Successful intelligent building management can only happen if the current bottom-up approach to FM-related IT is scrapped, says James Woudhuysen
10 June 2005
Most facilities managers now agree that FM combines property issues with those of human resources and IT. But is this anything more than self-flattery? It would be hard for the FM department to be as poor at people matters as the HR team. But if I look at the IT side of FM as a discipline, I don't find a serious literature on the nitty-gritty of IT.
The literature of IT, it's true, is weak on FM. And what IT people too often take to be the nitty-gritty of their trade in fact turns out to be the simply nerdy: IT people are at least as bad as FM people at explaining the benefits of what they do.
Yet there is also some good news. For the first time that I can recall, I've witnessed a presentation on intelligent buildings that really was intelligent. It was at County Hall on the South Bank. There, panelled interiors inevitably recall Ken Livingstone's 1980s exercise in self-flattery - the Greater London Council. But there was nothing indulgent about the speech of Mike Williams, managing director of Central Data Control, a systems integration consultancy with an Orwellian name but a reassuring track-record.
CDC has devised much of the FM-related IT for the Bank of England, GCHQ and County Hall. Williams, an engineer, talks convincingly. And the message is simple. For the most part, Williams says, contractors in building, power and facilities management, like those in security, safety, operations centres and mainstream enterprise IT, have different mindsets. They install, on behalf of the client, different IT systems with different protocols and different kinds of data sets. After that they link lots of local input sensing and monitoring units to local control units, bring outputs to local control units, display results with their own, proprietary man-machine interfaces, and tie everything up into a client network made with their own, proprietary technology.
The result for the client, says Williams, is a series of incompatible IT silos. Worse, the procurement team buys those silos, only to leave the scene. Installers put in the silos and, particularly in the case of newly built facilities, also leave the scene. General management is left with the job of belatedly subjecting all the silos to standard corporate procedures. Not easy, especially if you're working over multiple sites.
It was refreshing, in today's Clintonesque culture of empowerment at all times, to hear Williams insist that the alternative to the current bottom-up approach of installing technology silos must be a top-down one. Hooray for a sense of FM leadership, where all we hear is babble about partnership. And Williams' alternative makes 21st century good sense.
Start with a single network, and a back-up network, that is either based on ethernet or on wireless technologies. Then hang your servers and your stand-by servers off it and run everything on internet protocols. Last, hang your PCs and peripherals, telephony, CCTV cameras, digital recorders, alarms, chillers, boilers, heating, ventilation, air-co, sprinklers and access systems off your open, non-proprietary but secure network. Then wait for new gadgets and applications to come - you can add them on to the network with ease.
Williams smiles about running a shopping centre in China. There, it is the centre manager, not the individual tenants, who pays the state the Chinese equivalent of VAT, adding up the aggregate day's takings from Epos terminals across all the stores on his premises. Then he'll want big flat screens as intelligent signage and to show commercials on, with the option of making flash warnings to shoppers if there's a fire. And he'll want CCTV systems that capture images and count people.
Internet protocols are the key to complex arrangements like these. Giving staff mobile IT devices, with which to capture data in situ, cuts paperwork. User interfaces with standard response plans for what must be done and what might best be done in different kinds of emergencies -- these help. So does thinking about how, say, a fire on the London Eye might mean for the potent chemicals in the London Aquarium's special fish life support systems.
To an outsider like me, Williams makes it all sound so easy, even though it must be very difficult. I wonder whether I'm missing something. Is everyone in facilities management already working with this way, and I've just missed it? Or, after two hours on his feet, is Williams still an unrivalled pioneer of internet protocols in FM, deserves a medal just for talking English about them?
James Woudhuysen is a director of www.audacity.org and co-author of Why is Construction so Backward?