Here comes the machine

Will today's FM be unrecognisable in 10 years?  PFM magazine covers this story, with a contribution from Compton Darlington, Business Development Director at FSI, developers of the Concept Evolution web-CAFM solution.

At Integrated System Europe's inaugural Smart Buildings conference in 2013, Allen Weidman, then chief sustainability officer of InfoComm, the trade association representing the global professional AV and information communications industries, made a presentation in which he contended that the FM as we know him today will be out of a job in 10 years owing to the rise of the software dashboard for building management.

The statement went largely unnoticed at the time; it was the conclusion to a talk Weidman gave in which he argued that intelligent buildings are a key foundation of delivering sustainable ones. He made the point that a smart building is made up of smart spaces - make enough of those, and join them together and you've done it! More importantly, Weidman said, because AV systems integrators make smart spaces they shouldn't be intimidated by the job of smart buildings.

Weidman is a believer that AV can own the smart building, citing its experience in humanising technology and its
stronger ability to create user interfaces.

So what are we to make of this belief that software dashboards will make FMs obsolete? Simon Carter, head of
corporate property at National Grid, says there will always be a place for FMs, a view shared by everybody PFM asked. Juergen Kulka, MD of FM at Cofely, said: "I think we'll use and apply more systems to manage FM and services. Our clients will ask us for more information and transparency... But I don't believe tools will completely replace management; instead, management will come to rely ever more heavily on tools. The provision of sophisticated, accommodating IT tools and solutions will become a prerequisite to be successful in the industry."

Stephen Williams, national FM director for Nationwide Property Solutions, said: "Proprietary and bespoke software dashboard systems have been available and utilised by FMs for more than a decade. When the appropriate system is chosen and utilised effectively it enables the FM to be more proactive and to adopt a more strategic approach regarding data-collection, its interrogation and the resulting performance indication and monitoring. The collection of superfluous data however can be to the detriment of service delivery."

The advent of dashboard software, when used correctly, hasn't had a negative impact on FMs, says Williams. "Rather, it has enhanced the capabilities of FMs while saving them time and enabling them to contribute further to the positive productivity of their organisation via greater service delivery." Software dashboards are tools for FMs to use the same as PDAs, laptops, netbooks, tablets, smart phones etc and most certainly don't diminish the requirement for the FM profession.

Paul Thompson, business development director of ISS UK, says he's sure the role of the FM will always change in line with the demands of the workplaces they serve, and the workplace of the future is likely to be very different to that of today. "However, I strongly believe they will be just as important then as they are now in ensuring employers drive productivity and effectiveness for their organisations," he says.

"Building technology will continue to improve, and will no doubt make a significant contribution to the way in which premises are run. However, at its heart the management of a facility will always be about people rather than technology. It is people that can create a great experience of coming to work, rather than building management systems, vital though they are.

A smooth running and attractive building can provide an effective platform, but it's people that create a great workplace, a place where people want to come to work, to collaborate and to build high performing organisations, says Thompson.

"In addition, workplaces themselves have changed hugely over the past 10 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Most of us these days are as happy to be working from home, the train, customer locations or even a coffee shop as we are in a traditional office space. Increasingly offices are being used as places to collaborate rather than just a place ‘to go to work'. Both FMs and building systems will change as the premises they serve evolve to meet new organisational and business models."

So, in an increasingly diverse array of environments FM and FMs will continue to focus on creating productive workplaces, Thompson explains. "We will do this through leading teams of people and engaging in a positive way with the people that use these workplaces. Smart buildings and automated dashboards are excellent tools in our kitbag, but I suspect it's highly likely FMs are with us to stay for a lot longer than the next 10 years."

Paul Teasdale, co-founder of Premier Technical Services Group, says FMs add a lot more than what a building management system (BMS) does. "Yes, we can electrify systems, yes we can monitor, yes we can report for BMS, but often there's that personal touch, employing people like ourselves."

A BMS would meet-and-greet and ensure we're safe, says Teasdale. "Now I know that can be done by other people in buildings such as security but I think there's a place (even in the old adage of where caretakers have moved on to be FMs) for the real value-added service a FM can provide to a building, and that can be in tendering processes or the way items are procured. A BMS doesn't necessarily do that."

Chairman of Global FM, Duncan Waddell, recalled that someone once told me we were going to live in paperless offices. I don't know where that person is today. To some extent, he says, he agrees with Weidman's statement but it's not about the FM being irrelevant, it's about how the FM role will change. Someone still has to own the process and the system, the integrity of the data, and the way in which the data is interpreted and analysed, and the actions and responses that come from that. It has to be a managed process.

"Automation is a wonderful thing - not from the point-of-view of getting people out of their jobs - but just by the sheer ability to improve efficiency and the economics of an organisation," Waddell says. "It gives you the information you need to make better decisions. But someone still has to make and interpret those decisions, and who's that going to be if not the FM? You're going to take instruction from a computer about what you should do next? There is a logic check that must take place in conjunction with the business plans or strategic direction of the organisation. There will always be a role for a FM, but that role will change as tools become available for him or her to change what they do today."

So while the FM of yesteryear was generally a great tradesman who worked in the furnace at the heart of the organisation, what we're seeing now is that the FM is involved in the management of the business of FM, explains Waddell. "The biggest challenge for the FM is to make those changes rather than being mired in the past; we need to change the way we do things so as our marketplace matures and as the tools change, so too must the role. The FM of old - yes their time has come. But there is a need for a FM today, and they bring with them different skills."

Martin Gammon, CEO of OCS, flatly rejects the idea software will make FMs obsolete. "Well, it won't. I'll be retired on a beach somewhere before that happens. I've been around too long to hear stories about new technologies removing the need for people. A classic example from my past was delivering mishandled baggage; that's where airlines lose peoples' baggage and my company would deliver it to them the next day. Back then, there was talk of a new tagging system that would - in five years - ensure baggage never got lost, therefore putting people such as me out of business, but of course that never happened."

The technology improves but there's always a way for things to go wrong, says Gammon. "It's going to take more than 10 years for building management systems to be installed in all buildings; in new buildings, yes. But some of the people opportunities will always exist such as with front-of-house etc. I don't want to sound like a Luddite - you could argue everything could be done in a restaurant, for instance, via vending - but what happens if you want more mayonnaise in your tuna sandwich? How will a machine know that? We need to embrace technology in a way that it's part of a value-added solution that includes people."

"If you take Allen Weidman's quote literally, he's probably right," says Compton Darlington, business development director of FSI. "The business and process in the industry will change. If people are unable to accept or move with change, they'll inevitably become extinct. It may be that in a couple of years' time, a FM will be totally unrecognisable from a FM today, that's all that will happen. So (Weidman is just referring to) people's inability to see or envisage change for thefuture. And in that sense, he's absolutely right: FM as we know it today will no longer exist. Is that a bad thing?"