About this blog

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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.

Democracy on tour

Our elected representatives, newly returned to Westminster, are doubtless praying that no one works out that now, with the wounds still fresh, is the perfect time to re-open the debate on electoral reform (As ever, they’ll want it to all die down as, sadly, it inevitably will. Again).

But be that as it may, our honourable members will soon be grappling with quite the facilities management fit-out problem. Because, as we report in the news, a range of scenarios has been proposed for the extensive renovation of the Palace of Westminster, on account of this particular facility being anything other than fit for 21st century purpose.

Anyone who’s visited the Houses of Parliament in recent years will have seen the various sticking plaster projects in action as maintenance staff seek to stave off the inevitable. And the cost of all that prevarication? It’s now going to be as much as £5.7 bn to do all of the work necessary. That’s the figure arrived at by the Independent Options Appraisal report should politicians decide to stay put with work going on around them. The lowest amount in the IOA’s menu of options costs £3.5 bn – still staggering, and an option in which Parliament is forced to leave Westminster for six years.

Our vote? Surely the latter option. Otherwise, imagine how all the austerity rhetoric will sound when it crashes up against a decision to spend an additional £2.2 billion on what would surely be a misguided decision to stay put.

And oh, what a story should Parliament go on tour. Because here’s what I’d like to think would happen: Those six years would see Parliament staying for at least two parliamentary sessions a pop in each of a total of twelve British cities (the public will vote on that top twelve, by the way – with elsewhere in London not an option). The result? Democracy in action! Local engagement in politics! And, let’s be frank, surely some pretty significant changes to parliamentary behaviour. I don’t know, local dignitaries might even mint special notes and coins to commemorate Bristol, Belfast, Newcastle or whomever’s turn in the UK law-making spotlight.

And then (this is the clincher) we’d be left with twelve richly detailed FM case studies, each acted out in the full glare of the British national media. Because all twelve moves would need the carefully crafted and expert project management capabilities that only this profession can provide. They would also demand this country’s globally market-leading FM practitioners to pull it off – some of whom are already doing just such a job in other central government departments, to considerable acclaim. And good Lord, it would surely cost less in total than staying put in London.

FM’s value? Demonstrated in spades, my Lords. An example of British ingenuity and market-leading capabilities? I commend this decision to the house. FM is a British success story in search of a medium through which to show off its talents. A high risk strategy? No, surely it’s time to think big and make this happen. The campaign to take Parliament on Tour in the capable hands of the FM profession begins here.

(This article was first published on the 2nd July 2015.)

The Living Wage

Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool Football Club between 1959 and 1974, was an irascible Scotsman with a reputation for canny observations about football and life in general. When told that the niceties of the off-side rule exempted those players not “interfering with play”, he responded thus: “If a player is not interfering with play, then he should be.”

Quite right. Because when you put aside the arcane language used in the regulations, you’re left with the obvious – what is the point of a player’s presence on the pitch if he or she is not there to try and influence proceedings?

I was reminded of Shankly’s famous aphorism when reading the welcome news recently that more big-name FM service providers have signed up as Living Wage providers. After all, what is the point of a company’s presence in a market if it’s not there to try and influence proceedings?

OK, so the Living Wage commitment that these companies are making is (in the main) to those they employ directly in their central support functions. But as well as this, and of potentially more importance, they’re including Living Wage options in their bids with prospective and current clients (alongside ‘market rate’ proposals).

This general move in the right direction should be lauded, and we shall watch with interest the moves that other service providers make. The fact that we now have several big-name firms ‘interfering with play’ by pushing this debate along can only be a good thing. It feels like the Living Wage argument has got to a point where the case in its favour – as supported by all three of the largest political parties fighting this general election campaign – is suddenly irresistible. As the pro and anti-austerity arguments get batted back and forth, the grey area between the minimum and Living Wage might just become its own debating point in this election. And if this campaign does indeed see the Living Wage getting the kind of column inches it deserves, the nature of the debate post-election could be just as interesting.

The wider perspective for all of this involves the issue of low pay in facilities services having a much higher public profile. In a perfect world, the Living Wage debate might prove to be an influential trigger for the value-of-FM argument, forcing organisations to evaluate exactly what they’re paying for. And if they’re really obliged to delve into the minutiae, then part of that evaluation might just involve recognising the influence of the facilities service beyond its old stereotype as a ‘needs-must’ commodity, with far-reaching consequences for corporate Britain (if you’ll excuse that election phrase).

In this respect, the Living Wage is a huge deal. As a matter of fact, some people believe that winning the argument concerning the Living Wage is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it is much more important than that.

(This article was first published on 9th April 2015.)

Surgical support

Consultant Mike Cant struck a well-received chord at the recent Workplace Futures conference. His theme? What he perceives as a missed opportunity for FM providers to identify clients’ “point of expertise” – and to then provide the entire operational environment necessary to support it.

Cant appeared to be making a more clinical distinction between supporting a client’s core business and its core activity; between operational activities in general and the client’s single defining function. He used the example of an operating theatre, with the ‘point of expertise’ being literally that – a scalpel, and the surgeon wielding it. Everything else, moving outwards from that point of expertise, is where FM comes in: from the support personnel and equipment in the operating theatre, right through to the car park – and calling at all points in between.

FM in this context is the provision of the entire operational environment around a client’s single, defining operational distinctiveness. Once that point of expertise is established, everything necessary to ensure its effective delivery can be codified. Now, these sound like healthy conversations to be having with clients, both parties working to agree on what constitutes the operational ‘scalpel’ – but can existing FM providers offer this comprehensive blanket of operational support? At present, says Cant, the answer is no – but the industry should certainly be working towards it.

In fact, perhaps healthcare is where FM providers can make the breakthrough. Cant spoke of one organisation in Toronto, Canada, that specialises in hernia operations. The medical environment surrounding this single-focus service is streamlined, as is its operational support. It’s highly efficient in terms of both cost and clinical outcomes.

This is what NHS consultant Roy Lilley was alluding to when he told last year’s ThinkFM conference how the future of the NHS lies in just this sort of facility – smaller units dedicated to single medical specialisms; units for geriatricians to support the ageing population, units to treat heart conditions, and so on.

Healthcare, perhaps, represents a golden opportunity for FM to get in at the ground level and define itself as the complete operational shell supporting specific forms of surgery. Not that Cant’s vision cannot be defined for other verticals, but it would be easier to start when defining a facility from the ground up.

Thinking of FM in this way has significant implications for how FM providers are structured, and for the discussions they have with clients. And as Cant also argued, getting FM’s ‘brand’ message across is important – what is it that FM does?

Not too long ago, one way of explaining the difference between hard and soft FM went thus: turn a building upside down and what falls out is soft FM (people and their services), while anything left is fixed to the building, requires maintenance, and is thus hard FM.

In support of Cant’s vision, perhaps what we should be saying is that FM is everything in an organisation that moves – both people and equipment – in order to support an organisation’s point of expertise. It defines FM as being beyond property (which of course doesn’t move) and principally operational. Just a thought…

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. Only the latter marque made 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?

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.

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.

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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