Strategic thinking (revisited)

One of the characteristics of a profession, particularly in recent times, is constant self-examination and redefinition. Facilities management certainly does its fair share of soul searching, although all too often this turns into navel gazing.

We’ve had plenty of debates, a lot of assertions and anecdotes, even a few reports on the status of facilities management but very little real research, until now.

The RICS commissioned a study to “review the state of the practice of the facilities profession … to identify critical FM challenges.” An ambitious undertaking then! The 50 plus page report, Raising the Bar: Enhancing the Strategic Role of Facilities Management (written by Jim Ware and Paul Carder of Occupiers’ Journal) makes compelling reading.

Based on a survey of almost 400 FM professionals across six continents and interviews with senior FM and corporate real estate executives, the research focused on the “critical gaps” within the web of relationships that FM has with strategic business units, with functions such as IT, HR and real estate and with service providers.

The report’s first conclusion is encouraging: “Facilities are increasingly being recognised as a strategic resource.” The other five are a mix of thought-provoking and downright worrying. The researchers  found that FM has had mixed success aligning itself strategically with other parts of the business; cost control continues to dominate FM and heads of facilities are still buried in day-to-day operations.

Perhaps the most damning paragraph in the report is this: ”It could be said that the FM industry knows the cost of everything but the business value of little. This is a recipe for continuously lowering the bar rather than raising it.”

At the end of January, RICS brought together a panel to discuss the report’s findings and to debate the role of facilities management  in supporting business performance. There were representatives from the RICS’ FM Professional Group, the BIFM, CoreNet and CIBSE as well as the Government’s Property Unit.

So, a great opportunity to address the problems of the profession. Sadly the views from the platform didn’t take us much beyond the usual positions and the debate never really ignited. One thing did come across clearly though and that’s how value-laden are terms such as strategic, operational and support. When to be “strategic” is seen as inherently more valuable than delivering a good service, it’s difficult to have an objective discussion.

A moment of clarity came from Geoff Prudence,  chair of CIBSE’s facilities management SIG. He suggested that facilities managers actually enjoy the “every day is different” aspect of FM and that this may work against a more strategic role.  The question of whether FMs are naturally disposed to be tactical rather than strategic might be fuel for another debate.

One of the report’s more controversial conclusions is that “the pathway to making FM more strategic is to outsource as much of the operational, routine work to third-party service providers as possible.”

However, few will argue with another key conclusion from the research and the discussion. FM needs to be integrated with other parts of the business, not just finance and real estate.