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Talk is cheap!

Disruption of traditional industry has been a buzz-phrase for a while now. Seen as a threat to established business models or an opportunity for start-ups, companies like Amazon, Uber, AirBnB, and Spotify have each turned their sector on its head, creating new ways of consuming, travelling and listening – and turning a nice profit and significant business growth for themselves into the bargain. Now the search is on for disruptive ideas in the Facility Management.

It is clear from discussions with the big FM providers that all of them are on the search for this, and most have focussed in on the rapidly emerging trend to apply “big data” techniques to building operations, in the search for a “magic bullet” technology solution which can bring benefit to our industry, our customers and our clients. Leaving aside the (perfectly valid) question of whether established businesses are the best place to seek disruptive ideas, the danger with such trends is that they may become simply passing fads which leave no longer term impact, but during their heyday create confusion and divert precious attention from more potentially useful developments. The corporate concern not to be blindsided by a new way of doing things and end up as the next Woolworths, EMI or black cab driver might just be diverting attention away from where the real change in our industry is happening … or it might not. Therein lies the corporate dilemma, and the challenge for our industry.

A history of change

One of the strange aspects of all this is that FM may not be especially ripe for disruption. If we look at some of the best examples of “new ways of doing things”, there are two obvious common aspects: a susceptibility to computer-based automation, decision-making or data search and retrieval; and a long standing, stable mature business model. It is fairly obvious that FM lacks the latter characteristic, having been in a constant state of churn almost from its inception – which, incidentally, could be considered a disruption from previous means of organizing office services – and is still not in any sense mature as a delivery model or marketplace. And when the supply chain is looking at this they seem to be focussed on looking not at what FM does or even how we do it, but primarily at how it is bought and sold – in other words, their focus tends to be on the commercial model of FM, not the service aspects. Where there is potential for massive change, therefore, is around how FM might be affected by improvements in automation, decision making or data management.

Where do BIM, KPIs and Standards fit?

One of the intriguing features of the FM industry to date has been its signal inability to get to grips with, let alone lead, thinking on basic performance measures. This has resulted in there being no effective benchmarking, difficulty in comparing and managing the supply chain, a lack of confidence from our customers, and a failure to contribute to emerging protocols in related industries, like Building Information Modelling (BIM). BIM has largely been defined and implemented by architects and construction companies. But to change that we have to understand more about why FM has struggled with these ideas – and since this is a global phenomenon, we have to look at some quite fundamental structural issues rather than scapegoating our representative institutions, which in turn may help us consider whether FM can embrace and benefit from these opportunities.

The concept of KPIs has been around since well before FM existed, although it may not have attracted is acronym until formal tendering for services became widespread in the 1980’s. But the idea that there are indicators of good performance – whether “critical success factors” or financial metrics or something more technical – has been around forever. Indeed, in my first career as a caterer we knew exactly what numbers to crunch to measure our success and/or progress: covers per day, revenue per cover, and so on. FM has largely failed to develop a suite of common indicators like this. Some might say that this is because FM is still relatively immature, but I think there are other causes, including: a lack of coordination in the industry between buyers and sellers; a worthy but misplaced desire to create bespoke solutions for clients; a lack of agreement about how to generate data in a cost effective way; and the sheer complexity of a multi-disciplinary management activity. This has been exacerbated by the stubborn refusal of people who ought to no better to understand the meaning of the word “Key”: collectively, over the years we have fallen into the trap of trying to measure everything, especially inputs, rather than developing a few meaningful pieces of data which focus on outputs – and which might be comparable. Or perhaps, genuine transparency of performance is something some businesses have been trying to avoid? Either way, the route to agreeing some common measures which genuinely allow facility managers to compare their performance must involve industry cooperation.


Our relationship with BIM illustrates another structural challenge for FM, as well as a the practical question of making the output from BIM useable for facility managers. To be brutally honest, to all intents and purposes BIM as it is currently configured is useless for FM. It not only delivers data at the wrong level of detail – at system rather than component level, for example – but there is no cost effective mechanism to retro-capture the asset data for legacy property stock. Further, it only addresses physical assets which are just one part of the services which FM encompasses. Worse, because these are static assets they are actually the least troublesome to manage; and further they add the least differentiation and thus value to the customer experience. It is arguable that BIM is no more than a diversion from FM’s real purpose of improving organizational performance, and that by focussing on cost control, even over a whole building life cycle, this devalues the benefits of FM rather than enhances them. Even if BIM can be developed into a usable tool for FM, it will never be sufficient to satisfy our aspirations, even if it becomes necessary to the efficient and effective undertaking of part of the task.

But the development of BIM over the past few years also illustrates a challenge which goes to the root of FM’s relationships with more established professions: who has the credibility, authority and knowledge to negotiate anything industry-wide for operational facility managers? This is about more than just our failure to sit round the table with architects and builders to develop BIM in such a way that is actually useful for us, although that’s a serious shortcoming: it’s about the legitimacy of our representative bodies and the long term problem of them failing to cooperate either for their own benefit or that of the people and businesses they are supposed to represent. FM as a discipline needs to be able to put forward champions – people who can understand our fellow professionals and explain our needs to them clearly – into the development process at the earliest stages, and give them the authority to create useful results. It is, after all, fairly obvious that as it currently stands BIM has limited usefulness for facility managers, especially where they are responsible for predominantly legacy premises, and that this is exacerbated by the frequent lack of appropriately detailed asset information provided. That ought not to be difficult to fix. But where is the FM industry initiative to make this happen?


The development of FM industry standards is one area where we might see a solution to this, not least because it has brought together all the major associations globally, as well as the supply side, senior occupiers, consultants and academics. For once, everyone (or most of the people, anyway) with an interest in FM is sat together working for one common purpose, and reaching consensus on the way forward into the bargain.

This process of standardising some of the mechanisms which are used in great FM shows us that we can collaborate to address some of our industry’s long term weaknesses. But how far should this go? Are formal BS and ISO Standards the right direction? And what does it mean for future innovation?

Practising Facility Managers may fear that creating and applying formal industry Standards will reduce the uniqueness and flexibility of the services we provide, and I’ll confess that when I first began to work on Standards I shared those concerns. Personally I felt, and said publicly, that because FM is a service industry it needed to be entirely bespoke to each organization’s needs and the support its staff required to do their job, and that Standards lead to a lowest common denominator, deskilled and commoditised service – anathema to me and most facility managers, I suspect. I have to say I now think I was wrong.

In part, that is because the development of Standards in FM has changed markedly since the first European Standards (EN15221) six or seven years ago, and lots of lessons have been learned. A key change in that approach has been to ensure that the primary focus in developing an FM service is to understand the strategy and needs of the organization being supported, which in as much as it sounds like a statement of the obvious, should at least be reassuring for everyone involved. That foundation allows us to codify what is in effect a design methodology for the delivery of support services, a quite astonishing and undervalued innovation which goes much further than asset management or quality management in explaining how to take the complexities of FM and work through to create consistent, measurable, developing and beneficial support services for clients and customers, without being prescriptive and without descending to the lowest common denominator.

Full circle

So does that increase or decrease the potential for disruptive innovation in FM? If Standards like this become widely adopted, which remains to be seen, they will move the industry towards a more stable platform and a more common shared understanding with our customers of what it is that we do and what value we bring. It will also bring an end to the more spurious claims to differentiation made by some of the supply chain, not least companies claiming to deliver Facility Management when they do no such thing.

To an extent, therefore, we can see this as beginning to address the question of whether we have a mature industry, and perhaps one more susceptible to effective data sharing and performance measurement and comparison. If that makes it more ready for genuine industry disruption that would be an odd, and unintended, side effect. But we know by now that there is no stopping an idea that has its time. Just as there was no mass car ownership 100 years ago and there may not be again in twenty if driverless cars run by Google, Uber and Amazon become the norm, so there is no law that we have to gather in communal workplaces every day. Wherever change is coming from, the one thing I remain confident about is that buildings need managing, organizations need intelligent support services, and complex interactions need flexible structures. That’s what FM is good at, and its why we have a future no matter how much the world of work changes.


(First published by i-FM.net on 1st December 2016)

© Dave Wilson / Effective Facilities Limited 2016