Better outcomes depend on collaboration - but many believe FM still suffers from its absence. Will the rebranded ISO44001 collaboration standard help? Adam Leach reports.
13 March 2017 | Adam Leach
You don't have to dig that deep into new contract announcements before finding a phrase along the lines of 'We look forward to collaborating closely with our new partners to extract maximum value for both parties'. Much like 'innovation', it is a term thrown around freely and easily.
But inasmuch as true innovation can lead to a business changing product or way of working, true collaboration can lead to drastically different relationships and unlock that previously hidden value. But just what separates true collaboration from false, and how does an organisation embrace it?
There's an international standard that is designed to help. Based in large part on its forebear BS11000, and steered by the Institute of Collaborative Working (ICW) with assistance of a range of experts and firms from different sectors, ISO44001 is intended to help replicate the mutually beneficial relationships frequently found between individuals with organisations.
At the heart of the standard's ideal is a belief that relationships between organisations are all too often hindered by not being thought about until a contract has been signed. It contends that without being assessed beforehand, effective collaboration cannot be represented by an agreement, so the standard outlines two complementary models that form a framework to establish a collaborative working relationship.
The high-level structure outlines 10 factors that must be thought through: scoping out the needs and objectives of the relationship; understanding the context of each organisation; identifying the leadership structure, planning and operational awareness assessments; and concluding with performance evaluation and the next steps for improvement.
Similarly, the life cycle assessment moves through an eight-step process that begins with operational awareness where vision, value, leadership and objectives are defined and runs through separate stages for internal assessment, partner selection and value creation, through to exit strategy activation.
Neither model, nor the standard as a whole, provides a prescriptive process, but rather serves as a guiding structure on how to go about embedding the principles of collaboration within a relationship.
All well and good, but should FMs require such a thing or can it not just be created through the natural way of things, say, through good old common sense?
"Sadly, the evidence is that if it is common sense, people in our industry don't have it," says Martin Pickard, managing director of the FM Guru Consultancy. "We have a huge problem in terms of retention. That's a sign that the relationships aren't working."
Pickard stresses that is by no means a universal issue across the sector and points to case studies on show at annual industry awards ceremonies and the recent Workplace Futures conference as evidence of relationships run correctly, but examples of it done badly persist.
"I get called in a lot either by the service providers or the clients saying 'this isn't working, tell us how to fix it'. I'm horrified by what I find when I get in there. Both parties have put together, huge teams of management who spend their time checking up on one another and auditing one another, and it all comes back to a lack of trust."
This opposing force to openness and collaboration is something David Hawkins, director of operations at the Institute of Collaborative Working and the lead on developing the standard, often encounters - in some cases unknown to those demonstrating it.
"I've been into companies where the chief executive's opening comment has been, 'collaboration is in our DNA', but then you walk round the department and people are rated on their performance based on a very narrow band of activity."
Measurement of performance and its associated criteria remains key of course, but in Hawkins view has at times become too restrictive, clouding the overall objective of the relationship in the first place. "There was a case a couple of years ago at a navy base, where one of the KPIs was the height of the grass. Every time the contractor went out and cut the grass, the client would go out and measure the height of it. You have to ask yourself is that really mission-critical?"
Assessing the garden as a whole is what Hawkins, the ICW, and those who helped develop the standard such as Pickard, advocate. And in the case of some in the FM sector, that might require a shift away from adversarial and transactional thinking and replacing it with a trust-based approach between clients and contractors.
Away from transactional relations
"The move has gone from thinking about buying in a service against a specific set of terms to channelling the relationship towards better outcomes," says Hawkins. "There's a growing emphasis, I think, where you start to talk about total FM and increasing the range about what services companies provide."
This shift towards total FM and a broader approach to service delivery is something that Catherine Anderson, principal of Anderson Power Consulting, has also observed while assisting clients in going to tender for contracts.
"Contracting has been around for enough time that many have learnt the hard way that going on price does not necessarily give you value," she explains. "They realise that what they're really looking for is a partner that will work with them on continuous improvement."
In this dynamic of relations, while the two parties still have a contractual agreement, it is rarely used in terms of governing activities.
"The external landscape is changing so fast that a contract just can't afford to stay in stone, you can't just keep going back to the original document to settle disputes, clients expect to work with their contractor to help seek improvements."
But how does this collaborative approach to FM manifest itself in delivery? In some cases it will see services offered before being asked.
"We had a case with NATS, which is one of our foundation members. They had a problem with their communications that shut down Heathrow for 45 minutes," says Hawkins. "One of the key providers that worked for them, without any request or any contract requirement or anything, sent 40 engineers along just to see if they could help. That's a different kind of relationship that then drives the way those organisations work together."
Offering an example of an FM provider that has adopted the standard to their way of working and embraced the principals of organisational collaboration fully, Hawkins points to Emcor UK - the first company to adopt the standard as BS11000.
"When you look at their process, collaboration is embedded. It's part of the recruiting process, the on-boarding process, the allocation of staff to collaborative programmes, and people development. It runs right through."
Putting it at the heart of operations
This wholehearted adoption of collaboration has paid dividends for Emcor, with both new business wins, increased customer retention and several industry awards.
But as Christopher Kehoe, group executive director at Emcor and a non-executive director at the ICW, explains, it did not simply fall into place. "We identified that we had pockets of very good customer centricity but we also had areas where perhaps relationships weren't where we wanted them to be, and we wanted to get to a point of having a standard Emcor approach to how we work with customers."
To find that overall consistency, Kehoe turned to Cranfield Business School and commissioned it to develop a "bespoke, very structured piece of learning" that infused each element of the collaboration standard, which Emcor adopted within its business practices.
Since it was launched, the company has put 250 account managers and senior personnel through the training and the balance of input has gradually become balanced between Cranfield expertise and internal learnings from Emcor. The move has "completely changed" the way it works with customers, so now collaboration is at the core of the company. "When we talk in Emcor about key account management, we could equally be talking about collaboration."
Reaping the benefits
Successfully implementing such an approach though, is only worthwhile by translating it into business benefits. Achieving this at Emcor has meant changing its approach to customer acquisition, with a greater focus applied to research on potential customers before any approach is made to assess their appetite for open dialogue and also shared values. In cases where such a process is seen to be 'commodity-driven' it may even see the company opting not to progress.
Where it has worked, the initial investment of time and resources has paid off. An example of this is in the UK water utilities sector, which Emcor saw as being both underserved by the FM sector and aligned with its strong record of working with similarly technical and highly safety-conscious sectors such as pharmaceuticals and nuclear power.
"My testament to whether that worked is that the first three water companies that came to market, United Utilities, Thames Water and Severn Trent Water, all signed with Emcor. There was something that resonated with those companies and said 'those guys are different in that sector.'"
Embracing collaboration and applying the standard has paid off for Emcor. But what about the FM sector in general?
"The FM sector has to back itself," says Kehoe, proposing that both customers and suppliers would agree there has at times been a race to the bottom in the battle for lower prices and slimmer margins. "I think what we're maybe starting to see in the market is a reaction to that. I think there is a recognition that that is not a sustainable future for our sector."
Hawkins says it is a case of how companies see the purpose of FM. "Is it purely a function that provides fully defined services or is it, by necessity, part of the operations of the business? If it's the latter, I think you've got to think differently about how you develop and select FM partners."
Neither the standard nor the way in which Emcor and others have embraced its principles offer a one-size-fits-all way to reap the benefits of such relationships, and not every organisation is able to implement it to such a degree. But it suggests that whether an operator is big or small, service specialist or total FM, more can be done.