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FM and the Language of Business

You may have robust FM in place but without top-down communication it will never be fully aligned. In this, the first of three articles from the Centre for Facilities Management Development, Ian Ellison asks, are you having the right conversations?


11 February 2010

 

Let’s do a quick experiment. Write down the words ‘facilities management’. Now, without pausing, underline the most important word (and no, you can’t have both). Go with your instincts. Try not to give it too much thought.

Which did you choose? Was it ‘facilities’, suggesting perhaps that your attention is directed inwards, towards the valuable specialist expertise your team possesses? Or did you choose ‘management’, maybe indicating a more holistic, outward-facing focus on both the role of FM within the organisation and the way it is perceived?

Perhaps this is a moot point, as to perform a true FM intelligent client role competently, whether in-house, as a service provider, or an alternative permutation, the service must have the insight to align its expertise with organisational requirements. But how do you go about doing this successfully, and what language do you use to encourage this? Do all members of your team not only understand the broader organisational goals, but also how they help contribute? Are they out there, willingly and spontaneously acting as ambassadors of your FM service, promoting the value FM can bring to these goals? While doing so, are they using competent, honest, business-orientated language that the rest of the organisation can relate to?

Creating conversations

To illustrate, a recent CFMD research project looked for common factors to explain why a group of English NHS acute hospital trusts were consistently achieving excellent ratings for their Patient Environment (PEAT) Assessments. There were no geographic, socio-economic or demographic commonalities. They varied in site size, organisation and building age. Nor were there similarities in FM service delivery models. Some had FM directorates, others did not; some FM was delivered in-house, or as part of a PPP/PFI arrangement, whereas others outsourced. Even monitoring and management techniques varied.

So where did the key to success lie?

Through open conversations on-site with key FMs, the researcher, Rachel Macdonald, found that success lay not through robust FM processes or models, but in an eye for detail, a sense of pride and commitment (to both their teams and customer organisations), and the leadership practice of establishing strong, informal communication networks. The FM managers made a conscious effort to create networks of conversations outwards, at all levels, beyond the boundaries of their FM service. In a world obsessed with online social networking, it appears that significant success can be realised from investing time and effort in the more traditional notion, and asking ‘what can we do to help you deliver your customer requirements?’ Remember, true communication is two-way, and requires listening to the needs of your business, not just telling people what FM can do for them.

Economy, efficiency or effectiveness?

Here’s another quick mind experiment: What are you trying to achieve for your organisation, and what is expected of your service? Pause here and reflect for a moment.

Is it about doing things for the lowest cost, doing things right, or doing the right things? These perspectives can be a world apart, and their outcomes are likely to be strikingly different.

We all know too well that FM cannot, and indeed should not, exist in a bubble independent of the organisation and the wider economic climate. In these times of recession, the inevitable focus is money, money, money. Certainly, new contracts can be won, and industry growth realised through sharper pencils, and services retained by tightening belts. But is this an ultimately successful route to a sustainable, innovative service industry?

Currently, a recession-proofing perspective is unavoidable. But a significant risk is that the rhetoric of FM being a non-core business overhead to be repeatedly challenged and cut is reinforced if the drive is continually towards the wrong form of operational economy.

Remember, recessions don’t last forever. As much as you may need to align your service with an overall financial business focus in the short term, have you also got a strategic eye on the horizon? Are you setting yourself up for long-term challenges without realising it?

Performance, process and purpose

Have you got behind your performance figures recently and really thought about their purpose? A clever little idea from economics, ‘Goodhart’s law’, suggests that as soon as something becomes a performance measure it ceases to have any real value. This is because everyone focuses on making that particular indicator look great, often shifting other crucial elements of their service towards blindspots. In short, we manage what we measure.

It’s unlikely that we can ever free ourselves from performance indicators, but how careful have you been to construct your measures to align with your own service, and your organisation’s business purpose? What do they actually tell you? Is there a ‘critical tension’ between them designed to balance any inherent bias risks?

To illustrate, here’s another example. One organisation we know had an accurate, comparable cost per square metre, industry benchmarked in the lowest quartile. Great performance, right? Wrong. They lost sight of the fact that they actually had twice as much space as their income warranted and were asset stripped as a result.

Paying more per square metre for less, better quality space can be a good business proposition particularly if the better space actually generates more business. Profit, income, or even staff satisfaction per square metre can enable much more meaningful strategic discussions beyond your departmental boundaries. Some FM services are now talking to their clients in those terms.

Do you innovate or process manage?

Perhaps this is a trick question. After all, there are clear benefits to be had from both perspectives. But let’s pause for a moment and consider that evasive, yet all too commonly used term, ‘organisational culture’. If we’re talking the language of business, perhaps we need to think more carefully about what culture actually means. How do things really get done in your organisation when the boss isn’t around? Who are the important people? What do you have to do to succeed? What should you never do? In short, do you understand your own FM culture?

Next, ask yourself, do you understand the wider business culture, and its context? Most crucially, are they aligned? With FM comes the fundamental responsibilities of statutory compliance, H&S, risk management and other governance requirements, in a broader cultural context of increased litigation and blame. It is often difficult for operational FMs not to feel like stern parents, keeping a watchful, controlling eye over nothing but liabilities.

Recent CFMD research suggests though that if your client organisational culture doesn’t align with such an outlook, attempting to force control through process may create dysfunctional outcomes, like stifling the opportunity to innovate because team members fear the penalty of trying new things, or taking risks. Do you control, or do you enable?

The culture of an organisation is expressed through the language it uses and the stories that get told. For your FM service to truly speak the language of your business, ask yourself, are you listening?

Enthusiastic conversations for what’s possible

Winston Churchill once said, "Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm". Beyond the pointed humour, there is a lot in that statement about learning and improving. We’ve all used the rhetoric about not being able to improve without learning from our mistakes. But do you have the trust, space, reputation and relationships to live this belief? What contribution can your FM service make to your customers, and to your organisation?

Framing such a question creates ‘conversations for possibility’. Have you created the right audience? Are you speaking the language of your business?

 

Ian Ellison is a senior lecturer in FM at the Centre for Facilities Management Development (CFMD), a part of the Sheffield Business School www.shu.ac.uk