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By Loren Snyder
October 2008 -
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Long gone are the days when facility executives issued paper work orders and turned wrenches themselves. In fact, today’s facility executives spend at least part of their days typing away feverishly at a computer. That’s because they oversee all manner of an organization’s facility-related information. They now deal in data. This is no small detail, largely because it has caused a paradigm shift in the role facility executives play.
Regardless of an organization’s core mission, facility-related life-cycle costs, and the information required to compute operational costs, are increasingly being used to augment business knowledge. Facility-related data is now being viewed as an important piece of the pie, and one that helps shape strategic decision-making within the highest levels of an organization.
How did things get to be this way? The answer is multifaceted, but one leading reason is the continued development and growing availability of sophisticated facility-related software. The increasing use of facility software has simultaneously changed the role of facility executives and made them responsible for sharing building data with other members of an organization’s leadership team.
Today, an increasing multitude of software choices are available that allow facility executives to share information. These systems are also significantly more powerful than their predecessors, allowing data to be shared via spreadsheet, graphically and easy-to-use Web browser interfaces.
Developed during the late 1980s and streamlined during the 1990s, computer-aided facility management (CAFM) software leveraged the ubiquitous presence of the personal computer to gather, order and maintain facility management information.
Specific modules and specialized software flourished — each with its own purpose and quirks. The problem was that all of this software existed in independent silos. Few of these systems could “talk” to one another. In many cases, the software just wasn’t sophisticated enough to permit information-sharing. Essentially, it kept facility data locked in the hands of facility executives, making the information useful to them, but not necessarily allowing them to easily disseminate it to other decision-makers. That has changed.
Although truly new functions in FM software are rare, the software systems themselves have become ever larger as vendors incorporate increased data-sharing capabilities.
Facility management software is changing to meet the needs of the different professionals now relying regularly on facility data. Andrew Bartolini, vice president of research for the AberdeenGroup, calls this trend the “tale of two collars.”
White and blue collar professionals in the real estate and facilities arena, he says, “must work to become more engaged.”
Bartolini says both groups clearly understand the interrelationship of activities within real estate and FM, principally how superior space utilization and overall understanding of facilities can provide the real estate executives better ability to forecast space demands. Until recently, however, “they generally failed to engage their counterparts in an ongoing and proactive dialogue,” Bartolini says. “There is a great opportunity to improve collaboration between the two groups.”
Susan Hensey, a partner and studio principal for FM strategies at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, also noted this trend.
“At this intersection, more blue collar folks have sophisticated information,” she says. “These technologies, like CAFM, used to have few users. All that has changed.”
More people want and need access to facility data, she says.
This collaborative effort is reflected clearly in the FM offerings by software vendors. Added functions are increasingly being added to bolster FM software utility by multiple user groups.
In all reality, the most important feature of new software systems isn’t new functions, but enhanced collaboration between previously incompatible software systems, which by itself improves functionality.
Although there remains a distinction between Building Information Modeling (BIM) programs and facility management modules — such as computerized maintenance management, integrated workplace management, and CAFM software — that line is eroding. “Software tools are merging,” says Chris Keller, managing director for Facilities Solutions Group, noting that BIM vendors are developing FM capability and vice versa.
These developments will initiate a change in the business relationship of all parties involved, particularly for building owners, Keller says. He also notes that BIM has the potential to change facility management automation in the same way that the switch from manual drafting to CAD affected architects and engineers. But in this case, he says, “the stakes are higher, the effort is higher and changes to the industry are much greater and more far reaching.”
Clearly, part of the reason these new multifaceted FM software suites have sprung up is because many departments, from IT to accounting to real estate, have a vested interest in some FM duties. They are all affected, in some way or another, by data that facility executives have access to.
For this reason, many newer functions in facility software address financial analysis and modeling, improved document management and reporting tools.
“There is an increased ability to produce charts, and better integrate with report writers like Crystal — especially on the Web,” Keller says. He adds that better integration now exists with enterprise systems, and that vendors are increasingly making software that is “Web-centric.”
To illustrate this trend, Hensey uses the example of data-sharing via Web resources. “Now, facility executives can track data through portals like SharePoint, and integrate that information with an Excel spreadsheet to pull from many data sources. All of this can then be published on the Web to show others the information.”
Bartolini says that facility executives are on the cusp of a major transformation and that the competitive business environment, combined with new technologies, is helping usher in this change.
“The role of real estate and facilities management is increasingly viewed as strategic by the enterprise,” he says. “These teams will soon be called to the corporate frontlines to help defend profit margins. It is a very exciting time to be in this space.”
However, as the business environment develops for facility executives, organizations have a clear need to derive more value from automated FM functions. Increasingly, commercially available software solutions enable these trends.
To keep from being overwhelmed, facility executives need to remember to account for the information needs from all team members, and choose only those software solutions that meet their specific needs. Try to do it all with these programs, warns Hensey, and the software solutions will go unused.
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