By Jeff D
Why CAFM hasn’t effectively tackled problems in the facilities management industry, and what needs to change for those problems to be solved.
Cloudfm was founded to change the rules of the facilities management industry. As our co-founders progressed through their careers from apprentices to directors at the industry’s largest companies, they identified structural, systemic challenges that compromised the safety of public spaces, hit the profits of our economy’s biggest brands, and subjected colleagues to low wages, insecure jobs and chronic stress.
Through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, business has evolved at breakneck pace. Global competition has driven a race for productivity that continues in the present day – from the White Heat of early computing to the advent of AI, the internet of things and automation. In the UK, the economy has increasingly focused on consumer goods and services, intensifying competition even in the B2B services that underpin those sectors.
In some sectors, even in support services, that has accelerated and intensified the pace of innovation and its adoption. Witness, for example, the adoption of voice-biometric verification and NLP technology in call centres, or the rise of process automation technologies in business process outsourcing and management.
These technologies have had a material impact on the competitiveness of the organisations putting them to use – and the impact has not been to reduce headcount, but to free the workforce from menial and routine tasks, allowing them to build their skills, earn more and deliver the service at a measurably higher level of quality and efficiency than before.
Facilities management has not been exempt from pressures brought to bear in other sectors. The demand for higher productivity has been felt as keenly in this industry as elsewhere. But, because even routine tasks in execution are hard to automate – no-one has yet designed lightbulb-changing robot – the scope for gains through technology is not as obvious.
But not obvious is not the same as not significant. It is a fact that effective FM on a complex estate is much a matter of admin and management as it is about fixing and cleaning things. Computer Aided Facilities Management (CAFM) systems have been around for years and, theoretically at least, are designed to apply technology to the challenges of the back office. But the challenges of quality, efficiency and safety in the industry persist. Compliance levels remain low, staff are poorly paid and demotivated, and margins are squeezed.
This paper will look at why CAFM has not provided the productivity boost experienced by other sectors, what can be done to change that, and how the cutting edge of technology can be harnessed to continue to drive efficiency in the facilities management sector.
What’s wrong with CAFM and what needs to change.
We may have robots that can mop a floor, but it will be many years before we have a robot that can re-gas an AC unit, or carry out an EICR test. Until we do, facilities management will remain about people. And, as long as it does, managing productivity will mean managing the vagaries of behaviour, emotions and character. Any application of technology to challenges in the industry must be done with this as the primary consideration.
In a world where maintenance tasks really were delivered by robots, CAFM systems might actually be very effective. CAFM systems are generally excellent at managing data, and robots are excellent at recording data. But by and large, people are not good at recording data. And, without accurate data, even the best CAFM systems do not deliver the benefits they should.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure – an old saying, and a true one. But recording detailed data on what we are doing day to day is not a natural human behaviour. Particularly, it’s not a natural behaviour in an industry where operatives consistently come under pressure to deliver as much as possible as quickly as possible. For an engineer who has one too many jobs in every day, administration is neither welcome nor necessarily easy.
Further, in an industry where ‘optimistic’ recording of both compliance and time-on-site data is often the only way that sub-contractors can make a margin, accurate data recording can seem actually threatening.
Without that accurate data capture, however, CAFM systems can only ever have a limited benefit. Better than paper, no doubt, but not a transformative productivity solution. When the underlying processes (including data capture) are flawed, supporting those processes with a digital platform simply entrenches those flaws further into the organisation. For any digital platform to be effective in FM, it must support an effective process.
And it is a fact that very few systems even have the facility to integrate full data capture throughout the process. As far as we are aware, Cloudfm Freedom is the only off-the-shelf system currently available that offers a fully integrated workflow, from the moment a task is first identified through its completion, to its eventual payment and final performance analysis.
So CAFM systems lack the facility to capture data effectively, and the people involved lack the motivation try.
But technology can radically change behaviour in very short order indeed. Ten years ago, we would have laughed at the idea that we could watch any film in the world, within seconds; that we could arrange to stay in a stranger’s house without even speaking to them; or that we could switch on the heating in our house from the other side of the world.
Managing, say 50,000 maintenance tasks, across 600 locations, and 25 trade disciplines is a lot more complex than watching a film or getting a taxi. But that is not to say that technology cannot change behaviours for the better in facilities management – only to say that technology cannot change behaviours on its own.
At the inception of Cloudfm, the founders created what was then and remains the most advanced technology solution in facilities management. But they knew that was not enough. Only by designing an integrated process and embedding a robust ethical framework could they begin to access some of the transformative gains that technology has afforded outside of the FM industry.
For example, always allowing contractors to make a fair margin eliminates the need for them to report optimistically on their time on site, or on the materials they have used in their work. Removing the incentive to report inaccurately removes one of the biggest barriers to adoption for technology. Conversely, rather than fining contractors for not using our technology, Cloudfm pays bonuses for using its technology consistently and effectively.
But even removing practical barriers, and creating financial incentives is still not enough to change behaviours. Human beings in general seek an easy life. If there is an easier way of doing something then that’s the way most people will do it. In order to make data capture the default option, it has to be the easy option.
For example, within the Cloudfm Freedom system, the only way to record and invoice work is through the engineers’ app; each item of data capture throughout the on-site workflow is actively prompted by the app, and any alternatives are considerably more time consuming.
And that use of technology in the field captures the data that feeds the process of management and measurement that controls the compliance, finances and operations of FM on the client’s estate – the mechanism by which efficiencies are achieved and productivity enhanced.
While FM is a great deal more complex than many of the sectors where the Ubers and Air BnBs of the world have had such a transformative effect, there is one aspect which remains consistent – the importance of mass participation. In FM, while 100% data capture is all but unachievable, 90% still secures the vast majority of productivity gains available.
CAFM systems fail to achieve that, and that is at the root of why they do not fulfil their potential. Without removing the practical barriers to adoption; without creating incentives to drive it; and without making it the easy option, it is improbable that enough data can be collected, at a high enough degree of accuracy, to drive the economic benefits that technology can and should deliver.
The cutting edge
A future beyond CAFM; taking cues from the consumer world.
Cloudfm’s technology has always been at the forefront of the industry. But, while FM may not move quickly, we know that the same is not true of the industries FM serves. In the seven years that Cloudfm has been in business, the expectations of shareholders, consumers, business leaders and employees have advanced apace, and commercial pressures have only increased.
To that end, Cloudfm has not stood still. We have worked consistently to optimise our process, to close loopholes and improve user experience. Most importantly, we have worked to improve the psychological basis of our technology, always looking to incentivise the behaviours that drive productivity.
Squeezed margins and increasing expectations in the FM industry mean pressure at all levels of an organisation, and pressure means stress. And human beings under stress cannot but act in their own self-interest. Self-preservation is an ancient reflex, and it is triggered as surely by being given unrealistic workloads as it is by being chased by a wild animal.
As Cloudfm’s technology has evolved to drive out inefficiencies and achieve even greater levels of productivity, we have found that success is as much as matter of understanding and responding to human behaviour and psychology than anything else. We can’t remove all the stresses from every workplace we work in – but we can take the stress out of managing FM, for site managers, operations managers and finance leaders. And we can definitely take the stress out of delivering FM for our engineers, contractors and back office staff.
That’s the principle behind our workflow process and desk-top portal used by our back office staff – removing as much human judgement as possible from the system excises the emotional factors that can compromise decision-making.
It’s the principle behind our engineers’ app – by controlling workflow, and making data capture completely non-optional, we can remove any fear that the engineer may have that their diligence or commitment to a specific job could be questioned.
It’s also the principle behind our new Freedom App.
In busy retail and restaurant environments, one of the biggest stresses for building managers is time spent away from the shop floor. Many organisations in these sectors actively restrict the time available for admin, which places an additional pressure on managers who already know that their time is best spent on the shop floor. A mobile app for building managers as well as engineers was the obvious solution.
But delivering one effectively isn’t as easy as it may seem. Apps, by their nature, must be simple – and maintenance tasks within an organisation can be complex. Reconciling complex tasks with a simple user experience is challenging. And an app that is confusing to use will likely cause more stress than it will alleviate. The golden rule of consumer app design is that it should require no instructions. That is the standard of user experience that anyone using an app – for business or pleasure – should expect.
The advent of robust, reliable artificial intelligence has made this possible. When we designed our new app for building managers, we sought to reduce the time to log a task from seven minutes (including time to walk off the shop floor), down to 90 seconds. And, by including an AI interface, we were able to include data capture prompts in the same manner as our engineer app – allowing our helpdesk to direct an even faster response in the case of complex or unusual tasks.
Because including AI allowed us to put the full power of our Freedom system into a simple-to-use app, we were able to enhance some of those features by using the inherent benefits of the mobile app format itself. For example, the real time updates on the allocation of an urgent task, and the progress of an engineer all appear as push notifications from the app. And, just as Facebook or Instagram notifications trigger the brain’s positive hormonal response to attention and new information, so we are able to bring some of that principle to bear in increasing engagement and usage of the Cloudfm system amongst building managers.
And that is equally true of the view of the Freedom App for operations managers. Designed for FM and maintenance leaders who, for example, need to respond promptly to requests for quote approvals, we harnessed the same principles to make it easier (and, indeed, actually desirable) for them to respond. By creating an additional psychological incentive to react to issues on an estate, we are able to generate mass engagement – and that offers the prospect of a genuinely transformative effect on productivity.
Just as the key to effectiveness in any system is participation, so the key to excellence is engagement. By using the principles of psychology that sit behind the boom in consumer apps – and by simply increasing ease and speed of use – we are able to dramatically increase the degree to which building managers and operations managers are able to and want to engage with the management of their FM programme.
Into the future
Putting emerging technologies to practical use
Cloudfm changed the rules of what it was possible to do with technology in the FM industry. We started out with the most advanced technology in the sector and we’ve never fallen behind. We’ve taken our clients on that journey and they now benefit from the
But we know that that is not enough. We know that as the global economy continues to evolve, businesses’ competitiveness will depend absolutely on their ability to keep increasing productivity. There is no reason that the expectations of consumers, employees and business leaders should stand still. Any business willing to rest on its laurels will be a short lived one.
That trajectory will only increase the pressure on support services. And that pressure will not be relieved by paying anyone less, by offering an ‘economical’ service, and least of all by pretending that current technology is future proof.
That is why Cloudfm never stands still. While we stand at the forefront of the industry, we are already preparing to change the rules in the business world of the future.
We have already put the first stages of artificial intelligence into use in our app – and we are currently working to put in place a fully dynamic, active artificial intelligence framework to support the next iteration of our technology.
Not only will this use artificial intelligence to make it easier for site managers to log a task, but it will be able to assess the full data on historical tasks for a given asset, on the financial performance of that site, on the available contractors and their expertise – to assist with the speedy allocation of tasks, to make proactive suggestions on asset lifecycle, and to update operations and building managers proactively on the budget implications of any given activity on site.
That will be another step-change upwards for productivity in the FM industry.
And the analytic technology that lies behind the implementation of active artificial intelligence enables the productive application of another key emerging technology.
Cloudfm is not alone in having experimented with and successfully applied Internet of Things (IoT) technology in the FM industry. However, the uses of IoT have thus far been limited to what might be called ‘remote monitoring’ – knowing from a central location how much energy a large number of assets are using, for example, or being automatically alerted when an asset has broken down.
These are useful gains, sure, but they are not transformative. Optimising energy consumption is useful, but it is only a small part of the effective management of an estate. And, in a busy environment, breakdowns involving important equipment are almost always recorded rapidly.
The real potential in IoT is to record predictive information about systems and assets – to predict breakdowns and drive remedial reactions, directly reducing the number of breakdowns experienced across an estate.
By focusing on the ‘vital signs’ – the running and functioning – of mechanical and electrical systems, it is possible to predict when an asset will fail within a specific timescale, and act pre-emptively to prevent that failure.
Of course, it will never be possible to eliminate all breakdowns. But, because Cloudfm records service histories for every mechanical and electrical asset across the estates we look after, we know the indicators of imminent failures for common key assets across large-scale commercial estates. And, because we hold detailed, verified, accurate financial data for some of the busiest retail estates in the country, we know when it is worth making a pre-emptive repair – we have clear visibility of which breakdowns will have the most severe impact on the commercial success of a business in any given sector.
Very soon, we will know when key assets are going to fail, and be able to act to prevent that; and we will know the financial impact of that happening, so clients can make informed decisions about whether to repair, replace, or allow the asset to fail.
And, by bringing that insight together with a proactive artificial intelligence capability, we will be able to achieve unheard-of levels of automation and efficiency. By bringing together predictive data on asset performance, service histories and financial histories, the Freedom platform will be able to make proactive suggestions on decision-making that directly align with a client’s specific commercial objectives.
Only at the cutting edge of the FM industry is it currently possible to collect enough data, and collect it accurately enough, to be able to apply analytics that bring together data on FM, property financing and energy use, and enable decision-making at the strategic level. As we further automate the collection and analysis of data, the scope to optimise and enhance this capability is huge – as are the potential gains for the organisations that take advantage.
This is the digital future of FM, and the near-term destination for Cloudfm’s technology – layering AI, IoT and advanced analytics on top of user-friendly, consumer-influenced cloud and mobile technologies, to create not just a fully-fledged predictive analytics capability, but a genuinely prescriptive technology platform.
By further removing human beings from the decision-making process, we will release resource for developing relationships, forming closer partnerships with our clients, and creating the next generation of innovations in FM.
For too long FM has lagged behind other industries in the application of technology and process. While retail, hospitality, professional services, manufacturing, distribution and many other industries have stridden ahead, and reaped the benefits, FM remains largely where it was 20 years ago. Despite the potential of AI, of IoT, and even of more ubiquitous cloud and mobile technologies, much of the industry still uses paper invoices and worksheets; uses manual data entry and transfer; and allows manual (and therefore editable) reporting.
To change the rules, Cloudfm took its clients on a journey. We built a solid foundation: a robust, easy-to-use platform connecting suppliers, engineers, the client and the back office; a process that closed loopholes, created a safe environment and guaranteed efficiency; and a training programme to build expertise at every level. To this foundation, we have added an unprecedented level of automation, of positive behavioural incentives, and of transparency for building managers and operations managers alike.
Those two steps have each represented a sea-change in how productive the facilities management function can be. The next step – combining predictive technology, prescriptive analytics and proactive artificial intelligence – promises even greater rewards.