Big data: Get prepared or get left behind

    In a 2017 leader column, The Economist wrote: “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.”

    We are in the early moments of a new age. Oil, a commodity that shaped the geography, politics, industry, and economy of the 20th century, is on its way out.

    Data, a product of an increasingly digital world, is on its way in.

    Such is the dominance of this new commodity, The Economist stated, that this has “prompted calls for the tech giants to be broken up, as Standard Oil was in the early 20th century”.

    The crucial difference between oil and data, however, is that the latter is not a finite resource; so long as human development continues apace, data will only multiply.  Organisations are waking up to its limitless potential.

    The clearest example of big data’s transformative power may be found in the world of retail where a new generation of online-only businesses have inserted their own dominance, forcing high street shops to compete for consumers on the internet.

    Data from web platforms and mobile apps is providing these retailers with unprecedented insight into their customers’ preferences and buying habits, which is allowing them to make much more informed business decisions.

    Google, Microsoft and Facebook might be the oil giants of the digital age, but they will soon be competing with everyone else for techies and data statisticians.

    In turn, the demands on organisations and their people are changing. In 2009, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, claimed that ‘statistician’ would be the sexy job in the next 10 years. Nine years later, however, a more interesting development is the actual range of industries that now require statisticians.

    “We are a technology company” is a popular declaration from Uber executives. Though not everyone agrees with this conclusion, through its mobile app the ride-sharing service, has invested millions in driverless technology. Similarly, Domino’s Pizza CEO Patrick Doyle describes the global food delivery chain as a “tech company that sells pizza”. The end-to-end experience it provides customers, ordering, paying, tracking and then rating a delivery, is testament to this.

    It is a change that could be felt even more acutely in the facilities management (FM) sector. Like so many other industries, FM must embrace new technologies and the analytical skills that come with the collection of data, but as a profession and industry it may have some way to go.

    The status quo

    In economic terms FM is hugely influential. Yet its status doesn’t quite match its size.

    The facilities management industry is valued at more than £120 billion (8% of UK GDP) and employs around 10% of the UK’s labour force.

    All too often FM is a business function on the margins, which leaves very little room for investment, innovation or even much needed professionalisation.

    Just 30 years old, FM is a relatively immature industry and many of its practitioners remain unqualified or, worse, unaware that they are working in FM at all.

    Nevertheless, FM is an organisation’s lifeblood, so the industry-wide goal is to demonstrate the value it delivers and how it aids business strategy. For their part, membership bodies like the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) and the Royal Chartered Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) are working to ensure that practitioners now and in the future will learn the right skills.

    The IWFM has developed a professional pathway with a suite of qualifications, from entry-level courses to master’s degrees.

    Meanwhile, in the 2018 ‘Strategic Facility Management Framework’, by RICS and the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), FM is described as “much more than the management of buildings and services – it is critical to the successful functioning of every organisation which occupies property or manages infrastructure that supports our society”.

    According to the document, strategic FM is a discipline that can impact an organisation’s strategy in numerous ways:

    • It should move beyond merely managing buildings and assets, to leading on issues related to property search and disposal, the design of space and the development and promotion of new working methods and technology, to create and deliver workplaces which enhance staff recruitment, retention, and overall success for the organisation.

    In a similar vein, the ISO 41001 Facility Management standard agrees on the definition of FM as the “organisational function which integrates people, process and place within the built environment with the purpose of improving the quality of life of people and the productivity of the core business”. Data is the missing link.

    By collecting and then analysing the data that is produced by a host of new technologies, facilities managers can make evidence-based decisions in each of these areas. But this requires skills that many facilities managers do not have, and tools that many FM departments simply cannot afford.

    Urgent’s own research, in association with online FM news and information service i-FM, revealed that only a quarter of FM practitioners believe they could harness the power of big data without support or additional training. So, while membership bodies like the IWFM and RICS are working to develop the right qualifications and skills, there is lots more work still to be done. 

    The future

    ‘Big data’ is a hugely popular term – which means that it is surrounded by a lot of hot air. Simply, it describes the proliferation of data produced by increasingly smart and complex technology.

    Internet of Things might be another buzzword, but its potential to change everything cannot be understated; sensors will soon connect an almost limitless number of devices and assets to networks, giving organisations the opportunity to discover relationships and patterns between departments, processes and physical spaces.

    A new dependence on data could transform the FM function in a number of profound ways. Technological progress is often framed as hordes of robots replacing humans – robot cleaners, robot receptionists, robot guards – and that may still happen, but the change that is likely to impact FM in the short term is more nuanced.

    Automation could take one in three jobs in the UK’s northern centres – across retail, warehouses and admin.
    – Centre for Cities

    Increasingly sophisticated AI will use algorithms to automate processes. Computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) has already automated the FM function to a certain extent, from paper spreadsheets to online tools and dashboards. Next, however, the sensors in assets will be doing that themselves.

    Some of the more liberal estimates suggest that automation will replace up to 800 million existing jobs by 2030. The first of these jobs will be relatively unskilled work. 

    How to get there

    IWFM’s research into how new technologies could impact the profession, ‘Embracing new technology to move FM forward’, attempts to find some of the answers.

    Chairman Stephen Roots writes: “The opportunity that technology presents to change the way FM works is huge, but it will have to be leveraged by skilled and knowledgeable professionals who understand how best to facilitate the convergence of people, place and process for business.”

    The report suggests that FM is approaching a “technological tipping point” in which “many routine front-line facilities services appear susceptible to automation and this in turn will impact on the role of the people managing those services, who will need different skills”.

    These skills will be centred on capturing, analysing and benchmarking data as well as adopting developments in automation, analytics and AI.

    Due to chronic underinvestment in FM departments and a widespread ignorance of what FM can achieve, the role remains largely reactive.

    Facilities managers are regularly called into action when assets fail, or services fall below a visibly poor standard. The saying “people only notice us when things go wrong” will be familiar to all industry professionals.

    Correspondingly, a longstanding industry cliché is that great FM should be invisible. There is logic to this notion. FM is doing its job when the building runs seamlessly – when the air conditioning is working, when the water is running, and when the workplace is clean.

    With data in the hands of facilities managers, however, FM has an opportunity to become a proactive discipline – which will make its practitioners visible not only to the workforce but also to leadership.

    The FM role will become less about intuition and guesswork and more dependent on concrete evidence.

    Real-time asset information on when assets fail or begin to underperform, for example, will empower facilities managers to make decisions that not only save on CAPEX costs but also determine an organisation’s future real estate strategy.

    This means, however, that facilities managers will need to develop both the skills to interpret data and translate it in a manner that supports an organisation’s core objectives.

    FM may be relatively young compared to more established sectors, but that is no reason to ignore the profound changes that a new digital world ushers in. The challenge for facilities managers is to ensure that they are prepared for the next step. 

    Download our latest white paper, ‘The FM as a data scientist’ to read more about the impact of data on Facilities Management. 


    Subscribe to our newsletter.

    Stay up to date with the latest news from Urgent. Your data is safe with us; we will not share it.