When it comes to data and implementing facilities systems, there are key decisions to be made.
Big data and the exponential price performance growth in processing capacity are changing every aspect of our commercial and social lives. And with the Internet of Things (IoT) beginning to make real impacts on the built environment, ever-increasing amounts of property and building data is now available for processing. Fortunately, with enhanced interoperability, our expectation of having diverse systems and processes linked is now attainable.
Most occupiers and owners of property are also now realising that, although facilities information management may not be a core function, it is essential to underpin the ongoing ability to compete successfully in business. But there is still a reticence to rely on service provider systems and many property owners’ decisions are focused on investing in their own systems. This thinking is usually a result of bad past experiences, the fear of losing control of their portfolio data or the complexities of having multiple service providers deliver various facilities functions. Having a clear understanding of the key decision-making issues may assist in determining the optimal suite of facilities management systems.
Property and facilities assets are data- rich. There are many data fields that can contribute to the effective operational, tactical and strategic management of a portfolio of accommodation facilities. For example, data may be related to complex lease arrangements, the physical and operational condition of assets, the servicing requirements of the assets and various aspects related to the portfolio financial metrics. Aspects of each of these may be essential to underpin key facilities decisions. But not all data is born equal. Data pertaining to equipment functionality is likely to be important and time sensitive, demanding real-time review with immediate processing to report malfunctions. Other data may only be needed once a month and still convey meaningful and actionable messages.
Underpinning the systems decisions are the processes and the discipline required to ensure that only the relevant data and information is captured. This means carefully choosing a combination of complementary analytics solutions with access to the right tools to propel value-driven outcomes. By only uploading data and information that is essential it will make a difference to the operations and planning of the portfolio. The temptation, overawed by the data manipulation capacity of systems, is to collect too much data.
Beware of the temptation to attempt building and implementing a bespoke, custom-made system developed from scratch, particularly if property and facilities management is not core to the business. This process is long, arduous and always costs significantly more than the initial estimate. In addition, it will require a large time commitment from management and still never meets the initial system expectations. Millions of dollars have been spent on these types of journeys, most often without the systems ever being switched on.
As property information systems industries have matured, some key principles have emerged. For example, data should only be input once. Data transfers should be designed to be accessible, even in the form of simple downloads, across multiple systems. In some applications, there is still the temptation to upload data separately into complementary systems and spreadsheets. This approach results in double handling data, increased costs and data integrity issues. Data needs to be captured consistently and reliably. This means all team members need to be trained consistently and regularly as systems evolve.
When selecting any proprietary system, it is best to limit customisation requests from the vendor. Changes and modifications required to suit bespoke property processes or habits that have evolved over many years may not be the best outcome. Industry systems are designed to meet ‘best practice’ requirements, so it’s advisable to change the internal process to suit the system, rather than the other way around. Facilities and property management are simple processes, and industry practices usually work the best.
Think carefully about the need for seamless or real-time transfer of data between different systems. Systems analysts will promise that this can be done via many different file formats – the reality is that data mapping and uploading always seem to come up with surprises. If data needs to be transferred between systems rather than attempting to have all data fields linked in real time, be prudent and transfer data at aggregated levels and at set daily intervals. Data transfer can be a particular challenge if the facilities systems need to interface with corporate-wide financial management systems.
Be prepared to let go of the data. Unless the portfolio data is top secret, transfer the data responsibility, but not ownership to a fee-for-service provider who will manage the data and have it available as required. In addition, online and regular reporting requirements will provide comfort in the knowledge that the data is up-to-date, accessible and safe.
During the transition to a new or enhanced system, portfolio data can usually be uploaded from the existing databases. The planning of this process needs to be undertaken rigorously to ensure the uploaded data fields can occur as required. But also ensure that there is an obligation that all data is verified against source documentation, and that this is priced accordingly to ensure there is data integrity. As part of the process, also do some parallel test runs. The best time to test the data integrity in a new system is when both systems and processes, the old and the new, operate in parallel for a number of months.
When considering any facilities systems implementation, the possibilities of the future should not be ignored. There is ongoing debate as to the extent that the IoT and smart building technologies will be used to manage and control the management of assets, as well as user and occupier experiences. In the built environment, the use of IoT is still at an immature stage. But there may be a surge in adoption as a number of converging forces, including product supply businesses, constantly identify new ways to leverage sensors and smart analytics to make improvements in current products and services.
As the costs to implement and use IoT technologies start to reduce rapidly, these will become the norm for new buildings and will be able to be linked into facilities systems. These are future opportunities that should not be neglected. For example, in specific sectors such as energy, with the continued increases in demand and pricing, but with ageing energy infrastructure grids struggling to handle the demand, IoT will provide a timely sector advantage.
Despite all the hype and possibilities around emerging facilities systems and smart buildings, preparing the financial business case will be a challenge if performance improvement is not understood and is not easy to quantify. With the future value proposition based on enhanced building service reliability and the appropriate use of maintenance expenditure (which both lead to improved working environments and greater workplace productivity), the advantage of these outcomes may be complex to quantify objectively. The return on investment should, in a way that is self-evident, demonstrate the insights provided by systems and technologies that enable the facilities manager to address problems directly, in real time, before the degradation of a capital asset commences – thus minimising operating downtime and repair costs.
The key to having facilities systems implemented within a specific budget and time frame is managing expectations and demands with incremental implementation. Taking a giant step to a complex system that requires customisation may result in significantly greater costs and time to implement. Simpler systems using defined processes, even if these do not replicate current processes, will cost less and present fewer challenges to implement. Work on a plan that permits ‘best of breed’ facilities systems modules to be implemented on a staged basis, supported by teams empowered to learn the steps incrementally as the facilities functionally matures.