Data at your fingertips
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The use of CAFM software and cellular devices is helping the facilities management industry better manage its armies of employees as Sam Fenwick discovers

Imagine the scene: It’s the World Cup semi-final, you’re responsible for the team preparing a major airport for opening, and half your workers have mysteriously fallen ill. Such travails are all part and parcel of being in the facilities management (FM) industry. The lack of barriers to entry and clients’ tendency to view the vital services it provides as just a cost and therefore best handled by the lowest bidder, make for a formidable level of competition and low profit margins. These traits combined with the logistical issues of coordinating so many cleaners, engineers, cooks and security guards, make for an unforgiving environment, as witnessed by the recent demise of Carillion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these logistical headaches and FM’s ubiquitous nature, an ecosystem of vendors offering computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) software has sprung up to help ease facility managers’ burdens and allow them to make decisions more easily. CAFM allows them to plan and track their operatives and assets, schedule repairs and preventative maintenance, monitor job-tickets and improve reporting.

When combined with data from wireless devices, CAFM gives FM managers a real-time view of their operations and track where their operators are, allowing route planning to be automated. Peter Tierney, director – mobilisation transition transformation – at OCS Group UK, says that CAFM systems can take operators’ skills into account so the system doesn’t send the wrong person, while also being able to cope with people being on holiday or off-shift. The software also helps managers plan work schedules to try to meet their SLAs or KPIs.

He adds that CAFM systems can help schedule both planned and reactive maintenance and they can also be used to do predictive analysis – to ask, ‘what if’ questions. CAFM can assess the potential impact of any changes on productivity before they’re implemented and de-risk managerial decisions. “It removes the headache of telling an engineer ‘yes, go and have your holiday’ and then realising that you have another 50 tasks to complete and will be penalised if they’re not performed quickly.”

Demonstrating compliance
Claire Visser, director of CAFM Explorer at Idox, says that one of the benefits of CAFM systems is that they help to reduce the amount of work by operatives and engineers that previously fell under their managers’ radars, making it easier to determine which assets may be costing more to maintain rather than replace. “Our customers often say that before they start using our CAFM Explorer solution, their engineers will be walking round the building and they’ll get their shoulders tapped by someone saying ‘can you just fix this?’ Before you know it, an air-con unit might have broken down six times but [their managers] don’t know about it – so how can they make intelligent decisions about their maintenance programmes?”

She adds: “It’s not okay just to do the maintenance. To be compliant, you have to be able to evidence what you’ve done and when you’ve done it. CAFM Explorer gives them the ability to have a full audit trail and reportability of everything that’s happened. That, of course, links into things like live reports [and dashboards], so the facilities manager doesn’t have to look for trouble – it’s right in front of them.”

However, despite their benefits, Tierney adds that “a lot of CAFM systems are set up where people just don’t do [predictive analysis], so they’ll only use a tenth of the system’s capabilities. That’s where the CAFM vendors have a problem – they’ve got a system with bells and whistles on it, but not everyone accepts it or picks it up and uses it.”

He notes that the exact wireless device used by operatives varies depending on their role. For example, “You tend to give rugged smartphones to engineers. They’re climbing in and out of plant rooms and the phones get dropped, so if you’re issuing them with consumer-grade smartphones, your replacement costs will quickly outstrip the benefits.” Some of the benefits Tierney cites of modern smartphone technology in a FM setting, is the way in which engineers can now take and share good quality photos while they’re carrying out maintenance, use their phones to access information to help troubleshoot problems, upload data while they’re still on site and “cost the job there and then in terms of the total number of hours worked.”

Visser explains that while, for the most part, facilities engineers are currently using smartphones, “they are starting to prefer larger devices, such as iPads in really rugged cases.” Both Visser and Tierney say that two-way radios tend not to be linked to CAFM systems, and Tierney adds that their use within the FM sector tends to be limited to security guards and construction workers.

Another FM activity where real-time reporting shines is cleaning, which Tierney describes as “probably the most emotive subject in the industry” as anyone who has come face-to-face with a blocked toilet in an airport or train station can understand only too well. “It gives you the data to show to your client that these meeting rooms have been cleaned five times this week, for example, and then you can go to the next level, where you have sensors linked back into your CAFM system that will give you the ability to know things like how many people are going in and out of the washroom (which helps you with the consumables, so how many cleaning materials you need to have), how many times do you need it cleaned, and when the heavy footfall occurs.”

Similarly, for some time now, alerts from building management systems have been sent to mobile devices and Visser says that the next step will be the use of sensors to provide room occupancy information. She also envisages the use of virtual assistants (like those currently being used by consumers, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri), that will allow users to place new helpdesk tickets using just their voice.

Making the most of them
While CAFM systems can make the task of running a FM company considerably easier, Tierney says they shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a source of efficiency, due to the investment and time that they require, “no one solution will fit every FM company.”

He adds that FM companies need to properly determine what it is that they want it to do and says that ultimately “what you put in is what you get out”. He adds that there needs to be some investment in customisation to allow the CAFM system to mesh with the individual business that’s using it. Because people have to be trained to use the new system, Tierney says there’s also a need to manage the change associated with CAFM adoption in addition to its implementation.

Visser says that the most important thing to do before implementing a CAFM system is to “prioritise the outcomes you want from the system and break it down into bite-sized chunks. For example, a sporting venue recently purchased our system and the first feature they wanted to bring in was a reactive helpdesk. They went live with it within four weeks, logging thousands of jobs, because they were very focused on what data they wanted to put in the system. They’ll go on to transfer it across all of their planned maintenance. You wouldn’t want to implement helpdesk, pre-planned maintenance (PPM), cost-control, space-planning and room booking all on day one, so break it up into bite-sized chunks.” In her experience, PPM tends to be part of the first phase of a CAFM implementation due to the need to be able to demonstrate compliance around Legionella testing for example, while support for SLA and KPI monitoring tends to be added in the second phase.

Visser explains that one of the biggest factors behind a successful CAFM implementation is the presence within the business of a CAFM champion who is responsible for driving the adoption of the system. “When you have someone championing the system they save far more time and money than their investment in running the system.” She also highlights the importance of selling the merits of the system to all the different types of users and “taking them on the journey with you through the implementation.” For example, “the engineers need to be able to see the benefits and that’s not a big hand coming down to instil control – it’s about giving them access to data to make their jobs easier.”

Barnaby Fenwick, general manager at Bright Hygiene (a hygiene cleaning service provider), adds that CAFM systems are often adopted with a view to saving money and improving efficiency. However, this mindset can lead to people neglecting to dedicate sufficient personnel to ensure that data is adequately managed: “For instance, there may be a backlog of ancient unactioned jobs in the system which will impact certain reports produced by the CAFM. This can be particularly prevalent in the FM industry where contractors often adopt CAFM systems already filled with a backlog of unactioned legacy jobs and haven’t budgeted for a resource to cleanse the data.”

Fenwick notes that in some cases, additional job allocation systems are used to interact with CAFM. Operators are often keen to continue to use legacy systems alongside a new CAFM. However, this can lead to the employment of specialist IT consultants at considerable cost.

Visser says that another area where people often go wrong is prior to purchasing a CAFM system when they engage a consultant to gather all their asset data and write their PPM schedules. “But until you have the CAFM system in place, that data can very quickly get out of date. When you start using CAFM Explorer [or another CAFM system], you might decide you want to do condition codes, but perhaps the data for it wasn’t gathered. So we always recommend that you start by putting the system in place, and then gather the data you need to get the reporting and outcomes you want.”

It’s good to chat
In addition to adopting CAFM, there’s growing use of Skype for Business and messaging apps like WhatsApp within the FM sector – particularly to manage far-flung teams and manage incidents, respectively. “We have user groups on WhatsApp,” Tierney says. “So, if there’s an incident we can instantly connect with any number of staff and escalate the matter further if required.” He expects the use of these tools will continue to expand within the industry.

Similar messaging applications, in combination with CAFM systems, are also being used to allow end-users to chat with helpdesk operators and operatives and serve them with updates and tracking information. This allows them to see when their engineer is coming to fix a roof, for instance. One example of these applications is FSI’s Concept Advantage suite of single purpose apps, which work in concert with its Concept Evolution CAFM solution to allow end-users to pre-book visitors and receive notifications of their arrival, make suggestions, vote in polls and have a chat-based helpdesk available on their mobile devices.

Visser says Idox has recently developed its CAFM Explorer platform to enhance the mobile user experience (and this was the focus of its latest release). “It’s all about making the mobile super easy for end-users. That’s certainly where we see the direction of travel. It’s about everything being focused on mobile, being on the move, having instant access to data and getting it right for the audience – different people will have different requirements.”

Two-way radio
While I’ve focused on CAFM and smartphones, two-way radio also plays a big role in the FM sector – thanks to the instant and reliable one-to-many voice communications it enables. Ash Robinson, account manager at DCRS says that there’s a trend towards shopping centres (traditionally big users of two-way radio) outsourcing their cleaning and security requirements to FM companies, and that the use of two-way radios by shopping centres often varies, with some issuing radios to both operatives and managers while some smaller operations restrict their use to just cleaning and security teams. It’s worth noting that job-ticking applications can run over two-way radios and Robinson says that radios are increasingly being integrated with building management systems and fire alarms to allow FM staff to quickly react to incidents – look out for next month’s insight piece on this topic.

Disclosure: the author owns shares in OCS Group

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