The Facility Technologist: Full Speed Ahead
By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the June 2005 issue of Today's Facility Manager
The TFM Show® in April was, as always, a great place to meet facility managers from all over the country and discuss the challenges they are facing. Naturally, I am particularly interested in how facility managers are dealing with technology, so I asked every facility manager I met what his or her biggest technology challenges were. There were a wide variety of answers, but one thing is certain: facility managers are faced with a more diverse set of challenges today than ever before, and technology is driving many changes in the profession.
Taking into account the information gathered at The TFM Show® and other trends I have been tracking, I've compiled a list of some important developments in facility technologies today.
1.) More of the facility is devoted to supporting technology. Companies, government agencies, and educational institutions are continuing to adopt technologies to support operational processes, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and e-commerce. This, in turn, is driving an increase in the number of specialized facility spaces-such as data centers-that support technology.
Organizations are also increasingly centralizing computer systems. This is the reverse of the trend of decentralization in the 1980s and 1990s, when the PC revolution took computing away from mainframes and out onto desktops. Now, organizations are going back to centralized systems that are easier to secure, control, and manage. Web based systems are a great example of this trend; they are available from anywhere but are housed in a single location.
Another factor pushing this trend is how much more data needs to be managed and stored in modern organizations, requiring more data center space. Organizations are consolidating from individual hard drives ("C" drives) to centralized storage, and new, cheaper storage technologies like Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Networks (SAN) encourage organizations to store more data. Backing up data on hard disks instead of tapes, and the addition of larger digital video and audio also increase the space required in data centers.
Finally, many organizations are insisting on having redundancy by building backup data centers, which means the square footage devoted to technology often doubles. Financial institutions in particular are focusing on redundant data centers.
2.) "Old fashioned" facility systems are evolving and a new utility is coming. Today, even time tested facility systems are becoming technology intensive. Traditional telephone systems are migrating to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP). HVAC controls are increasingly complex (and even Internet enabled). Electrical systems are now often managed by automated systems for load management, and more facilities are cogenerating electricity. All of these systems require servers, databases, and other information technology components to operate.
Even the concept of utilities is changing. Building owners and organizations are starting to realize that network and Internet connectivity are so important that they have become the newest utility. The management of this utility is far more complex than that of electric, water, or gas, and will be increasingly provided by the facility. This means more technology for the facility manager to manage.
One real estate developer on the west coast, Sentre, is already doing this at One America Plaza in San Diego. Tenants can access the Internet for free from anywhere in the building on a wireless network. Users who need faster access can get blazing 100 Mbps wired connections as well for a price that is a fraction of the cost of a typical T-1 connection that provides only 1.5 Mbps. As organizations move toward VoIP and Internet based software, they will increasingly insist on this new utility in their facilities.
3.) Technology is changing the way organizations use the facility. A good example of this is hotelling, which is becoming more common and may soon be the norm rather than the exception for many facilities. Cisco systems, a leader in networking and VoIP, is testing a 100% hotelling concept, where employees have no dedicated desk or office. They simply use any space that is available, and the technology and their communications follow. This is possible because of Cisco's VoIP and wireless technologies, and because all computer systems are available over the Internet. When employees log into a desk space, their calls, e-mail, and other computer programs are automatically directed to them through the network. The big advantage of this approach is in better space utilization.
Cisco studied employee habits, and found that, between travel and time off, many office spaces were vastly underutilized. Through 100% hotelling, the company was able to increase the number of employees in its test office from 80 to 120 without adding any square footage.
As Cisco found, the presence of Web based software applications means employees can be truly mobile and can work from anywhere they can access an Internet connection. I am a living example of this. The company I work for provides laptops and an Internet Web portal for all employees. This includes e-mail, applications, and a knowledge management system that houses everything needed to function. Even while working on complex tasks that involve dozens of people, we all collaborate within this system by posting documents, reviewing those posted by others, adding comments, as well as scheduling conference calls, Webcasts, and meetings. Travel expenses have dramatically decreased and team members are able to engage people from all over the country. This is a good example of technology offering a compelling reason to change the way the organization works: less space per employee means lower costs and more profit.
Today, employees do not even need to be at their desks to work. Here in Chicago, Verizon wireless offers wide area Internet connectivity for about $70 per month. This service allows users to connect to the Internet from any place in the Chicago area where their cell phones operate. This is a tremendous advantage for organizations with field service employees, freeing them from having to come into the office to exchange data or paperwork.
The fact that computing and telecommunications are now so reliable and ubiquitous is even eliminating the need for some facilities. Today, many customer service phone calls to American companies go to call centers in other countries.
This concept is being expanded to include the use of video with some companies allowing their receptionists to work offsite. When a person enters the facility, there is a large information screen with a live image of the receptionist who can then greet people, check their appointments and their credentials, and let them into the facility. This can be done from an offsite location by using VoIP technology. The Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, CA uses this technology to provide guests with a "tele-receptionist" in the lobby. In another example, McDonald's is testing a system that allows those taking the food order to be located in a remote call center.
All of this points to one scenario: a facility management future that is extremely technology intensive and full of change. Reduced square footage devoted to people and more devoted to technology will rapidly change the profile of the profession, and facility managers will have to work to meet this challenge.
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is one of the contributing authors for BOMI Institute's revised Technologies In Facilities Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through the use of technology.
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