Stan Mitchell, chairman of the BSI and ISO committees for facilities management, talks about his experience of challenges facing companies that establish a presence abroad.
16 June 2014
Perception of FM abroad
It might come as no surprise that this is the first challenge, particularly when you travel to some of the more distant places around the world as we have done within Key Facilities Management. Whilst this question is an old chestnut for some, it is a new one for others. Suffice it to say there is nothing that is different regarding the initial interpretations that we haven't experienced in the UK and have to therefore educate and establish a better understanding as a result.
This you might think is fairly obvious from the outset for any organisation considering moving into foreign parts, but it is something that is not fully appreciated by many. Perhaps where the surprise comes in this context is not so much from the financial perspective but from the true resource requirement for people and time. This, of course, ultimately equates to cost but is much more of a surprise to many, particularly when the market welcome that is expected does not materialise.
In some of the 20 markets in which we operate there have been several instances where we have witnessed significant re-planning and even withdrawal by organisations that might be considered the major players in Europe when they find they have little or no traction after one or even two years in foreign markets.
Where inadequate research is carried out regarding the market and what makes it tick - including those many cultural nuances that exist - it can be a painful experience.
This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges, particularly in the emerging economies.
Whereas you might be able to assume a level of competency where individuals or organisations present themselves as service providers, you fail to undertake your due diligence at your peril.
In countries where an electrical safety certificate is created on a notepad taken from the pocket of the consultant on the spot, or where the use of kerosene to clean rooftop tiles (used by workers on the roofs wearing flip-flops and having the occasional cigarettes with no safety fall equipment to be seen) is deemed not to be a problem by management when challenged, it becomes evident that you may not be using the best supplier.
But there are entrepreneurs who see the opportunity to do things better - and it is these people and organisations that you need to seek out.
There are too many horror stories to mention regarding the approach to safety in many countries in which you might consider operating.
It does, however, highlight that in the UK at least, where we often complain about the amount of workplace legislation that exists, we are in the main truly focused upon the welfare of the individual.
Having said that, there are many emerging economies that are adopting and adjusting the regulatory frameworks developed in Europe and the US and are therefore benefiting from the knowledge and experience that has been gained over many years.
The downside, however, where this is the case, is that in many of those countries where good legislative frameworks have been developed, there is inadequate policing and auditing of the standards.
Standards, as we know, are more often than not based upon subjective measurement. They are also dependent upon long-term thinking when it comes to procurement.
It is a reminder to us as professionals of the need to measure performance and standards as well as articulate, in the right language (and I don't mean English or equivalent), the long-term cost associated with the procurement through to the operation and maintenance.
Standards are also relevant to the market and, of course, the organisation. It is therefore important that we do not assume that what we deem appropriate in Europe or the US is always going to be applicable elsewhere in the world.
Culture and communication
Add both of these aspects of working internationally into the mix and you not only need to do your homework, but you need to listen and learn. What people hear, particularly where English is not their native language, and what they understand are often two different things. We are fortunate in the UK that English is the international language, but we will make a huge mistake if we assume that our use of the English language, which varies dramatically from region to region even within the UK, is easily understood in the context in which we might deliver it.
So having painted perhaps a rather bleak picture of some of the challenges that will face the individual or the organisation choosing to venture abroad, I can also conclude that it can be tremendously rewarding in financial terms, but perhaps more importantly in cultural and educational terms for those of us who come from so-called developed countries.
For me, the experience that I have gained over 20-plus years working internationally by far the greatest reward has been the experience, the cultural learning and most of all the people with whom I have had the pleasure (and the occasional challenge) to work from around the world!
Stan Mitchell, CEO of Key Facilities Management International