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Outsourcing through time

7 May 2013

(First published 28 February 2013)

Sometimes it feels like 2013 is going to be just like 2012 all over again.

Or 2011, or 2010 – or indeed, any of the past fifteen years.

Our sector has been blessed with some strong conferences over the past few months, and you can read here about the many refreshing angles taken by presenters (outcome-based contracts, organisational design and worker mobility, to name but three).

Yet, despite these topics, so many of the issues under discussion seem to return us to the same insoluble staples – inadequate representation, uncertain parameters and patchy engagement with the young. To paraphrase the mighty Klingon warrior Lieutenant Worf, as sampled on Orbital’s seminal album Orbital 2, the recurring issues in FM can often make you believe that there’s a twist in the fabric of time and space, ‘where time becomes a loop...’

Which is why it was refreshing to meet Ian Mills and David Burnett, two of the people involved in the setting up of Procord, the facilities service company. Procord grew out of IBM’s property management function during the early 1990s recession. Mills and Burnett visited the FM World offices for an interview with Leigh Carter, who was working with IBM at the time of Procord’s formation.

Carter was also at Johnson Controls when it acquired Procord just a few, very successful years later.

Procord made huge strides in re-setting the parameters of the outsourced FM function. What I found most fascinating about their story (which reads as if they were working in the Wild West of facilities service contracting), was the reverence both men had for that basic requirement of a good FM: the ability to communicate.

Much was made of the service model developed for IBM and then packaged for sale to other organisations. Naturally enough, there were issues in convincing sceptical business leaders, union leaders and workers. And much was made of the inspirational leadership of one John Jack, whose communication skills have become the stuff of legend.

Jack appears to have been a gentle giant of a man, assuaging the concerns of men like Mills and Burnett and putting them into positions within the newly set-up Procord that he innately knew they would flourish in. Then, having put his own directors at ease, Jack would go out to clients and convince both board and workforce that Procord’s proposition was something they could believe in.

Consultant Anne Lennox-Martin told me that Jack had “a real humility about him when dealing with clients – a lesson I never forgot.” Indeed, that ability to get through, to connect with the decision makers, must have been essential to Procord’s success.

These days, we’re constantly reminded how important communication skills are to an FM, and while it could be bracketed as one of those recurring themes mentioned above, it’s one we ignore at our peril. In fact, if anything it could be argued that we undervalue the worth of knowing when and how to communicate with an audience, adapting as that audience changes. Can such levels of empathy be picked up, or is it innate? Whatever the answer, it’s a recurring themes I’m happy to indulge.

Martin Read is managing editor for FM World