Big data is all the rage these days. Many facilities managers, especially those in the public sector, may believe it has no relevance to them and may feel intimidated by its technical complexity and expected high cost. They are wrong. Big data is very relevant to them. Rather than fear it, facilities managers should embrace it and use it to their advantage.
Many facility managers fear data because of the unknown. What if the data cast the department in a poor light? What if it creates more work? The truth is this: growth cannot be measured without a starting point. Once the baseline is established, it is possible to discover many opportunities for the department to improve the way it spends its time and money. By taking a proactive approach to gathering and measuring data to quantify the current situation, organizations can understand it and begin finding ways to address it.
In the past, much of facility management was based on gut feeling. In other words, years of experience and familiarity with buildings gave staff the ability to make decisions. There will always be value in the knowledge that experienced staff brings; this has not changed, but organizational expectations have. Even public sector organizations, such as hospitals and universities, must now speak the language of business and use business tools to gain insight and save money. Data allow facility managers to quantify those hunches, and that’s a good reason to embrace it.
Identifying the data to be gathered is crucial. Metrics on condition, functional adequacy, risk, and demographics can all be highly useful. Also, consider both time and monetary expenditures—what data will help show the organization’s return on investment (ROI)? If it’s not clear which metrics are important, it’s best to cast a wide net. Then, over time, which metrics are helpful should become clear. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the task, particularly for facility managers often responding to emergencies, it helps to focus on who the audience is and what data are important to them. This will aid in gaining approval for the data collection and analysis.
The hardest decision is often what we do first. When there is so much deferred maintenance to be addressed, prioritizing a list of projects is a major challenge. Data provide the insight into which projects are most crucial; weighting projects by criteria like importance to the organizational mission, risk of failure, life and safety, and functional adequacy results lets facility managers make defensible budget requests to handle the key items.
Approaches for gathering data include modelling buildings based on industry standard templates; assessing the condition of buildings and systems using existing facilities staff; and working with third-party firms to conduct assessments. A blend of approaches may work best, especially for those public sector organizations with limited budgets; for example, mission-critical facilities can be assessed professionally, while less-important buildings that are not public-facing may be modelled to get a sense of their condition and to identify areas of need. Regardless of the approach, or combination of approaches, the facility manager must be involved in ensuring the quality of data so the next phase—analysis—will result in sound decisions.
Pointing to hard data when asking for capital budget increases to address deferred maintenance gives credibility that facility managers often lacked in the past. Using metrics such as the facility condition index (FCI) to set goals helps unify the facilities department in terms of their mission and objectives. When everyone is working toward improving a recognized metric, it’s easier to understand how individual team members can contribute to the success of achieving that goal. This is great for the morale of facilities staff.
Data enable facility managers to turn nebulous 21st-century goals like “growth” and “improved ROI” into numerical targets and success metrics—real and measureable goals to determine success, with data that quantifies the starting point. Vague goals can be overwhelming; specific and measurable goals are more approachable and realistic.
Big data, rather than the intimidating concept it can be perceived as, is a vital asset to facility managers, and can positively impact their role, their departments, and their organizations. Data are just numbers, but those numbers can demonstrate where buildings and systems may fail, where money can be saved, and where limited budget should be used.
Rather than fearing data, facility managers should embrace it.
Susan Anson is president of VFA Canada Corp., a provider of solutions for facilities capital planning and asset management.