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Innovation investigated

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The ways in which innovation in facilities management is defined, measured and valued in relationships between clients and FM service providers came under the microscope at this year’s Workplace Futures conference in London. Martin Read reports.


27 February 2014

How to take the established provision of facilities management services and improve on them is hardly a new topic.


In recent years ‘innovation in FM’ has come to dominate conference sessions and roundtable discussions across the country.

No single definition has yet been arrived at, and while there was a wealth of interesting comment and opinion surrounding the topic at this year’s Workplace Futures, there was little hint of the imminent presence of a permanent resolution for all to agree on.

In fact, the event was notable for the honesty of speakers representing the service sector and the way in which innovation was categorised into two broad areas – the routine assessment, with incremental improvement, of individual facilities tasks (the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’) versus the need for FM as a sector to ‘step up to the plate’ and take full charge of workplace provision.

Professor Ilfryn Price of Sheffield Hallam University said that it was “key for innovation that conversations and relationships between clients and contractors are regular; that’s where the mileage is”.

In discussion following Pryce’s presentation, delegates complained about service level agreements (SLAs), with FMs often too busy measuring things to engage in service innovation projects. SLAs, it was suggested, can strangle innovation.

Interserve’s managing director Tony Sanders’ presentation put him in the ‘incremental gains’ corner., at least in terms of his company’s own research statistics. Sanders defined innovation in FM in four distinct categories, with 40 per cent being in fact “incremental change”, 40 per cent elimination of non value-add activity and just 10 per cent “new and radical“ ways of doing things. 

“We can get too hung up on what is radical,” he said.

The other side of the innovation argument is essentially based on FM’s ability to change itself and its value to organisations – something couched in terms such as ‘transformation’ and, in the case of John Hinks of Zurich Assurance, “catalysing collisions” to “promote innovativeness as a core professional behaviour”.

For Hinks, FM as a sector has big changes to embrace. For example, “as an industry were only just starting to struggle with what big data means for us”, he commented. Pointing to such changes as “the rise of the digital nomad”, Hinks said: “The meaning of work has changed. With competition between organisations increasingly based on capability and innovation, we need a service model that is integrated at the core.”

Hinks suggested that what FM needed a dose of what economist Joseph Schumpeter described as “creative destruction”.

Consultant Andrew Shaw of Business Services Growth (BSG) pointed to another side of the innovation argument – client receptiveness. Clients, he said, needed to recognise that quality comes at a price, and that the longer a service provider was allowed to service a client, the more likely that service provider was to provide the most efficient service.

However, clients were likely to see the reverse to be the case – that once a first flurry of close-contact contractual activity is concluded, the service provider is all too often seen by the client during the rest of the contract as being complacent, conducting ‘business as usual’. The best case, says Shaw, is where the supplier routinely invests in the service provision to achieve ‘trusted adviser’ status while at the same time the client recognises the need to see the contract as a ‘long haul’ solution.

Easier said than done, perhaps, and certainly something that demands a good relationship between client and service provider staff. Tony Sanders had already spoken about how individual relationships between client and provider were key to creating an innovation-friendly working environment. “A day-to-day client contact can typically be risk-averse. Sometimes you need to talk to someone higher up the chain to get the right response,” said Sanders.


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The bigger picture?
For many outsourced service providers, it’s through this ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ that most identifiable innovations in service delivery are to be found. Plenty of FM firms operate schemes in which managers and employees are incentivised to think about changes to their working practice that could lead to individual productivity gains. 

Emcor’s Paul Worland showed some good examples of incremental gains in his presentation, for example extendable trowels that reduce the need for unnecessary movements and allow an operative to cover more floor space faster without compromising quality; a tilting mixing bucket on wheels that prevents unnecessary handling of heavy buckets; or a ‘zip wall’ that allows for coverage of a ceiling to avoid falling debris that does not require a ladder to be erected. These examples of people at the coalface coming up with innovations that affect them directly was, to Worland, good evidence both of innovation in FM and employee engagement.

However, workplace data consultant Tim Oldman, whose statistical interpretation of what workers want from their workplace represents an increasingly valuable window on the facilities service provision, was far from certain that the “sweat the small stuff” approach would work.

“Sometimes you have to go really high up in order to see how small you are,” said Tim Oldman; “that’s my message to the FM community.” Oldman pointed to figures from his company’s suggesting that less than half of the typical workforce agreed with the statement that “the design of my workplace enables me to work productively”.

“FM has missed a massive opportunity to readjust totally what it is all about,” said Oldman, who expressed concern that the sector could all too easily fixate on its functions – in his analogy, drills and drill-bits – when clients were “only interested in the hole” created by the drill.

“Is FM an asset guardian? Is FM really stepping up to the mark to stop that downward trajectory in a workplace’s effectiveness?” asked Oldman. “I’m still looking for a facilities manager willing to engage in a fiscal debate. I’ve not yet had a conversation with an FM provider who does this – and yet clients want it.”

In a joint presentation with one of his clients, Vinci Facilities’ Tony Raikes pointed out that, unlike product manufacturers, service providers in the FM sector could not fund their own research and development departments because margins did not justify them doing so. Instead, he said, service providers had to innovate through the workforce that they invest in.

Said Raikes: “We will never be good enough as service providers; our most challenging clients will want to drive us to be better because they themselves are in a competitive climate.”

Lincoln Dawkin, a Vinci client and the director of estates and facilities at the NHS University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust, told delegates that his trust had established an innovation forum comprising all of its service providers as well as members of the trust’s PFI special purpose vehicle. In questioning following his presentation, Raikes said that dealing with staff who were cautious about suggesting improvements in their working practice for fear of making their own positions redundant was a big challenge for the sector.


Innovation superhighway
If the debate at this conference is anything to go by, there will be plenty more discussion about FM and innovation throughout 2014. 

The looming demands of the next generation of workers, Generation Y (or Millennials) cropped up on several occasions during the day, as did the end of proprietary software solutions for client-supplier relationships. A Workplace Law presentation on learning styles further suggested there was more for the sector to do in deciding how to engage with clients. The lack of a common response to these challenges means that innovation will remain high on conference agendas in the months ahead.