CAFM systems - one size doesn’t fit all

Compton Darlington, Business Development Director at FSI (FM Solutions) Limited, talks to FMJ magazine, and challenges the claims by some CAFM systems suppliers that all PFI projects are the same, and highlights the different stages CAFM vendors must prepare for and take into account during the supply trail.

Computer Aided Facilities Management systems (CAFM) have become an increasingly central component of the PFI bidding process, demonstrating to contractors the benefits of having access to a comprehensive range of reporting and process management tools beyond the traditional FM world of asset management.  But there is a myth, often apparently endorsed by some CAFM system suppliers, that all PFI projects are identical and can be serviced by an all-purpose system.

This unhelpful misconception doesn't stand up to scrutiny in the real and complex world of PFI bids.  FSI, developer of the CAFM platform Concept, has been working with clients on PFI bids since 1999 and has long since discovered that where these contracts are concerned, the devil will always be found in the detail.  And any quirks and variations can have significant consequences for payment mechanisms.

There will always be similarities between different PFI contracts, of course.  And a CAFM system implemented straight out of the box could easily make a 60%-plus fit with the basic requirements.

But appearances can be deceptive.  The infinitely subtle variations in schedules for payment mechanisms and operational service specifications - not just across different sectors such as schools or hospitals but also between one Local Authority and another - mean that imposing a CAFM system as catch-all panacea is rarely an effective strategy.

FSI's experience shows that two hospitals operating within the same NHS trust can have slightly different contracts.  The differences might not be immediately obvious, but they will have a significant impact on service failure calculations.

For example, if a nurse requests the replacement of a light bulb and the call is not processed in time, it might be classified as a job failure by that client.  But the overall level of illumination in the ward might still be sufficient, in which case the FM provider will not have failed to deliver the contracted service according to the other client.  Making sense of these differences depends on recognising the various output specifications of an individual contract and their interpretation by the FM provider and the CAFM vendor.

Similarly, a school PFI maintenance contract could specify minimum temperatures which only apply to certain rooms during certain hours.  Again, these details should be pulled out of the contract, understood, and the CAFM system developed accordingly to suit the needs of that particular customer.

Other differences can emerge in the definition of performance thresholds and how the quality and quantity of failures are determined.

These granular details have to be configured in the CAFM system if it is to be used effectively to generate essential and accurate performance management information across the typical PFI service supply trail, from the end-client (usually the Local Authority) through the service provider to the FM contractor and the CAFM supplier.

Contractual requirements

But a key complication, which many CAFM vendors don't take into account, is that each PFI contract can undergo considerable changes as it passes along the supply trail.  The end-client specifies its contractual requirements for the service provider.  But when the service provider goes out to tender, there will often be significant modifications - perhaps related to penalties and definitions of bad performance failures - which will give them a buffer against stringent SLAs.  So the contract that the FM provider eventually bids for will reflect those changes; and that is what the CAFM supplier must develop the system to, rather than any preconceived idea of a standard working contract.

To this end, FSI has developed a consultancy framework that takes into account the unique requirements of a particular contract and enables it to write a bespoke CAFM system that will deliver a customised Payment Mechanism Solution for the client.

Throughout, FSI works closely with the FM supplier, analysing its interpretation of the contract to arrive at a PMS and CAFM system that will function within each individual PFI contract model.  This way, the system will take into account all the operational differences and variations in service failure point calculations.

This approach does more than pay lip service to the idea of customisation.  It is vital for the CAFM supplier to work with people on both sides of the contract and to engage every element of its own business - commercial, system development, testing and delivery - in meeting the needs of the PFI FM contractor.

FSI engages a member of its operational Payment Mechanism Solution (PMS) team to spend time in a workshop with the client, during which they will work through the performance schedule outlined in the contract and ensure that everyone involved fully understands every nuance.  FSI brings a further benefit to these discussions in the form of its years of experience with PFI projects, which can help to identify key challenges and potential problems.

At every stage, two all-important questions are asked: How will the system work in an operational environment?  And will it work within Concept, or require a new interface?

Rigorous quality testing

Once these questions have been answered, a draft system specification is drawn up and reviewed with the client.  Further fine-tuning is then discussed before the specification is signed off and sent to the development team.  The resulting system is put through a rigorous quality testing process, where every possible scenario is explored.  Then, during the acceptance phase, the system is loaded up for the client and put through its paces with authentic test data and scenarios and the client is able to review the end-calculations.

Finally, a review workshop is held with the client and the service provider so that everyone involved in the bid can see how data is captured and used to generate reports for anyone who will need them.  Transparency is the golden thread for this methodology, helping to bring some much needed clarity to the navigation of today's PFI maintenance contracts.

Back at FSI, the customer support team, fully briefed on the system's final configuration, assumes responsibility for the answering of any further client queries quickly and easily.  And once the system is up and running, regular review meetings will be held - if required - to help ensure that it is being used to its full potential in underpinning the successful management of the PFI contract.

The value for the contractor lies in choosing a supplier who clearly understands the entire life-cycle of the PFI contract and is committed to a methodology that accurately mirrors it from the scoping of the system to final delivery.

This is not a market in which one size fits all, and FM contractors bidding for maintenance and service contracts in the PFI sector are waking up to the fact that a genuinely customised CAFM system can be their greatest ally in hitting increasingly complex performance management targets and handling payment mechanics more effectively.