Renovation nation

The consensus on the Budget appears to be that the Chancellor had very few options. With growth forecasts downgraded yet again, borrowing up and the deficit essentially unchanged, he has little room for manoeuvre.

After an £11bn departmental “underspend” in 2012/13, public sector spending is set to be even more tightly controlled, with £11.5bn worth of savings (or cuts, depending on your politics) to be found in the June spending review.

Measures for growth amounted to a stimulus for the housing market by underwriting some mortgage lending, a cut in corporation tax (but not for two years) and an increase in spending on infrastructure, also from 2015.

“Infrastructure” was the budget buzzword. It appears 57 times in the Treasury’s Budget Report, compared with construction, which is mentioned just three times. Of course infrastructure investment usually involves some construction but the key issue is timing.

Research by The Guardian shows that less than a quarter of the Government’s projects will be completed during this parliament. The regularly updated “pipeline” of more than 500 infrastructure projects lacks start dates for many schemes. As the paper puts it, the national infrastructure plan includes “dozens if not hundreds of schemes that will not start buying equipment and materials or employing labour until long after the next general election.”

The UK certainly needs long-term investment in infrastructure but the economy, and in particular the construction sector, needs a stimulus now.

It’s instructive to read reactions to the budget from some of the organisations involved in the sector.

Here’s the RICS on infrastructure:

“The £3bn a year announced by the Chancellor is welcome but will not come on stream until 2015-16 – far too late for many businesses that are struggling now. Our members have told us repeatedly that the success of infrastructure projects are about delivery on the ground. RICS believe Government should spend more time and resource in supporting business to gain access to these public sector projects.

“The Government has largely failed to realise that infrastructure projects don’t need to be big to be effective in creating growth. In fact small might very well be beautiful. Across the regions and the  nations it’s the smaller repair, maintenance and upgrade projects which can be picked up by medium and small construction businesses. Rail maintenance and school refurbishment are just  two areas where a small amount of capital investment would quickly deliver great benefits.”

… and the Federation of Master Builders on housing:

“The FMB worries that the measures announced today may not go far enough to allow smaller builders to deliver the energy-efficent new homes Britain needs. Britain’s SME builders are in need of relief after years of shrinking workloads and rising costs. More than three-quarters of our members recently told us that the most important thing the Government could do to revitalise the home repair, maintenance and energy-efficiency markets would be to cut VAT. This would also provide a level playing field when competing with builders who choose to avoid charging VAT.”

In austere times, maintenance and repair always suffer. While new, large-scale projects are being proposed and (eventually) funded, the everyday infrastructure on which we all rely is being neglected – from roads to rail, from houses to hospitals.

Put this together with the need to make buildings of all types more energy efficient and you have a once in a generation opportunity to tackle the maintenance backlog, to upgrade and to improve performance. Surely that’s worth investing in?

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.

Is the conference dead?

Over the past 25 years or so I must have been to at least 150 conferences, that’s not counting all the seminars, workshops, roundtables and working groups. The subjects have ranged from innovations in lighting to strategic property management. The organisers have included trade bodies, professional associations, government and think tanks.

Now most of these have been in the limited FM/buildings/property space but with a few variations and innovations over the years, the format has remained pretty much the same. Registration – opening keynote – plenary session – more plenary/parallel sessions – closing keynote (often with a sparse audience). Interspersed with combined food breaks/networking/exhibition visiting.

OK, we’ve had the unconference, the fringe sessions, motivational speakers, poets and other novelties but perhaps it’s time to rethink conferences from top to bottom.

The traditional conference model is perhaps the least efficient method for either imparting knowledge or facilitating genuine exchange of information or ideas. They are also hugely expensive  – for organisers,  delegates, sponsors and the environment.

Social media is taking over much of what conferences are supposed to deliver , including communities of interest, knowledge exchange and networking.

However, I’m not sure that purely virtual events are the answer. They require less commitment so often fail to reach critical mass. They also lack the sense of occasion you only get from something happening in real time. Watching a livestream is always more memorable than catching up later.

What’s needed, I think, is a really effective hybrid model. One that uses the best social media apps to deliver contact, great content and engagement, combined with a smaller-scale “real world” event (or events).

Social Media Week http://socialmediaweek.org/ (24 – 28 September this year across 13 cities in 11 countries) gives an idea of what’s possible . Although a global initiative, with a team in New York, there’s a large element of self-organisation. If you want to propose a session  you can. As you’d expect, social media is fully integrated and the statistics are impressive  – including 32,000 local Facebook fans; 50,000 people watching online and 217,000 social mentions.

See infographic http://socialmediaweek.org/blog/2012/10/facts-figures-from-september-2012

The business model may have to change too. Rather than the numbers game of large venues, extensive catering and sponsorship  we could see hybrid events using a number of smaller spaces, possibly within supportive organisations.

Last month’s Workplace Week  http://www.workplaceweek.com/ shows what can be done with effort, imagination and goodwill. Of course a worthy cause helps.

World trade

At last week’s Workplace Week Convention I was struck by a comment from Mark Wood who opened the event with a great presentation on trends in demographics, economics and society. Wood is a finance expert and he talked from a global, not a UK, perspective about the big forces shaping the future. His “new realities” include scarce energy; income not capital; equity versus debt; creativity not credit and productivity not wealth.

He said: “Asia is a source of high intellect and productivity not cheap labour.”

For some time now western political and business leaders have talked about the need to focus on the knowledge industries. We may not be able to compete in manufacturing but we can still lead in high-tech research, development and design. But for how long?

Mobile telephony has exploded across the world. In some developing countries it has leap-frogged fixed-line technology and in many a smartphone is the preferred device for accessing online services.

Most of the world’s smartphones run on just three platforms: Android from Google, iOS from Apple and Windows from Microsoft. The hardware may be made around the world but the software originates in labs on the west coast of America.

Surely it won’t be long before Asia’s “high intellect” produces innovation born from Asian rather than western culture.

And if research and development migrates East, there’s just a hint that there might be some movement the other way.

Apple’s iPhones and iPads are made by Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn, mostly in China. As Workplace Week ended, an article on the business pages of The Guardian ran under this headline: “Taiwan’s Foxconn weighing up plan to outsource jobs … to America.”

Apparently Foxconn has been looking overseas for opportunities as labour costs rise in China and has “evaluated” US cities including Detroit and Los Angeles.

Serious social media

Social media – an essential part of any communications strategy or a complete distraction? Well, I’ve had a Facebook account since 2007, built two WordPress blog sites  and sent over 600 tweets, so although late to the party perhaps,  I’m not exactly a social media refusenik. But I have been sceptical about its role in business and work life.

Last week (24-28 September) was Social Media Week – what better opportunity to see how these new channels are being used? SMW is international, this year it took place in Barcelona, Berlin, Bogotá, Chicago, Glasgow, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, São Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai, Torino and Vancouver.

The rationale is simple: “Social Media Week is a worldwide event exploring the social, cultural and economic impact of social media. Our mission is to help people and organizations connect through collaboration, learning and the sharing of ideas and information.”

The brains behind SMW belong to Crowdcentric, a New York-based strategy firm that “works at the intersection between media, communications and technology.” Of course there’s something of a paradox here. It seems to require physical events to achieve the engagement, critical mass and most likely sponsorship necessary for SMW to work.

The week had 36,000 attendees at 1,050 events in 493 locations. A further 150,000 joined online. There were over 175 sessions in London last week, covering topics as diverse as customer service, local government, legal risks, sales, environment and investment. Many of the discussions and resources live on – go to http://socialmediaweek.org for more information.

I signed up for three sessions, helping to take the percentage of those aged over 50 to 5% of all SMW attendees!

What did I learn? That there is huge potential to use social media in business, including managing property, facilities, workspace and services. However, the answer is not always the usual triumvirate of Facebook, Linked In and Twitter.

Unilever hosted a great session on employee engagement. Rather than asking staff to fill in yet another standard online survey, researchers came up with an app that uses 3D data visualisation to show you where your views sit in relation to others (which of course might affect your responses). It makes it easier to see where the weight of opinion lies and to reach decisions.

Other projects and experiments covered organisational network analysis, recruitment and agile working. The case studies produced four critical success factors for internal use of social media:

  • Leadership – endorsed and engaged
  • Freedom of expression
  • One space
  • Relevant

What also became apparent at the week’s sessions is that communication in the workplace is becoming “democratised”. Like information technology, it is no longer the domain of specialists. That doesn’t mean anyone can do it well but if your organisation isn’t providing the infrastructure for effective communications, don’t be surprised if people start doing it for themselves.

Mother of all refurbs?

According to reports over the long weekend (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19386492) House of Commons officials have floated the idea of moving Parliament to a temporary home so that essential repairs can be done to the Victorian premises.

One option is to use the nearby Queen Elizabeth II conference centre across Parliament Square. According to reports, the work could take up to five years at a cost of £3bn. Much of the building dates from the 1840s and ‘50s and anyone who has visited will know that many of the services are outdated. Asbestos is also a problem.

Facilities managers understand how much easier it is to carry out major refurbishment without trying to work around occupants.

But there is opposition. One senior MP who sits on the House of Commons commission (responsible for the administration and services of the House) is quoted as saying: “I would not be happy to have other options closed down just because it suits some building manager to close down parliament.”

But what an opportunity – not only to improve the functioning of the Parliamentary estate but to experiment with new ways of working for MPs and Parliament. Opinion is divided on the architectural design of Portcullis House but it undoubtedly provides better facilities for MPs and support staff. Other parliament and assembly buildings such as the Reichstag in Berlin, the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood or the Greater London Assembly down the river at Tower Bridge have opened up the functioning of democracy to electorates.

Why not hold a competition to design the temporary facilities and, in an age of coalition politics, perhaps move away from the adversarial layout of the Commons?

A visit to the Olympic Park

Now and again everything falls into place. Sunday was one of those times, as we visited the Olympic Park on the second day of the London 2012 Games.

Short drive to Ebbsfleet International station to pick up the High Speed Javelin train – 10 minutes to Stratford International. Short walk through Westfield shopping centre to the Olympic Park entrance.

Admittedly there was nothing on in the main stadium, so no surges of spectators to deal with but the marshalling and security (army personnel) were friendly and efficient.

The Olympic Park looks wonderful. I visited it just over a year ago and it was great to see how the landscaping and planting has matured – helped no doubt by the record-breaking wet weather!

We didn’t have tickets for an event, so spent the day wandering along the waterways, watching the big screen and soaking up the atmosphere, with the odd bit of retail therapy thrown in.

The infrastructure seemed to cope well although as the Park got busier long queues formed for the official merchandise shops and the mega MacDonald’s outlets.

Perhaps realising that they couldn’t shelter everyone from the British summer, the venues planners offered virtually no protection from the rain at all. At one point footpaths by the water were temporarily closed because visitors were taking cover beneath the bridges! But this was a minor inconvenience and the mood of park visitors, event ticket holders, staff and volunteers was almost universally sunny.

If you can’t get to an event, then sitting on the lawns of the Olympic Park watching live on the big screen is surely the next best thing. We’ll remember cheering on Lizzie Armitstead to her cycling Silver Medal, as thunder echoed around London skies, for a long time.

Well done to all the construction professionals, facilities and support staff who made it possible.