The (Tech) Elephant In The Room

Smart building technology has the potential to deliver many operational benefits, but success ultimately depends on human understanding.

By Lewis Richards
From the April 2019 Issue

Building automation is a twofold concept: the “automation of the building” and “personal skills in building automation.” The tech in facility management conversation is as much about the digital skills of people as it is about technology-equipped environments. So, it’s important to focus on the dual perspective—buildings and humans—before we can hope to unleash the industry’s full potential.

smart building technologyWe often hear that it is up to the facility management leader to maximize the potential of his or her facility. There is, however, far less focus on how we can help facility leaders and their teams maximize their own potential in this pursuit. But before facility leaders and their teams can tap the power of smart buildings, they need to acquire a new set of skills. Tech isn’t going to work on its own; you need the human know-how behind it. If smart buildings are full of “not as smart” humans, they won’t work.

The business world is very focused on “going digital,” but one could argue that most organizations are just adding the word “digital” for the sake of it. And because of all the hype, people are increasingly jaded and cynical. They’re bored of playing buzzword bingo: “cloud,” “Internet of things (IoT),” “analytics,” “artificial intelligence (AI),” and “machine learning.” To most, these terms mean little if nothing at all.

The fact of the matter is that people’s experience of day-to-day tech has nothing to do with buzzwords. For many, their reality is they can’t log into a conference call, or they can’t print the document they urgently need for their 8am meeting. These micro problems are far removed from the macro trends of our age. As such, there’s a gulf between the hype and the reality.

The people who can bridge that gap are in the minority—the ones who are comfortable moving back and forth across that chasm. But the majority of people aren’t comfortable diving into the unknown. And that’s why there’s a bit of pushback when it comes to embracing technology like AI, IoT, and machine learning, especially in facility management. For many, this is the elephant in the room. And that’s because even though the digital world is a real thing, humans are not biologically equipped to see it. We see the hard endpoints of tech. We see phones, screens, laptops, and keyboards. We can’t see WiFi. Nor can we see 4G or data. The problem is the gap between what we can and what we can’t see.

Imagination And Innovation

The successful businesses will be those that hire people who can imagine the flow of data between the invisible “building blocks” within their buildings. The less digitally savvy organizations need to discover the gateway to that world, and they need a key to unlock its potential. Unless people have the tools they need to “see” and use the digital world to their advantage, and unless we help them change their muscle memory (their own automation) when it comes to managing buildings, they will continue to operate in the same way.

Besides not being able to picture that which exists but defies the eye, there’s another problem. Namely, it’s the presumption that sophisticated software will automatically change your life for the better; that you’ll instinctively know how to use that tech immediately and effectively to maximize your own productivity. That assumption is, of course, not true. If you go out and buy your first iPhone, you won’t automatically know how to make use of all its features. And it’s the same for iPhone users who switch to Android—they won’t be able to maximize its features.

We’re surrounded by more and more tech, but productivity has flatlined. We’re having to do everything we can just to keep our heads above water. People aren’t being shown how they can utilize these toolsets to make themselves more effective. They’re not changing behaviors, patterns, processes, approaches, or strategies. They’re working harder rather than smarter.

“Up, Up, And, Away!”

A key step to rectify this is to establish who inside the business is responsible for taking the lead. Is it HR? Is it IT? Is it FM? Or, is there a function that sits in the middle of those disciplines that should take the lead? Then you have to run the ruler over that function and ask—are they digitally skilled enough to deliver that training? Do they have the consummate skills? Establishing a digital champion program can be a good business self-help tool. Build pockets of excellence within the organization—champions you can train up to be digital superheroes so that they can help their peers.

If you don’t have the internal capability, find a partner who can help you along the digital skills development journey. This may not be within the traditional scope of a facility management provider, though that will change. Whatever you do, you have to find the mechanism so you can do it for yourselves. Get people to take ownership of the development of their own digital skills.

Millions of dollars are being spent in tech investment. Unless that investment is to be wasted, more digital skills are required. To this end, we need to upskill the future facility management workforce. The movement to digital has to involve more than words on a PowerPoint deck. It has to move from the abstract to the actual.

This is a lot to take in, so let’s reduce it down to two takeaways. First, make it your mission to understand the concept behind the tech that goes into a building. That will help you believe in and make better use of the things that you can’t see. The second is to appreciate the culture and the education that is required, so that occupants can reap the associated benefits attached to technological investment. You can make the smartest building in the world but if you don’t change the way it is operated—the learning, the behavior, the culture—then you’ll have a smart building full of “not as smart” humans.

smart building technologyRichards is chief digital officer for Atalian Servest. Headquartered in France, Atalian Servest is a facility services provider with a presence in 33 countries with 125,000 employees.

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