Why data matters to us all.
“The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.”
We are in the early years 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. According to The Economist, such is the importance of data that there have even been calls for the tech giants to be broken up, as Standard Oil was in the early 20th century
Unlike oil, data is not a finite resource and is proliferating as organisations wake up to its limitless potential. The transformative power of big data has already been seen in retail, where a new generation of online-only businesses has achieved market dominance in areas such as fast fashion. Data from web platforms and mobile apps can provide retailers with unprecedented insight into their customers’ preferences and buying habits, engage them in meaningful dialogue, and enable them to identify and provide added value services – as well as make much more informed business decisions.
In 2009, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, claimed that in the next 10 years, ‘statistician’ would be ‘the sexy job’. In fact, the most interesting development over the last decade is the diverse range of industries that now requires such statisticians or data scientists (sexy or not). “We are a technology company” declared Uber executives, while Domino’s Pizza CEO Patrick Doyle describes the global food delivery chain as a “tech company that sells pizza”. With a seamless customer experience that covers ordering, payment, tracking and ratings, he has a point.
The future would seem to lie in digital transformation and harnessing the benefits available from big data; but in the facilities management (FM) sector we still have a long way to go.
Data use is still largely missing from FM operations.
We know FM is big business: according to IWFM research, our industry is valued at over £120 billion (8% of UK GDP) and employs around 10% of the UK labour force. Yet, all too often FM is a business function on the margins, without the investment, innovation or the much-needed professionalisation it deserves. At 30 years old, FM is still a relatively immature industry, and many of its practitioners remain unqualified or, worse, unaware that they are working in FM at all.
Industry bodies are working to ensure that practitioners now and in the future will learn the right skills. The IWFM offers a professional pathway from entry-level courses to master’s degrees, while the 2018 Strategic Facility Management Framework by RICS and the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), describes FM as “critical to the successful functioning of every organisation which occupies property or manages infrastructure that supports our society”. And the ISO 41001 Facility Management standard was published in April last year.
Yet while membership bodies like the IWFM and RICS are working to develop the right qualifications and skills, there is plenty of work still to be done. 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 – this is just one area where partnering with the right technology partner can make a significant difference to the value you obtain from CAFM.
We’re at a technological tipping point.
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. 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. Earlier in 2018, for example, research by the Centre for Cities think tank projected that automation could take one in three jobs in the UK’s northern centres, across retail, warehouses and admin.
IWFM’s own research into how new technologies could impact the profession, ‘Embracing new technology to move FM forward’, attempts to find some of the answers. The IWFM 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.
“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.”
Stephen Roots, IWFM Chair
However, due to chronic under-investment in facilities management departments and a widespread ignorance of what FM can achieve, the discipline remains largely reactive, and the sense of being noticed only when things go wrong will be familiar to most of the industry’s professionals. Ironically, it’s also a long-standing industry cliché that great FM should be invisible: we’re only doing our 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 under-perform, 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.
Facilities managers now need the skills to interpret data and translate it in a manner that supports an organisation’s core objectives: it’s time to embrace the profound changes that digital transformation will bring, and make sure that you are fully prepared for the next step.
> Download our 2019 white paper, The FM as a data scientist.