FSI discusses mobility with FMJ magazine
If today's worker is constantly on the move, accessing information from multiple locations and on various devices throughout the day, then FM software must follow suit, says Compton Darlington, Director at FSI, the global CAFM software provider.
Not even Nostradamus could have predicted the rate at which technology is changing at this present moment. And there is no clearer indicator of the speed of evolution than the proliferation of consumer devices that are constantly leapfrogging each other in the IT industry's quest to win the hearts and mind of its customers.
Once upon a time, consumer technology was too ‘out there' to overly trouble corporate IT decision makers, who were more focused on providing serviceable interfaces for back office systems so that tiers of users could reactively provide information and reports when senior managers requested them. Today, those senior managers expect to have access to that information themselves, in real time, from their own devices.
Consumer technology - namely smartphones, tablets and netbooks - is now an overwhelming influence on the way information is treated and made available in the enterprise, and the expectations of users who expect the same experience with their business applications as they enjoy when they are surfing the web, buying things, playing games or updating their social network status on the go. Wherever they are and whatever device they happen to be using at the time.
In the FM world, this trend is having a significant impact on the way CAFM systems are evolving - not just in terms of the user interface but also in the way they integrate with other applications to deliver a holistic, secure, web-enabled view of the business. Information has to be sliced and diced in ever more intuitive ways.
A technology-savvy user - whether they are a CEO or a field engineer - expects a certain level of design quality from a CAFM application. If they can download something from an app store that is intuitive, looks great and performs well on their smartphone for just 69p, they will not readily make allowances for a business application which looks mediocre, does not respond instantly to a command or fails to provide comprehensive access to the range of back office systems they need in order to complete tasks while they are on the move.
In the age of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), when many organisations are encouraging staff to make seamless use of their preferred handhelds in the business environment, a CAFM system has to be truly cross-platform. And because people will almost certainly need access to different facets or subsets of information, providing them with one application might not be appropriate; they could need a range of apps. With mobile CAFM, the business can control how much or how little access to information they give individual employees.
There might still be some ruggedised PDAs out there, and they will still have their place in certain situations. But for the most part, even field engineers have shiny, high-tech devices that they treat with care and respect - and which they expect to give them seamless access to the time-sheets, ordering systems and scheduling tools they need to complete their tasks.
Quite simply, traditional, web-style technology does not present itself well on these devices. They are changing the way people consume and interact with information. And even if that information is held in heavy-duty back-end systems, the CAFM provider must develop nimble, flexible technology that presents it appropriately for a 21st century audience.
The benefits to the FM organisation are considerable. For senior managers who travel a great deal, being able to access up-to-date information - live company data - whether they are on the train, at the airport or in the hotel lobby - means they can make proper business decisions in real time. Traditionally, unproductive periods can be turned into opportunities for greater efficiency. Mobile is all about allowing staff to turn their downtime into uptime, accomplishing key administration tasks at time when they would previously have been unavailable.
For field engineers, being able to generate an invoice immediately on completion of a task, and getting the customer's signature, is a real advance in productivity - and is a significant cashflow loosening exercise for the business.
Mobile technology also gets users closer to the business. If they are capturing asset and inventory data while touring a building, they can push it back to the office in real time. There is no more duplication of effort, with information being captured by one person in the field and entered manually by somebody else back at the office.
If an engineer is checking assets, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology helps to ensure that they are scanning barcodes on the assets rather than simply from a list in the basement. Mobile communications improve attendance where it needs to be. It encourages physical checks and audits and enables an immediate response when problems are discovered.
Of course CAFM systems need to address security and concerns about ROI: two of the biggest reservations IT managers often have about enabling mobile access to business systems. They should be able to demonstrate how mobility facilitates outputs, from the ability to raise tasks or authorise specific information on the move to making a subset of information available on a user's device when they are out of range.
The range of applications is potentially limitless. Proximity detectors, for example, will generate text messages to mobile devices when the user is within a certain distance of a site, with instructions, relevant location data and any last-minute information about the task.
If there is a strong case for a mobile CAFM system to join the list of company-approved applications, it will overcome a lot of the resistance that tends to be ingrained in corporate IT policies as far as security and fears about losing control are concerned.
In practical terms, consumer technology actually appears to be helping to reduce corporate security risks. There are fewer stories of mislaid laptops generating fears of data loss and users are less likely to lose their tablets or smartphones in vulnerable places. They take better care of them. And while the price of devices is failing to as little as £120-150, exponential rises in computing power mean they provide the mobile user with more flexibility and cross-functionality than ever before.
Mobile technology is also helping to shift attitudes to recruitment and working practices. For example, with mobile access to business applications guaranteed, there is no longer such a thing as the right potential employee living in the wrong place. If they are going to be working remotely, their location is less important. Even bad weather days no longer preclude anyone from working; productivity continues, regardless.
In the workplace itself, trends such as hot-desking are helping businesses reduce their office footprint. Staff can use mobile CAFM to book a workspace as and when they will be in the building - making it a great enabler for flexible working.
This convergence between consumer devices and the business does, however, challenge CAFM vendors to make sure their system measures up with the latest apps and end user experiences. The technology has to match the requirements of an increasingly sophisticated individual.
The good news for CAFM developers is that their mobile applications can reflect this in shorter development cycles. The traditional process of specifying, scoping and designing software for a client who then says it is not quite what they had in mind and sends it back to the drawing board is, if not a thing of the past, at least a much more efficient process. The interface can be redesigned and published to all users in real time - and the business remains in control of the system.
Perhaps even more radically, businesses can use the new generation of mobile CAFM systems to develop their own applications, spotting gaps in the main system and supplementing it with their own tools. Never have FM businesses had the opportunity to be so responsive to sudden developments in an industry that changes on a monthly basis. What happens if asbestos is suddenly discovered at a site, for example? Or an event triggers the need for an instant, specific purchase. Apps can be built to meet immediate requirements until the main system catches up.
If legacy systems are not integrated, the modern CAFM system can be used to build an app that opens them up and extracts data that might previously have been restricted to a small audience, making it available to a wider user constituency without the need to invest in multiple new licences. In the not too distant future, this kind of development will be possible on a drag and drop basis, taking CAFM into the heart of the business.
The pendulum is swinging definitely away from laptops to tablets and smartphones. Users know what they want to see on their devices, and how they want to experience their applications - even in a business environment. It is up to FM providers and professionals to invest in the latest CAFM systems which anticipate and exploit the most dynamic aspects of mobile consumer technology.