communicate across distance at little or no cost, many of the fundamental rules of office life will be challenged. Something significant is happening to the nature of work and the places created to house it in the 21st Century.

In my recent book, The 21st Century Office (co-authored with Jeremy Myerson) we recognised four key trends for the workplace in the 21st century - narrative, nodal, neighbourly and nomadic. These 'four Ns' define the future workplace and they represent a radical departure from the containers that we have created for work in the past decades. There is no doubt that people will be working in different ways and in different physical environments, driven by changing management style and corporate culture, socio-economic factors and new technology.

Four of the most basic features of the 20th century office - its visual uniformity and banality, operational inflexibility, lack of human interaction and place-dependency - are now being subjected to a wide-ranging review. The narrative office, for example, represents a powerful reaction against the anonymous looking, automated, over-engineered workplaces of the past 40 years. Nodal workplaces are responses to the inflexible, isolating culture of the 20th century headquarters, populated by sedentary workforces unable to share ideas with colleagues or clients on account of a statusdriven, departmental, static division of space.

The neighbourly office is a vibrant reaction against the command-and-control legacy of the 20th century, which created suspicion and hostility between supervisors and staff and undermined attempts to create social communities of purpose in the workplace. The earliest offices forbade conversation and frowned upon social contact, enshrining the work ethic in a dull, monotonous interiors.

Nomadic offices represent the logical conclusion of a technology-driven trend to liberate work from the workplace. For most of the 20th century, the office was fixed in time, place and space. People commuted to and from office buildings that were located in the urban 'business district'. The only way of communicating with a company was by physically connecting to its buildings.

Now people can work anywhere, they are free to choose and the corporate 'address' no longer represents bricks and mortar. IP Telephony, perhaps the most disruptive technology of this decade, will lead this definition of work. It will be reinforced by a new breed of mobile device that allows work to take place from anywhere. Phones become just another piece of software, available from any networked 'on line' device. And these so-called 'softphones' will drive the emergence of new workstyles as locations become blurred.

Future mobile devices will also accelerate the trend of mobility, both inside and outside buildings, and lead to new ways of using space; more collaborative and project areas, fewer allocated desks and a greater proportion of social or public space will become the norm. Electronic document management systems, together with intelligent displays and interactive boards will allow greater use of digital media, and with the growth of extranets and employee portals, these will be accessible from anywhere. Mobility, IP telephony, call centres, off shoring, email and the internet have changed the rules as the 'death of distance' allows a reappraisal of where work takes place in the 21st century. This is a fundamental and psychological change to the way business is done and, in the future, the places we will work.

But the technology is not just about connecting people in new ways and liberating them to work in different spaces. The biggest market for wireless technology is not, in fact, human beings but machines. Machine to machine connections or 'M2M' as it is becoming known is the new 'Holy Grail'. Several technologies are leading the way. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has already become common place in retail for tracking assets and inventory in the supply chain. Now it will become important in commercial buildings, not just for tracking assets but people as well. RFID will be joined by a new technology - Zigbee - that is now a global standard (officially IEEE802.15.4) for wireless data and aimed at building management systems.

Zigbee is a miniature radio chip that will be put in (at manufacture) to air conditioners, light fittings, detectors, controls, switches and so on. Every Zigbee chip has a unique IP address and so the FM can view every window, light fitting, door and monitor on a computer screen in real time to see if a device is open or closed, on or off, read a temperature or report a state.

Almost every area under the FM's control that touches technology today, will be connected to and run off this one converged building network. Voice, data and mobile telephony are obvious, but printers and photocopiers will be a part of this converged world of IP. More importantly, security and CCTV, the BMS, pagers and even vending machines will all be part of this centralised IP network.

Once the building is connected, the FM has the ability to raise the stakes by being able to provide real time data about occupancy, assets, efficiency and so on. But as building networks all converge to IP, FMs run the risk of loosing everything to the IT Director or CIO.

The clear winner could be the FM, who could take the high ground and move wired and wireless connectivity to be just another utility that he/she installs and manages in the building. With simple, converged IP networks on floors linking to one fibre backbone, this could be achieved at fit-out as a prerequisite for security and the BMS. The FM could then kindly let the CIO run a few laptops and software telephones
on his/her network...

Without a real understanding of emerging technology and its opportunity for real estate, FMs will be left standing. Unwired, the company that provides IT knowledge for the property and facilities profession, aims to avoid this scenario. Its key annual conference - WorkTech05 - is supported by both PFM and the BIFM and features a range of speakers from the worlds of property, facilities, technology, design, business and change management.

Michael Joroff, head of research at MIT/Harvard will open the conference with a keynote on digital cities and spaces followed by Frances Cairncross, former management editor of The Economist, who will talk about the trends in her books The Death of Distance and The Company of the Future. Niklas Zennstrom, founder of Skype, will talk about the future of communications with Philip Vanhoutte who runs technology firm Plantronics; and Gijs Zantvoort, part of HP's strategy team, will talk about mobility. The morning closes with a vision from Siemens One on connected buildings.

MIT/Harvard will open the conference with a keynote on digital cities and spaces followed by Frances Cairncross, former management editor of The Economist, who will talk about the trends in her books The Death of Distance and The Company of the Future. Niklas Zennstrom, founder of Skype, will talk about the future of communications with Philip Vanhoutte who runs technology firm Plantronics; and Gijs Zantvoort, part of HP's strategy team, will talk about mobility. The morning closes with a vision from Siemens One on connected buildings.

Philip Ross is CEO of Cordless Group and editor of UNWIRED. He is a specialist in workplace and echnology futures.

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