(Photography: Juan Bernardo).
Man versus Machine
Although facilities management has not escaped the wave of digitisation that is transforming every segment of industry, pioneers of the use of technology in outdoor FM, GRITIT, argue skilled people will always be at the heart of effective service delivery.
In virtually every industry, the inexorable forces of digitisation are transforming the nature of business and the nature of work. From the mobile phones in our pockets, to data centres virtualising digital assets into the cloud, to the AI systems that interpret and act faster than the speed of human thought, we are now encouraged to think of digital as the default mode of doing business. As early as 2011, years before the advent of Uber or AirBnB, a report by consultancy EY talked of the “Digitisation of Everything” arguing that “in a world where ‘everything’ is digitised businesses need to pursue innovation to disrupt their own business model before the competition does.” And while certain industries, largely based on physical, real world processes and manual labour, may have seemed immune to these forces, a second wave of change is underway. For example, as red diesel prices soared, farmers have increasingly employed combine harvesters guided
with cm precision by GPS to avoid wasteful extra mileage. Meanwhile, the future of truck driving is looking increasingly bleak with Elon Musk’s Tesla announcing the start of trials of their autonomous semi in 2017.
If we follow the money, we can see that facilities management is very firmly in the midst of a second wave of digitisation. In 2016, a study by MTW Research forecast that the UK’s facilities management industry would receive a £200m boost in profitability significantly driven by the adoption of leaner operating models and the deployment of technology. That study argued that market forces in a challenging economy would drive demand for technology that enhances productivity, including Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices, automated monitoring and reporting, robotic cleaning equipment and remote servicing’ – all key areas of opportunity for FM providers.
According to research by Sheffield Hallam University commissioned by GRITIT and Servest, one of the key ongoing trends today in facilities management is the ongoing outsourcing of FM services, with 58% of FM professionals surveyed stating that much of this was being driven by a desire for companies to access better technical expertise. Over the next five years the use of technology in relation to improving the delivery services, transparency and cutting costs is expected to be a game changer: The impacts of this would be changes in working practices and the increasing use of big data or analytics to inform decision making.
From our own vantage point in gritting and grounds maintenance, these changes are already well under way and clearly are a change for the better. As a service provider we can use data technologies to reduce our management overheads and time fussing over the transactional side of doing business. At the same time, these very same technologies are a boon to clients who can have real time visibility via a smartphone app or client portal of the services we’ve delivered - whether that’s mowing lawns or gritting car parks. Indeed, the winter gritting industry has always been data-driven and reliant on the ability to service sites in response to weather data. Success in this particular industry is very much predicated on accuracy and responsiveness, with the goal to utilise ever more accurate sources of real time weather data with ever greater precision. Doing so makes a real difference: By gritting only when required by actual conditions, it is possible to ensure greater safety while also avoiding over-servicing – a leaner approach that reduces waste and cost to the client over the course of a winter.
In this context, the dawn of the “Internet of Things” is proving significant as this offers the opportunity to enrich the data that’s available to inform decisions. For example, at GRITIT our in-house technology team is rolling out a next generation offering based on inexpensive, robust temperature sensors that can deliver a real-time, live feed of actual road surface temperature and precipitation conditions on a client’s site directly into our NIMBUS reporting system. By getting a more granular, real time view of local conditions on the ground, more accurate forecasts and automatic triggers enable the delivery of ice and snow clearance on a just-in-time basis. This helps further cut both risks and waste as service can be provided according to the real world conditions on a site - even when that may differ from the weather forecast (for example ice that persists in shady areas even as the day warms up).
So far, although we’ve discussed the apparent inevitably of digitisation and looked at a few benefits, like any revolution it’s essential to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the pursuit of progress. Uber is a case in point. While the ability to call and track cheaper rides from a smartphone has been great for consumers, the master algorithm somehow forgot all about the experience of the drivers themselves, who ultimately found themselves enjoying more of the insecurities of the gig economy than the freedoms. This isn’t only a digital issue of course, but there is no denying that in moving towards a digital first world, we can risk seeing human labour as being commoditised and interchangeable.
This would be a mistake. While sensors and robotics will undoubtedly play an ever growing role in both indoor and outdoor FM, this is and will always will be a people business: There will always be some aspects that can’t be automated easily or will still need to be supervised for practical and safety reasons. While technology is a way of enhancing human effort, there’s no real substitute for retaining good skilled people - and especially in safety critical contexts. While some sectors and roles have moved towards the gig economy, for a reliable quality service you need engaged people who feel part of the team and want to deliver the same high level of service - even where flexibility of available resources are needed for seasonal work.
It is often argued that automation is capable of freeing people from more menial activities, giving them opportunities to upskill and focus more on added value, creative activities. Too often, such arguments provide cover for those wishing to downsize their workforce, but in outdoor FM this can be the case. In our own organisation, we’ve found that spending less time on record keeping and reporting is allowing us to spend more time talking to customers. Similarly placing more power into the hands of customers through smartphones can also give them a new channel to reach out directly to the familiar team members that work on their site.
Is the rise of the machines inevitable? Very possibly, but maybe it’s not going to be an us or them scenario, and that machines and robots will become our partners – letting us work faster, smarter and add more value. This is digitisation as it should be - cutting out the middlemen and connecting people to get things done properly.