The web - enabling FMs
'Online' means more than just Google searches, email and social networking. Compton Darlington, business development director of Microsoft Gold partners FSI (FM Solutions) Limited, argues in FMJ magazine that developments in CAFM technology are enabling FM professionals to harness the internet's true power in order to reap the benefits of improved building efficiency through faster and more accurate information delivery.
Business decision-makers have always had high expectations of their IT systems, and in the 21st century it is taken for granted that strategic investment in software will at the very least deliver greater efficiencies and improved productivity. But the rise of the internet as a dynamic communications environment has helped to drive those expectations ever deeper into the heart of the organisation.
Now that we are well into the age of Web 2.0, where we take for granted the ability to interact with colleagues and employers in a flexible and mobile multimedia world, regardless of time or location, it is easy to see the impact on system end-user expectations.
For example, demand is growing for web-enabled computer-aided facilities management solutions (CAFM), where technology is specified to meet an increasingly complex range of service demands.
Not only do senior managers expect to be able to access their FM activity reports in real time, but end-users on the frontline also expect to interact with appropriate aspects of the CAFM software via a familiar, easy-to-use browser that reflects their daily internet-based experiences and to access the software from a diverse range of devices.
For example, web-enabled CAFM allows end-users to receive jobs and submit status and completion reports via a full range of remote devices including laptops, PDAs and even mobile phones, keeping them mobile rather than constantly returning to the office to complete paperwork or wait for the next job.
So in part, web-enablement is being driven by modern working practices. Many FM teams now comprise of those mobile and remote workers who depend on the instant availability of their CAFM systems from wherever they happen to be. Today's generation of mobile staff expects to be able to surf into its critical applications via a web browser as a matter of course.
Between these two ends of the spectrum - management and end-user - lie a host of other interests influencing the web-enablement of CAFM, particularly with regard to integration with other business processes and systems: the web is a natural, centralised platform for application delivery, combining flexible access with lower management and IT maintenance costs.
Until recently, many product suppliers have only web-enabled certain elements of their systems in response to general trends. But solutions like Concept Evolution, the complete web-enabled CAFM package from FSI, have been developed in response to the recognition that the internet can take the benefits of the software to a much wider user constituency and deliver even more substantial business benefits.
As far as flexibility is concerned, web-enabled CAFM systems provide a model that is equally effective for single facility and multi-site operations. It can embrace a full set of services or it can be applied to specific facilities operations. And for modern FM service providers with their multi-contract portfolios, it provides a framework for more efficient, streamlined service roll-out costs.
With a web-enabled CAFM system, centralised deployment from head office or a data centre becomes a reality. Local access to the application is provided via the internet, and the segregation functionality of a top-flight CAFM system means that your view of the data can be filtered or limited based on your role (client, FM or supervisor) and geographical responsibility.
Web-enabled CAFM allows FM professionals to harness the power of the internet and extend the benefits of improved efficiency and more accurate information delivery in real time, as well as greater productivity, across the organisation.
Increasing visibility and awareness
In some ways, by using the web as a software platform, CAFM can define the role of the FM function much more clearly than ever before within the business itself. The simple use of a standard web browser to give a single, centralised, fully integrated view of facilities and maintenance services across the business gives it a higher visibility and can help to raise awareness of those services among non-FM staff and departments.
For operational staff, the benefits lie in the creation of a single, complete view of all FM activities, the people who are active in delivering services and the status of different jobs - planned and unplanned.
Every location, asset and person can be tracked; the processes, costs and effort required for a top-class operation can be analysed and calculated; and the impact of acquisitions, asset investment, utilisation, maintenance and different levels of service delivery can be measured and understood.
But for the first time, web-enabled CAFM also makes a comprehensive range of FM-related data available to non-specialist business users in a way that is genuinely accessible. Information can flow seamlessly between locations, divisions, departments, people and projects, depending entirely on their specific needs.
By gaining a better understanding of the FM function, non-specialist business users can become part of the ongoing process to make more efficient use of services and maintain timely, cost-effective service delivery that can have a real, positive impact on the organisation's bottom line - an imperative for every department in this exacting economic climate.
Web-enabled CAFM also brings cultural benefits. Not only does it remove the need for FM service delivery staff to constantly refer back to head office, but the time and productivity gains provided by an automated helpdesk facility also liberates support staff to provide a more client-focused service.
By making CAFM-based information available on demand, web-enabled CAFM also allows FM to take its rightful place alongside other service departments that users will commonly have access to on the corporate Intranet. This is a natural progression at a time when close ties between strategic software packages are expected as a matter of course, and CAFM is a natural contender for integration at this level.
Web-based systems integration is not the end of the story. Organisations are increasingly looking at the cost benefits of interoperability and integration between a host of services including energy, lighting, security, logistics, telephony, enterprise resource planning and IT.
In addition, as businesses pay more attention to the effect of the working environment on staff productivity and efficiency, they want more and more information about the way assets, such as equipment, are used - everything from 'hot' desks to car parks and lighting equipment.
That information is becoming more important in the determination of internal business strategies. And as those organisations look to the FM operation to enable this evolution, yet again, the internet offers itself as an ideal integration platform for the gathering and delivery of information, making FM itself an agent for change.
Historically, facilities managers have been relatively invisible within the organisation. Some will argue that this is a good thing, and that FM is something that should happen quietly and efficiently in the background.
However, many FM professionals are now taking a more active role in strategic management at increasingly high levels. And a web-enabled CAFM system is the ideal professional tool to help them deliver and share strategic information among their senior peers.
Indeed, they are in a prime position to drive board-level recognition of the CAFM system as the optimum central repository for information gathered from a wide variety of strategic business systems.
If they can achieve that, and influence the use of CAFM-originating data on the business frontline to assess risk, manage cost and efficiency, and improve productivity, it can only underline the importance of investment in CAFM technology.