Open-access content 15th September 2009
FM professionals must raise their profile and take an active role in shaping their business - and the current recession is the perfect time to do it
17 September 2009
by Tony Matthews
Intelligent building technologies offer improved performance and better and more effective solutions to their occupants' ever-changing needs, working processes and lifestyle patterns. And they have the potential to provide tangible and significant returns on investment.
Intelligent products and technologies can enhance a building's energy efficiency. They can reduce operating costs and provide a more responsive and flexible working environment that positively influences creativity and productivity and extends the life of the building or structure in which they exist.
However, evidence shows that even the most elegant, advanced and well thought-out technology will fail if it is not used correctly or adequately supported. Failures in functional and financial support - caused by inadequate communication and poor cost-benefit analysis - are to blame.
The challenges faced by facilities managers are changing along with their responsibilities, job description and priorities. They and their support staff are now expected to do much more than just the traditional repair, maintenance and operations duties.
Increasingly they report directly to upper management and often carry board positions. Facilities managers are charged with pushing companies' goals via the care of the largest corporate expense: the building itself. This responsibility has led to an expansion of duties within the field and often requires the need for some adroit 'plate-spinning' by facilities managers.
They must wear a hard hat and possess engineering skills, while wearing a suit and tie and having acute business acumen. At the same time they must become the eyes and ears of the operation, anticipating problems before they even happen.
Low hanging fruit
The constraints enforced by the recent global economic crisis are not, on the face of it, a great stimulus to the uptake of more expensive technology. Yet, perversely, hard times often force through innovations in technology and process in the search for more efficient ways to get things done. Silicon Valley emerged during the US depression of the 1930s. The PC industry (Microsoft and Apple), the enterprise software industry (Oracle, SAP and Computer Associates) and Biotech, all emerged in the recession of the 1970s. The dot-com boom came out of the recession of the early 1990s, while the dot-com bust brought forth Google, Skype, etc.
Conversely, easier times often, inadvertently, give space for organisations to take their eye off the ball, and either allow wasteful practices to become embedded, or inefficient or outdated processes to take root. However, these flawed processes will often provide the 'low hanging fruit' that can be corrected relatively inexpensively with immediate net benefit.
In the early 1990s, Business Process Reengineering (BPR) was adopted by a vast number of firms striving to regain the competitiveness lost to foreign competitors, as well as their ability to satisfy customer needs and their cost structure. However, much of the early fervour evaporated in the mid 1990s. The culprits were misapplication of the techniques and the inappropriate application of IT to 'speed up' processes that were essentially flawed.
Today, with the growing integration of systems throughout the workplace bringing open communication between control devices not possible five or six years ago, building owners have the option to save energy by enhancing connectivity and visibility to almost every application in use. Equally important, the ability to analyse process effectiveness is now available in organisations to a much greater extent than before, often within or closely associated with FM.
The range of abilities within most organisations' IT groups is far beyond those of data network and laptop fixers. There is a ready-made resource whose core skills are built around the ability to analyse and optimise processes so that they can be effectively integrated in an organisation's ICT framework. This presents a major opportunity for FM to become the focal point for monitoring and detecting inefficient, underperforming operating processes and identifying and implementing corrective action.
These skills, combined with the freedom and flexibility offered by more flexible working conditions and practices in today's workplace mean that facilities managers no longer need to be located in silos remote from their co-workers. They now have the flexibility to move around the organisation, to monitor and react more effectively to the needs of their organisation and its staff, and to make educated recommendations for improvement based on personal workplace-based observation and the higher level of professional expertise available through collaborative, knowledge-based systems.
Facilities managers will also be more 'savvy' in their knowledge of new developments in technology. They will know how, where and when it can be most effectively deployed, and in a way that not only improves the building's operating performance but also adds value to the building in terms of increasing its whole life value.
The Holy Grail of building intelligence and integration has long been the linkage of measuring, monitoring and reporting 'whole building' performance. However, this has often been hampered by incompatible protocols and standards that have got in the way of effective sharing and use of vital performance data. A number of integrators now have bespoke 'dashboard systems' that fulfil some of this role.
Wouldn't it be nice, though, if a standard approach could be adopted? The smart facilities manager will play an important part in helping to specify that approach sitting, as he or she does, fairly and squarely at the overlap of the people, process and technology equation.
Both the BIFM and organisations like the Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network (MBE KTN) are working hard to encourage collaborative processes that stimulate collaboration between people who specify, operate and use buildings and those who are developing new technology to make their buildings better to operate and work in. It is through industry-led organisations such as these, with members who are contributing real-world experience and know-how, that the discussions leading to worthwhile innovation and development will happen.
Tony Matthews is a senior research consultant at Bsria, delivery partners in the Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network (MBE KTN)
Cometh the hour, cometh the FM
MBE KTN (www.mbektn.co.uk) is a single, national over-arching Knowledge Transfer Network for the Modern Built Environment. The network brings together all organisations that make up the supply chains active in the built environment, such as businesses (suppliers and clients) universities, research and technology organisations, the finance community and government departments and agencies. These organisations are brought together to take part in, or benefit from, a range of activities aimed at enabling the exchange of knowledge and stimulating innovation across the built environment.