3 March 2014
Back in the now halcyon summer of 2012, the French weren't happy.
British cycling performance director Dave Brailsford had joked about how the all-conquering British Olympic team was winning as a result of "specially round wheels" and someone French had taken him seriously.
Zut alors! "Specially round"? It was all we could do to hold back the tears of laughter at first, naturally, but of swelling national pride soon thereafter as the Union flag and national anthem received outing after outing.
The reality was that there was no obvious, clear difference between British and French cycling equipment; and anyway, there are rules against that kind of thing. In fact, our cycling victories in the velodrome and beyond were the result of a team peaking at the right time and benefiting from what the since knighted Brailsford famously referred to as an "aggregation of marginal gains".
The definition of a marginal gain? No one obvious standout idea; instead, plenty of small, incremental improvements that add up to an important and clearly identifiable difference. Sound familiar? Welcome back to the epic debate about what constitutes innovation in facilities management, as recently debated at the Workplace Futures conference.
For many outsourced service providers, the aggregation of marginal gains is where the war can be won. Many companies operate schemes in which their managers and employees are incentivised to consider changes to their working practices that result in individual productivity gains. The advantages of this approach to FM innovation is that it rewards contract-specific enhancements, for example, the window cleaner who proposes a specifically angled pole to more quickly complete his task. That innovation has the dual benefit of being before-and-after measurable as well as keeping the individual concerned engaged in the activity and its impact on the client.
There are negatives, though. Innovations sourced in this way might be seen by clients as relatively small beer. Improvements, not innovations; little things that they come to expect as just part of the day-to-day service. Indeed, when taken individually these little innovations can be so incremental that their positive effect on contract relationships can be fleeting.
Arrangements in which clients demand X number of "innovations" a month - or the service providers that suggest such clauses - can result in both parties becoming hostages to fortune.
What's more, as Workplace Futures confirmed, this "innovation of incremental gain" is seen by many as masking the need for an altogether more profound approach. Workplace data guru Tim Oldman spoke at the conference about FM's failure to take hold of its role as "asset guardian" and "protector of asset value". The primary focus of the FM should be in ensuring the ability of a workplace to support employees in the work they're doing. Oldman is far from sure that FM as a whole has a handle on the impact of the workplace on organisational performance. A solution to that conundrum? Now there's innovation.
So yes, there's a bigger prize to play for. But small innovations do at least benefit from clear before-and-after measurability. Essentially, there's both a big picture and a little picture approach to innovation in FM.
Martin Read is managing editor at FM World