Professional Development: Can Adversaries Work Together

By John McGee
From the July 2004 issue of Today’s Facility Manager magazine

Facility managers (FMs) face many 21st century challenges. Current information technology (IT) can provide an integrated platform of systems and applications designed to meet these challenges—accessible through a desktop “portal” that enables the facility professional to improve operations and harness savings. Yet, most people in the facilities field are still hampered by the limitations of 20th century IT, typically a piecemeal collection of standalone applications.

Building a 21st century facility management platform requires an effective partnership between the facilities executive and the chief information officer (CIO). However, this kind of partnership rarely exists today.

But when one considers that building costs are second only to labor, there is a huge opportunity for such a partnership to help the organization meet its business strategy. After all, what’s good for business is good for everyone in the organization, and that’s a powerful motivation to work together.

Gaining approval for a new information system is easier said than done. Over the last two years, IT budgets have been incredibly tight, and CIOs have found it very difficult to get approval for new programs. This year there is a more positive tone in the IT market, but organizations are still cautious. Suffice it to say that the CIO is unlikely to knock on the FM’s door with a plan to develop an integrated facility management platform. Instead, the FM must initiate the process.

Begin by learning as much as possible about the organization’s business strategy, and assess the impact of the building portfolio on achieving that strategy. This understanding will be important when it comes time to communicate and support the following message: if we effectively manage the building portfolio, then we will advance the accomplishment of the business strategy.

Consider the kinds of improvements that could be made with better information systems support. This does not require a technical understanding of information systems. Instead, it can be expressed in business terms. For example, if employees or occupants in building “A” move out, freeing up space, and this information were communicated in a timely manner by a space management system, then facility management could restack the space more quickly to achieve a financial benefit of “X” dollars a month.

Next, sit down with the CIO (or another individual in the IT department assigned to interface with facility management) to begin a dialogue. Through a mutual education process, the FM will help the CIO understand the opportunities to improve service levels and/or reduce costs. In turn, the CIO can discuss the type of technology solution that can be developed to meet these goals.

Perform an audit of each area of the building portfolio to identify, quantify, and prioritize specific opportunities for site improvements that could be achieved with the support of improved information technology. The amount of potential savings in a particular area of the operation depends on its maturity as well as on specific characteristics of the site, but one can typically expect total savings of 15% to 20% across the following categories: building maintenance, grounds, janitorial, mailing and shipping, security, and utilities.

How does the FM quantify the costs and potential savings? If the audit is performed internally, then the FM and CIO will need to work together to develop a database on the building portfolio and compare each area’s costs with industry benchmarks. General industry databases are available from professional associations such as the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) and Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). Typically these are created and updated through surveys of members.

Let’s say the FM identifies the potential for a 21% reduction in the costs associated with building maintenance. But what are the necessary IT pieces that don’t exist in the current facility management system? Perhaps the system is lacking a robust computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). In this case, a Web-based CMMS and associated staff training would provide the tool needed by the FM and staff to do their jobs more effectively. However, not every improvement will represent hard savings.

It also is important to identify opportunities to improve service levels that can lead to increased building user comfort, efficiency, and productivity and, therefore, can help to achieve the business strategy. For example, an effective energy management system not only reduces the cost of utilities, but also improves building user comfort, contributing to enhanced productivity.

Based on the results of the audit, the FM and CIO should be able to present a case to executive management that demonstrates an attractive payback on the IT investment. Let’s say they have succeeded, and the capital budget is approved. Going forward, it is critically important for the FM to measure the returns on the IT investment.

It likely will take two to three years to put the pieces together and complete the facility management platform. At any point, the organization could decide to invest that money elsewhere. That’s why the FM has to gather the data and provide the proof that the investment made in year one is providing returns in year two, and so on.

An effective FM/CIO partnership requires commitment on each side. The CIO must be determined to execute an IT system based on an approved development road map, and the FM must be willing to account for achievement of the returns on this investment.

McGee is executive vice president, technology and knowledge services of Norwalk, CT-based EMCOR Facilities Services. He is also a member of the board of directors of IFMA.