About this blog

My name is Martin Read. I’m an editor, writer and publishing project manager with experience in the B2B, client publishing and membership organisation sectors. This blog comprises three types of post — examples of my editorial comment writing from the past twelve years, blog entries and general comment on business issues. I am the editor of FM World magazine.

Thanks for dropping by. Get in touch if you’d like.

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Question marques

(This post first appeared in FM World’s 5th September 2014 edition)

In 1975, state-owned car maker British Leyland took out a full-page ad in the Daily Mirror detailing the full extent of its exotic range. An extraordinary list detailed each marque and model. Bored with the Mini? Trade up to an Austin Allegro. Austin Maxi too dull? Consider the Morris Marina. Moving up to executive saloon? Try a Jaguar XJ6. Triumph Toledo not racy enough? Consider the Dolomite. Austin Princess too ridiculously wedge-shaped? The blancmange-mould Rover 3500 could be just the ticket! A two-seater coupé more your thing? Try the MG Midget. Or MGB GT. Or Triumph Stag. Or Jaguar XJS. Or Triumph TR7. Or there’s always the Vanden Plas. Or a Wolseley. Or…

So it continued, this cacophonous clash of contrasting brands and body shapes. Yet just eight years later, Triumph, Morris, Vanden Plas and Wolseley were no more with Austin, Rover, MG and Jaguar mortally wounded. The latter marque was the only one to make it into the 21st century, its survival a function of foreign ownership.

There is, of course, no parallel to be drawn between the troubles experienced by the government-controlled automotive giant of the 1970s and today’s vibrant market for FM service providers – except, perhaps, in one sense: the complexities and bewildering choice of Leyland’s range came to mind when I was completing the FM brands survey conducted by I-FM.net. Its intention is to establish which FM service providers are best by various different criteria – we’ll be reporting on it next month.

The survey asks you to decide on the top three service providers across a range of areas – for example, best value for money, highest profile in catering, most innovativion. I found myself continually compiling and then recompiling my lists. As soon as I’d settled on a top three in one category, I realised I’d forgotten provider X. Incorporating them meant no berth for provider Y, who was then accommodated in the next section of the survey. And then another came to mind…

Certain providers stand out in particular areas because that’s where they made their names, and indeed for many their specialism remains a virtue. But most providers are seeking to portray themselves as best across multiple service lines, however delivered. As with the Leyland range, does today’s market for FM service providers have too many marques and not enough clear distinctions between them? Is there too much choice but not enough difference? If I’m finding it difficult to evaluate based on reputation, what’s it like for actual clients?

No matter how theoretically different your chosen marque and model, experience tells us that familiar issues of workmanship and reliability are likely to surface as the contract continues; despite considerable corporate rhetoric, successful client / supplier relationships are still typically a function of the people involved – on both sides.

We’ve seen plenty of brand refreshment over the past few years. Some providers have introduced bold new brands for individual service lines while others have rebranded their entire operations. Establishing a point of difference in these ways is nothing new, but I wonder what clients in general think about all the brand developments that have happened over such a short period of time?

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It’s good to talk

(This post first appeared in FM World’s 14th August 2014 edition)

Around the turn of the century, the late actor Bob Hoskins was employed by BT for a series of advertisements to promote the telecom firm’s tariffs. At the same time, a football club of my acquaintance played an FA Cup preliminary round tie against East Ham United – no, that’s not a typo – and trounced them 10-0.

East Ham’s goalkeeper for that match was the spitting image of Hoskins, and at first he was quite happy to engage in ‘banter’ with the crowd about his marked similarity to the cockney thespian. But the psychological impact as ball after ball flew past him into the net soon took its toll. Lying prostrate on the pitch, and distraught at the impotence of his defence, the Bob-alike keeper began remonstrating with his incompetent teammates. Why, he asked, couldn’t the centre half and the full backs communicate properly? This, decided the crowd, was the right time to deploy Hoskins’ BT campaign catchphrase. “Yes, keeper,” they goaded, “it’s good to talk.”

And indeed, it is. Which is why, when trying to work out why so many client-supplier relationships falter, you have to ask – at what point did the talking stop? Because there’s certainly more than enough talk at the outset. Each party is keen to declare how tremendous their newly announced contract partnership is going to be; the client has done its homework and is keen to promote that fact, while the supplier is happy to express their delight at being chosen. It’s what happens once the contract;s up and running that’s so baffling. Clients can become suspicious of their service providers’ commitment, and suppliers can resent that suspicion. That’s a sweeping statement, of course, and other, perhaps less visible pressure points exist. But regardless of the catalysts, couldn’t they just have talked the problem through?

BIFM research, reported in this issue, suggests those organisations with a more positive view of the FM function in their organisation are also benefiting from more trusting relationships – with their own FM departments, and indeed with the service providers those departments contract with. It’s difficult to believe that regular talking between client and service provider, at both strategic and operational level and all stages in between, hasn’t helped to develop that state of affairs.

The porous nature of FM service delivery and its touching of all aspects of an organisation’s performance mean that any mistrust between the two parties could be born of a myriad things. Poor pricing by the supplier, perhaps, or an inadequate assessment of the FM service’s impact on external customers by the client. Of all the issues we cover, procurement of the FM service and its subsequent failure to meet expectations is the one that most people are happy to talk about. If the two parties involved could thrash out their differences in private, we’d surely hear fewer people discussing the problems of FM procurement in public. So, of course it’s good to talk – but perhaps it’s who’s involved, and when they talk, that needs further thought.

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Silo silver lining

(The following blog first appeared in FM World 22nd May 2014 edition.)

It’s high time that someone stood up in defence of silos. Because you have to admit, something has gone badly wrong with their PR.

Not too long ago, silos enjoyed considerable respect and appreciation. Whether for the bulk storage of grain or missiles, they were much-valued members of the built environment community. Silos performed the admirable role of keeping one thing apart from another, different thing. But then, one day, someone prepping for a conference presentation looked up at the organigram on his or her monitor and thought, “Actually, you know what that looks like?”.
Thus, the dependable old silo became a metaphor for inexcusable communication barriers, synonymous with those organisational departments that fail to fully integrate with their other departmental siblings. (Silos and synergies, you see – they just don’t rub along.)

Today, woe betide anyone who isn’t seeking to step out of, break free from or generally disassociate themselves from silos. It’s even bad to be in possession of a “silo mentality”, as if that’s a condition in need of medical treatment. DJs who play songs with ‘silo’ in the lyrics have even lost their jobs. Possibly.

It’s easy to see how the metaphorical silo came to symbolise inter-organisational communication issues, especially those that prevent the impact and value of FM from being as visible across business as it should be. Two weeks ago in this colummn I lauded the format for this year’s ThinkFM. It was good that senior personnel from other membership organisations – those whose own interests can be furthered through the success of FM – had a platform at the BIFM’s showcase event. What I wasn’t to know was the extent of work going on behind the scenes; BIFM’s announcement of a partnership with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) was a great way to round off last Tuesday’s event.

“We wanted to make sure that the views of these two vital communities of professionals are brought together,” said BIFM CEO Gareth Tancred. “We want them to share their thinking and work together to bridge the gap between people and place as we aim to add to the next instalment of the workplace’s evolution.”

This is an entirely logical development; if membership organisations are to be truly reflective of the needs of their members, they must consider the merits of partnering with institutes representing activities that are complementary to their own specialism – breaking out of their own institutional silos, if you will. In the case of the CIPD, it’s easy to make the case that well-designed and managed facilities benefit the aims of an organisation’s personnel department. CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese spoke of being pleased “to be working with our colleagues in the facilities management industry to explore the issues, and to find solutions to the challenges they bring.” Note that word ‘colleagues’ – ultimately, BIFM and CIPD are equally invested in the provision of business support.

So, as well as moving away from a “silo mentality” within organisations, we’re also moving away from any “silo mentality” within the institutes that represent them. We’re looking forward to reporting the projects that will soon be emanating from this breakthrough collaboration.

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Incremental arithmetic

(This blog first appeared in FM World – 27th February 2014 edition

Back in the now halcyon summer of 2012, the French weren’t happy. British cycling performance director Dave Brailsford had joked about how the all-conquering British Olympic team was winning as a result of “specially round wheels” and someone French had taken him seriously.

Zut alors! “Specially round”? It was all we could do to hold back the tears… of laughter at first, naturally, but of swelling national pride soon thereafter as the Union flag and national anthem received outing after outing.

The reality was that there was no obvious, clear difference between British and French cycling equipment; and anyway, there are rules against that kind of thing. In fact, our cycling victories in the velodrome and beyond were the result of a team peaking at the right time and benefiting from what the since knighted Brailsford famously referred to as an “aggregation of marginal gains”.

The definition of a marginal gain? No one obvious standout idea; instead, plenty of small, incremental improvements that add up to an important and clearly identifiable difference. Sound familiar? Welcome back to the epic debate about what constitutes innovation in facilities management, the primary focus of the recent Workplace Futures conference.

For many outsourced service providers, the aggregation of marginal gains is where the war can be won. Many companies operate schemes in which their managers and employees are incentivised to consider changes to their working practices that result in individual productivity gains.

The advantages of this approach to FM innovation is that it rewards contract-specific enhancements, for example, the window cleaner who proposes a specifically angled pole to more quickly complete his task. That innovation has the dual benefit of being before-and-after measurable as well as keeping the individual concerned engaged in the activity and its impact on the client.

There are negatives, though. Innovations sourced in this way might be seen by clients as relatively small beer. Improvements, not innovations; little things that they come to expect as just part of the day-to-day service. Indeed, when taken individually these little innovations can be so incremental that their positive effect on contract relationships can be fleeting.

Arrangements in which clients demand X number of “innovations” a month – or the service providers that suggest such clauses – can result in both parties becoming hostages to fortune.

What’s more, as Workplace Futures confirmed, this “innovation of incremental gain” is seen by many as masking the need for an altogether more profound approach. Workplace data guru Tim Oldman spoke at the conference about FM’s failure to take hold of its role as “asset guardian” and ”protector of asset value”. The primary focus of the FM should be in ensuring the ability of a workplace to support employees in the work they’re doing. Oldman is far from sure that FM as a whole has a handle on the impact of the workplace on organisational performance. A solution to that conundrum? Now there’s innovation.

So yes, there’s a bigger prize to play for. But small innovations do at least benefit from clear before-and-after measurability. Essentially, there’s both a big picture and a little picture approach to innovation in FM.

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Provenance

(This blog first appeared in FM World — 13th February 2014 edition)

How many TV shows about antiques can one country be reasonably expected to handle? Plenty, it would seem. Where once the Antiques Road Show ploughed a lonely furrow, you have to work hard these days to avoid accidentally watching one of Cash in the Attic, Antiques Road Trip, Bargain Hunt, etc. etc.

I’m not sure what this fascination with the past tells us about our present, but there’s one thing all of these programmes routinely explain about an object’s future value – ‘provenance’ is key; solid proof of where something was originally sourced, and what’s happened to it since, can add significantly to value.

In a sense, there are plenty of examples of provenance governing the practice of facilities management. Contract caterers sell their services on an ability to detail all aspects of their food’s journey “from farm to fork”; the very concept of building information modelling is based on showing exactly what, when and where a particular element of a building’s structure was first prescribed (and indeed what’s subsequently happened to it); while for FM service providers and their clients in the public sector, one of the aspects of the recently introduced Social Value Act is that it puts an increased value in detailing where the people who work in the FM team are ‘sourced’ (preferably locally, and via apprenticeships). On that last point, the knock-on effect of bringing in apprentices from local community engagement groups can have a wider inspirational effect, as the London Borough of Ealing’s Roger Amos will testify.

It’s only been a year or so since the UK’s FM sector has been able to point to a full qualifications structure spanning Levels 1 to 7, allowing employers and service contractors to put more weight behind the educational back-story of their employees. Of course, for many FMs the requirement is to plug existing skills gaps rather than show the breadth of their qualifications to date, so with this in mind it’s interesting to hear of the BIFM’s FM Professional Standards Framework, designed to help individual facilities managers plan their professional development and identify areas where additional training is required. The idea is that the new framework will provide targets for FMs and their employers to measure themselves against, helping both parties to plan more detailed training activities for their specific purpose. The BIFM further promises new tools to help individuals and businesses in their professional development programmes. BIFM CEO Gareth Tancred told us that the framework represents “a landmark step for the facilities management profession”, setting out “the professional standards that are required at each stage of an FM professional’s career, from a support role through to a strategic role”.

By defining the competencies required across the functional areas of facilities management, the framework, said Tancred, would be “an indispensable guide for professionals and employers alike and an important part of our work to develop the FM profession. We must develop our professionals at all levels if we are to succeed and influence change both now and in the future.

All of these tools, helping FMs show clearly not only what they can do but how what they can do has been independently verified, can only help boost the credibility of facilities management.

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A flatter future

Not that long ago, talk about ‘breaking up hierarchies’ would have marked you out as a seditionist, extremist, troublemaker or worse. In 2013, the phrase has completely lost its pejorative connotations; today, breaking up hierarchies is all part of the move to creating agile, some even say (and indeed do say) ‘kinetic’ organisations.

Talk to workplace consultants about their office redesign or major organisational realignment projects and you’re unlikely to avoid, at some stage, discussion about restructuring around fewer chiefs and more empowered indians. Those that introduce such programmes – and Brother UK presented on theirs at the recent Workplace Week Convention – end up with fewer employees, smaller senior teams and, crucially, flatter hierarchies. The question most people have about such outcomes is – how do you sustain them? Surely the ability to move up and down the greasy pole is what’s sustained business life for at least the last hundred years if not more. Can you really eliminate all of that so easily?

By definition, flatter hierarchies surely mean fewer senior positions and thus fewer opportunities for individuals to progress their careers, at least in that particular organisation. Or does it? Could it also mean

Fewer hierarchical steps also surely mean a greater focus on the people who find themselves in those positions. Associating remuneration with an individual’s contribution and worth to an organisation by an independently verified audit – rather than notional seniority – is a massive change, but one that’s necessary if a new, flatter hierarchy is to be maintained.

Why is all of this important? Because for most knowledge work organisations this is a situation that’s right here, right now, and of increasing urgency. Also, it will increasingly influence how the facilities involved are managed. We talk a lot about flexible working in this magazine because of its obvious impact on the workplace and the size of facilities required; but connected to that is management predominantly by output – the success of which is as much down to the age of the people imposing such policies as it is the age of the people being managed. There’s a lot of potential friction between the baby boomers, Generation X and flexibility-loving Generation Y – three distinct groups with often conflicting attitudes and requirements when it comes to the workplace. And real heirarhical change still typically requires a strong character with the conviction to see the project through. It’s clear that this was the case at Brother UK, whose charismatic MD Phil Jones was able to convince his Japanese parent organisation of the need for this fundamental realignment.

This is a massive organisational shift for whichever organisation undertakes it, and one with equally significant implications for its facilities management. It can mean organisations focusing their recruitment on quite different requirements to those they have today, as well as a move to accommodate equipment owned by employees rather than that provided by the organisation.

One other issue involved in reducing layers of hierarchy is, of course, the position of the facilities management post-realignment. Is this an opportunity for FM to move into a more prominent position? Well, yes, surely it is; any project to cut layers of hierarchy must involve an assessment of the value of different departments’ importance to that organisation. Yes, of course, I’m the eternal optimist – but it seems to me that an appetite to reduce tiers of management could play into the hands of the facilities management function.

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The flexible flaw – maintaining corporate cohesion

So here we go again – a major international company, ironically perhaps a key player in the IT revolution itself, wants its employees to work from the office more and from the home less. Everything we thought we knew about flexible working is, for the second time this year (Yahoo! hit the headlines for a similar announcement in the summer), up for debate.

HP’s is not the blanket ban imposed by Yahoo!, but the language it’s using is interesting.

“We need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration; the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be,” explained an all-staff briefing note.

This seems to be about applying the brakes on a former policy rather than forcing it to a full stop. The way in which teams collaborate, and the extent to which that collaboration is conducted face-to-face, is obviously a question of deep-seated debate.

And ‘culture of engagement’ is an illuminating phrase. Much is said about flexible working’s great gifts to individual workers – giving them freedom to work around their non-work commitments, concentrating when concentrating is needed and collaborating when that’s the name of the game. But perhaps the issue concerns multiple ideas of what constitutes ‘collaboration’.

Technology allows us to Skype, chat, message and otherwise audio / video /web conference with others. The use of this stuff is increasing on a daily basis. Yet the liberal use of these tools can encourage the absence of something actually quite important – actual physical engagement. Teams van be more productive when they’re in the same physical space. Teleconference all you want, there’s nothing quite like everyone being in the same actual room. (Perhaps this physical engagement needs a buzzword to describe it. ‘Actual Reality’?)

This, somewhat belatedly, seems to be what HP and others are now scrabbling to come to terms with. It is far too easy to focus on the financial benefits that derive from moving to a displaced workforce; but prioritising the potential to save money on office space ahead of the most productive mix of office and displaced working could prove to be damaging in the extreme. As the Yahoo! and HP examples surely prove, when organisations that would seem the obvious trailblazers pull back from the brink of a full blown flexible working revolution, there’s surely something important for us consider. “Work is something that you do, not somewhere you go,” – great soundbite, but not necessarily 100 per cent accurate.

This is an extraordinary time. The tools for measuring every conceivable piece of human interactivity are being commodified at a dizzying rate, while awareness of how that might affect the workplace is on the up.

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