Management systems – 10 ‘big decisions’
Information management systems seem to have come to the facilities industry late in the piece – which is surprising, writes RODNEY TIMM, because it is a data-rich industry.
It took some time for information management systems to become mainstream FM tools, possibly because facilities were thought to be too different, possibly because organisations have not thought of their facilities as core business assets. Hence, until now, demand for these systems has tended to be low.
A host of applications purport to deliver facilities management functions. These include property management systems, various CAD (computer aided design) platforms, lease modelling systems, CMMS (comprehensive maintenance management systems) and a range of help-desk packages. Behind all of these is the usual clutch of Excel spreadsheets.
Sooner or later organisations come to the conclusion that there ‘must be a better way’ and start along a path of decision-making. Too often, unfortunately, these decisions are regretted – mainly because there were no clear objectives and the big decisions were not addressed up front.
(1) Should a bespoke system be attempted, designed to meet all the idiosyncrasies?
This is where horror stories are born. Stories abound of tens of millions of dollars being spent on great, but poorly thought-out ideas, never switched on, after many months and even years of expenditure. Most users believe their portfolio needs are different and their methods are superior – no existing system could possibly support their requirements. But in reality differences are imagined and superior processes are seldom true. Systems are all about effective portfolio management with appropriate policies and procedures, not rocket science!
(2) To what extent should in-house IT departments be involved in the process?
This may sound like IT blasphemy. Of course the IT department will need to be aware of the application, and need to play a role in security, remote access, back-up, server requirements and the like. But dependent on the attitude of the IT department and other project priorities, this involvement can complicate and slow the process. Maybe there is an alternative strategy requiring minimal interface with other company systems – external hosting may be part of the solution. The paranoia of collapsing the company’s whole IT infrastructure is thus diverted.
(3) Stick to the in-house ERP (enterprise resource planning) system or use the accounting function of the facilities system?
How is rental, outgoing and general accounting to be handled? Will this be done using the existing accounting system or an accounting system designed to mirror the industry nuances? Most ERP systems claim to have facilities functionality, but in reality this is mainly tokenism; significant customisation is required and unique industry functionality may be lost. This is a difficult roadblock to navigate – so be prepared!
(4) Is it better to adopt a ‘one-stop’ system solution or a suite of interfacing ‘best of breed’ systems?
Everyone’s ideal is one system with all the functionality integrated. But how realistic is this? Few systems exist that truly meet all these requirements – although a number of vendors are trying to create this nirvana. A practical approach may be integrating ‘best of breed’ systems through a portal and reporting function. But in evaluating integrated systems, the challenge is to understand how seamlessly the functionality is integrated and what gaps exist.
(5) Should processes be adapted to the system or the system customised to suit specific processes?
Facilities managers always seem to believe that their processes are superior to all those of their peers. Professional jealousy is healthy, but in selecting a system a certain amount of pragmatism can save many dollars in customising costs. Adoption of proprietary system processes, rather than adjusted systems, may be wise in terms of time and money saving options. Changing a system to fit around existing poor practices and habits misses out on a great change management opportunity.
(6) Where will the system be hosted?
Previously the norm has been to select systems and host them on the company server, with full IT support and interfacing with other systems an absolute given. Today, application service provider (ASP) solutions via the web have emerged, with the system hosted on the vendor’s server and accessed via the web without detailed involvement from the IT department! A few notes of caution: where in the world is the system being hosted? Speed is linked to distance and congestion of broadband linkages. How secure is the company data? Whatever the outcome, web access to systems – be it via an ASP or company server – is a liberating experience.
(7) How much data and information is to be captured and who populates and owns it?
Facility managers often capture too much data and information. The key message is not to be too ambitious. Data has to updated and maintained. If data is stale and unreliable, operators are tempted to maintain their own records, quickly migrating back to Excel spreadsheets. This results in data integrity being lost, multiple data entry and the new system grinding to a halt. Rather start with minimum functionality, allow the system and operators to mature and evolve the system over time to meet full requirements.
Too often the cost and time requirements of data population are forgotten. Often it is expected that operators will populate their own data during ‘normal business’, extending implementation times and usually achieving sub-optimal outcomes.
(8) An emerging innovative system or a more rigid well-established system?
It is great to be linked into innovative and emerging thinking – ensuring the system chosen is developed around latest industry thinking. But beware of systems presentations with excessive PowerPoint and local drive mock-ups – the real operating model needs to be seen. Emerging systems are capital- and resource-hungry. The great vision of a fully integrated system may still be many years (and many capital raisings) away. Buying into a well-established system will have less risk, but expect far less flexibility and permitted customisation.
(9) What about systems development and support?
Support is also a trade-off; local support is going to be far more useful than international support across time zones, but many established and emerging systems are UK- or US-based. Also, the more mature systems will tend to have a larger support team supporting many user groups, and may be less helpful than expected. With a less mature offering, new customers are important and serviced well – but development and support resources may be fairly thin on the ground.
(10) What is the compelling business case for a new system?
Systems always seem to cost significantly more than the original budget estimate, given the software, customisation and implementation costs. And the true cost is seldom totally accounted for, management time often being ignored.
Added to this cost dilemma is the challenge of showing a clear financial benefit in the business case – new systems seem to always be a net cost. The financial advantage is usually best expressed by cost savings: the cost impact of a missed lease renewal, or the rationing mindset change induced by a robust charge-back system, or even the financial advantages of managing the cost of churn. Using these current ‘loss opportunity’ costs can make more financial sense – but this may have to rely on admitting to past mistakes and shortcomings!