The Magic of Mobility

In an exclusive interview with PFM, Compton Darlington, Business Development Director at FSI, has spoken about recent developments within FSI, as well as those being prepared for the remainder of 2014 and beyond.

FSI describes itself as a global leader in CAFM software, with UK headquarters, offices in Australia and Dubai, and an international partner network. The portfolio includes Concept Evolution, completely web-based CAFM, and FSI GO for Mobile Application development, extending the functionality of Concept Evolution and third party
integrated systems.

"We made decisions about bringing a mobility product to the marketplace with careful assumptions about the pace and scale of take up," he says. "We saw personal technology rapidly moving into the workplace, but underestimated the pace of this into the field-based workforce. Those engineers in FM who previously would have just had a ruggedised, built-for-purpose mobile device are now being encouraged to use their own smartphones.

"With our mobile technology, we see large companies buying huge numbers of up-to-date smartphones (shinies) to give to their workforce. What they're finding is that the previous way those ruggedised devices were treated isn't mirrored when engineers get these new shinies - they're treated with far more respect."

Darlington says the reason for that is because they're not just work devices but personal devices as well. "Mobility, in its broader sense, has been the biggest trend for us; it's been around for a long time and you have to ask the question: What's different about it now? There's been exponential growth because of the ordinary man-on-the-street's understanding of technology." The real smart technology used to be the bastion of the eggheads, Darlington explains, but now most 10-year-olds know just as much (if not more) than adults about mobile technology. "There's very little in terms of technology use that an engineer doesn't have access to."

Darlington says FSI is finding that clients are coming up with fantastic ideas for applications for its FSI GO mobile solution. "We work with a major retail chain which is looking at next year having embedded within its business an app designer on a fulltime basis. It's coming up with fantastic ideas for applications fed through our products but available to all staff. We see that as an increasing trend."

If you just use the word mobility, people may turn off from a business point-of-view, says Darlington. "Everybody's talking about mobility, and we're in a very crowded space. But if you dig deeper to see what we've actually done, we're placing in the hands of users the ability to create different solutions for their business processes.

Most competitors presuppose what clients need and come to market with pre-defined applications. We haven't done that - we've made no such assumption. We've given a boilerplate starting point and created a platform that allows anything to be designed - any business process - not just taking a feed from our product, Concept Evolution, but a feed from any other legacy or in-house system as well."

With Evolution for instance, Darlington explains, you're able to go in using Excel and produce any reports, you don't have to use a dedicated reporting system or a proprietary reporting system. "That's the same principle we've applied to our mobility solution - we've adopted an open approach in recognition of the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of business processes."

As reported in PFM, FSI is preparing to officially launch its widget-based module, a graphical display of task, booking, asset and stock data in relation to locations. I ask Darlington about the anticipations for Live View: "One thing we've always strived to do is listen to what people say. With FM, the big trend, particularly with respect to procuring systems, is moving away from the historic remit of the FM team being the first and last people to decide what to buy. Those days are gone. The business justification, certainly when driven through procurement, is across the entire business - so you'll get HR, finance and other parts of the business having input and asking: When it comes to procurement of a CAFM system, what's in it for me?"

When FSI looks to develop something, Darlington says, we have to realise it has to have hooks into various areas in a business.

"With our new Live View solution for example, we've gone a step further and have made it not just an interaction that's driven by a smartphone or a PC. We envisage a casual engager with the system walking past and seeing graphically what's happening and where within your environment - on the wall, across a local portfolio, a single building, the country, across the continent. You can set various KPIs - by saying: flash up red for me when in any one area when we are in danger of missing a compliance task, or flash up red, green or blue whenever we breach X number of SLAs. It will provide a quick snapshot of what's happening graphically and where, within your environment. Others have produced similar functionality in certain other ways but with Live View it's a real live CAD drawing of your building, where all your properties are across the country, with an instant view of what's happening. And we're really excited about it."

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are your views on Building Information Modelling (BIM)?
BIM is trying to achieve something that will have to be part of our future. The dust will inevitably settle around where exactly it fits in. It's been around in many forms. In a previous life, I was involved in CAD going back to AutoCAD 9 with clash detection software which isn't too dissimilar from what is being discussed now with BIM - taking real-life asset information with all its attributes and incorporating it into an intelligent drawing to drive maintenance going forward. BIM - with respect to the way it's being spoken about at the moment - will not be the end solution. What I think is almost indisputable is the combining of visual asset information with all the attributes associated with the asset. That is an inevitable part of our future.

Is it the be-all and end-all solution?
People who see BIM for the first time might get carried away by what it's capable of - it's just part of the solution, it's not the be-all and end-all. The trend has been for the big construction-to-FM companies to take it up first because BIM is a construction-led initiative. Maybe it's a wait-and-see from the FM community. BIM needs to be embraced but it's not a matter of rushing into it at the expense of everything else.

What, in your opinion, is the most important technology for FMs to be on top of?
I'm always loath to hold up one widget as a catch-all solution. What I think is more important is a philosophy. And the philosophy is accepting technology as an integrated part of the whole. If we look back at FM from the early days, it was always procured, implemented and delivered normally within one room in the basement somewhere, in a silo, away from the rest of the business. What's now happening is the business-wide justification for FM means there's greater buy-in. I think that rather than looking for a technological trick, we should focus on philosophy. Don't think about what you're delivering as a niche, specialist service, think of it as part of a business system. Whatever it delivers, it has to be for everyone. So all I'd say is ensure whatever you're delivering with is an integrated part of your business solution.

Is FM seen as a viable career?
I recently met two enthusiastic individuals associated with the Building Futures Group (BFG) who are tasked with the educational engagement of FM within schools. The idea is to raise awareness within schools and colleges to start to feed in what FM actually is. That's where it needs to start: there needs to be real grassroots awareness of what FM is.

The BFG has taken the bull by the horns and started that lengthy process. Many have fallen into the FM profession, and its range of fantastic career opportunities. It's going to be a slow process - going into schools and selling exactly what it is as an industry. But you can't just go in and talk about FM, there needs to be a clear structure about routes in, and a clear definition about routes of progression.

How important is data to FM strategy? And does FSI have a strategy regarding data?
FM is probably the guardian of so much good quality data that's never seen the light of day, and never been used strategically to drive business decisions. We've always had an open view of our database because we've thought by giving people full access to it they'll be able to mine the data they want. We've realised you have to drive the thinking of what can be gained from data. One thing our business development team will discuss is outputs from our system; they won't even show the product - the first thing they'll show is the information capability of a well-implemented system.

Our next focus is delivery of a good quality graphical BI tool; you'll be seeing that fairly shortly because we feel that despite the FM community's ready access to good quality data, there's been very little intelligent use of it over the years apart from the cursory How many jobs are late, how many jobs are on time, how many jobs have I got waiting for next week etc.

Is there a difference between your view of hard and soft services?
There's a kind of inevitability about the hard-soft division. Some companies for instance, focus almost by definition on the hard FM side. FSI itself laboured under criticism that we're a hard FM piece of software when actually we're a broad church. Hard FM, almost by definition, will always be there. It's a core aspect of what FM for any living, breathing building is all about. There are FM companies that take onboard things you'd never have expected them to have done historically such as payroll. And the systems they need to help them deliver that inevitably span a wider remit. The hard-soft requirement is driven by client need, not by the need to pigeonhole yourself - by distinguishing between hard and soft FM, we're trying to put things into neat little boxes into which they don't conveniently fit. All of it is FM, and the sooner we realise that the better.

How do FMs improve operational visibility?
One trend that has driven technology in FM is the question of improving operational visibility, not just from the people delivering FM but from the end client themselves. Clients are enforcing transparency, and what needs to happen now is more operational visibility - it's driving this need for a system that's not just for the use of the FM team, with clients insisting on access to see what the FM is providing on a daily basis.