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Working with IT

Despite the fact the CAFM systems have been around for nearly a quarter of a century, there has rarely been an easy relationship between FM, seeking to exploit the benefits of automation and data capture, and the IT department which, on paper, would seem to be its most likely ally.

The courtship has been long and fraught.  Today, however, and thanks to a number of technological, cultural and economical influences, there are hopeful signs of a shift in thinking that is finally starting to generate what should be a natural synergy between the two functions.  The convergence of property and estates systems and FM across a single maintenance platform is just one example of the greater understanding of a need for more efficient, IT-enabled integration.

Just a decade ago, that would have been a remote prospect in many typical FM scenarios.  From the high security government department, where FM might have been banished from the network altogether and was certainly at the back of the queue when it came to accessing IT resources, to a major construction project where IT's involvement in the very FM procurement process depended on the coincidence of a good working relationship between individuals from both camps, obstacles and pitfalls hindered the advance of CAFM as a strategic business tool.

Many FM services were still unsupported by CAFM: job sheets were sent to regional engineers and returned for sign-off by snail mail; T-cards still sat in slots on a big board on the wall.  This Dickensian picture could hardly have been more at odds with the perceived rise and range of corporate IT, long established as a mainstream business function.  But when the FM department sought closer integration with the business's core systems, it would find itself disenfranchised from an IT department that was unable to understand what CAFM would actually bring to the business.

The criticality of CAFM is now far better understood, thanks in no small part to the convergence of FM with the ecology and energy-saving agenda that dominates board-level cost control discussions these days.

FM is now in a prime position to document and show the business how energy is being utilised and where consumption can be reduced, for example, bringing it right to the heart of these discussions, giving it a firmer foothold when it comes to accountability and procurement.  Suddenly, the financial director can see the value of CAFM to the organisation, and with that greater visibility, other departments - including IT - can understand the attraction of modules and workflow tools that make critical data available to the business user.

Historically, FM has been guilty of contributing to the fragmentation of what should be an enterprise-wide discipline.  A Helpdesk might have been procured initially for the logging and cataloguing of IT equipment, but over time it has been extended to cover FM property and estates.  This silo mentality, with the business or organisation happy to take its FM information on a pull basis from an isolated data repository, has been a significant obstacle to integration.

From the IT perspective, this has perpetuated a lingering sense of disengagement, and from the FM side, it has contributed to the perception that within the business, FM is a function that is simply there, bringing up the rear and fitting in where it can.  But now, increasingly, IT is emerging as the rationalising glue that can help to deliver a truly pan-organisational FM vision.

Business users expect all the functionality of web-based portals, and they want FM related data pushed out to them in a far more interactive way.  They are IT-savvy, and simply expect technology to make information available when and where they want it.  They won't accept anything less.

The in-house FM provider ignores these expectations at its peril, but this should be seen as more of an opportunity than a challenge. It has the potential to boost visibility and provide a platform for justifying FM's existence to a vital audience.  IT has an essential role to play in this mini revolution and can help with that by providing Intranets and dashboards that make the data accessible at the desktop.

The FM service supply chain, too, wants portal-style access to the relevant data and tools that will help suppliers manage their client relationship more efficiently and meet service targets.  Again, this can't be realised without the intervention of the IT department.

With the spotlight on FM, however, we should not ignore the danger of seeing its responsibilities in isolation.  On the green front, any energy-saving issue can be related in a simplistic way to a piece of equipment or a single asset.  But the business should aim to analyse why that is, rather than just accepting the situation, measure disparate performance and localised environmental variations, and convert the information into best, cost-saving practices.  Again, IT becomes the main enabler in helping FM to have genuine bottom-line clout.

Several other factors have brought IT and FM closer together, not least the increasing dominance of handheld devices in corporate communications.  Traditionally, larger FM companies have favoured ruggedised units for use out in the field.  But there is now a trend to forego these in favour of cheaper, mass market PDA's, and accept the higher level of breakage as a worthwhile trade-off.  The IT department will have considerable experience in negotiating high-volume PDA deals with service providers, so involving them at the earliest possible stage in the procurement process makes perfect sense.

In many large CAFM implementation projects, particularly for multi-national organisations, greater geographical reach is a requisite element of the system.  The business may want the FM function to operate from a cheaper cost centre, delivering global services but with the flexibility to address specific needs at a local level.  It is really inconceivable that projects on this scale could be realised without the quantum leap in IT engagement that we are now witnessing in many cases.

Winning the hearts and minds of the IT department earlier in the process is also becoming increasingly important in household-name corporate environments where in the past, FM has been slow to invite IT to the discussion table - perhaps because in a more relaxed procurement atmosphere, FM has not been forced to fight the business justification battle that has been going on in more pressurised situations.

The downside to this is that CAFM projects can be well advanced before IT steps in with technological, security and financial issues and refers the project back to the formal procurement process.  Cue delays, frustration and disappointment.

This has been a hard but well-learned lesson: introducing a modern CAFM system into a corporate business environment is not a simple process.  It can't be achieved simply by stringing together a peer-to-peer network.  It has implications for the IT infrastructure and security framework that can only be resolved with the support and collaboration of the IT department.

The pace of technology's evolution is so fast that today, a senior FM professional would find it virtually impossible to proceed with a CAFM project without consistent, top-level input from their IT counterparts.  The days of hit-or-miss, informal chats are long gone.  FM and IT need to be partners, addressing the most crucial strategic questions together: What is the roadmap for the project?  What are the benefits to the business as a whole?  Where will FM be in five years' time?  How can we justify this investment to all the signatories in an increasingly rigorous procurement process?

The fact that, as a supplier, we are now seeing much more evidence of this high level engagement between FM and IT is surely testament to their rapidly improving relationship, and the benefits that will be reaped thanks to successful CAFM projects in the years to come.

Compton Darlington is Business Development Director at FSI: www.fsifm.com