About me

My name is Martin Read. I’m an editor, writer and publishing project manager working in the B2B, client publishing and membership organisation sectors. (If it helps, you can call me a manager or director of ‘content’.)

This blog consists of my editorial comment writing from the past fifteen years as well as my business features, articles for the Wealdstone FC programme and other written work that don’t fit easily elsewhere. My day job is with FM World and The Planner.

Thanks for dropping by.

Forty World Cup finalists? Forget it

The 2014 World Cup was rightly lauded for the exceptional number of goals. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, James Rodriquez et al contributed to an outstanding group stage and an enjoyable (if slightly less goal-frenzied) knock-out phase.

Despite the well documented problems with Qatar and the surreal prospect of Russia spending ten times as much on their hosting of the tournament as Brazil, most commentators agree that, if nothing else, the current format of the tournament works. 32 countries are divided into eight groups. The top two in each progress to the knock-out phase, and that all conveniently crunches down, match by match, to a final after which a champion is crowned. The eventual World Cup holders will have battled past seven of the tournament’s 31 opponents to end up with that little star on their shirts. And what’s more, all of it takes place in pretty much a single month. All good stuff – which is doubtless why FIFA fancies cocking it up and increasing the size of the finals tournament further still.

Format flaws

Of course, the World Cup has seen plenty of format changes over the years. In 1950, it was three four-team groups and then another, four team group – the group winner, Brazil, taking the title. When England won it in, ooh, whenever it was, there were just 16 countries in four groups contesting the finals. But pressure to increase the number of entrants was understandable and eventually led to the introduction of a 24 team tournament in 1982.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to have 24 divide down into two finalists unless you have four groups of six and a tournament that might never end. So, compromises were needed – and the 24-team tournament formats were far from perfect. The first, in 1982, was an organisational nightmare in which the top two teams in six groups of four progressed to a second group stage comprising four groups of three, providing one semi-finalist each.

The format stank, so for the next three tournaments – 1986, 1990 and 1994 – the four “best” third-placed teams in each of the six four-team groups progressed to the knock-out rounds. That wasn’t particularly sensible either; really quite average teams could yet make the knock-out rounds.

In 1990, it took a late Mark Wright goal to prevent England having to draw lots in order to progress. In 1994, Italy were able to lose to Ireland in their first game, finish third in their group – yet still go on to win the bloody thing.

Absurd, but apparently not absurd enough to prevent UEFA from introducing this 24-team format for Euro 2016. In this case, the nonsense carries on into the qualification process.

I mean, there are only 53 countries in UEFA competing for those 24 places. You’ve effectively a 50% chance of playing in the finals from day one! So much for Platini’s idea of a nerve-jangling “week of football” – you’re going to need to be a pretty average team indeed not to make the finals in France. And as a result, the qualification campaign is going to be a mildly diverting one and no more. Well done everybody.

Big idea

Back with FIFA, and the 24 team format proved inefficient at adequately representing the world’s top sides. Eventually, the only way was up. France hosted the first 32-team World Cup Finals in 1998. Another big increase with eight more teams, yes – but now we were back to just the top two countries in each of eight groups progressing to the knock-out rounds.

And it works. It’s clean, easy to follow and acceptable – just as the original 16 team format had been all the way up until 1978. The current format is the joint longest serving in World Cup history, with Brazil 2014 being the fifth consecutive 32-team tournament.

There are a few downsides, though. The need for the host nation to have advanced stadium and transport infrastructure is such that it would be difficult for, say, Belgium to host the tournament on its own. That’s a shame, and even more so when you consider how many potential African and Asian countries are also unlikely to be able to bid to host a World Cup.

In fact, don’t get me started on hosting the tournament. Instead of Russia 2018 and – I still can’t believe it – Qatar 2022, we should be preparing for World Cups in England and Australia respectively.

Forty rocks?

So what’s next? Rumours abound of an increase to 40 countries in order to accommodate more Asian entrants. Michel Platini thinks the current arrangement remains too overbalanced in terms of European entrants. Rather than further restrict European countries — difficult, given the continent’s recent success in finals relative to other FIFA federations — the additional teams would be accommodated by placing a fifth country in each of the eight groups.

What would such a tournament look like? How long would it last? I’ve had a go at working it out – and it’s not pretty.

Everything about the knock-out rounds would remain as-is, with all of the problems caused by the enlarged group stage. While you could, very possibly, have a tournament that lasts no more than one extra week, the following problems would still exist:

1. There could be as many as eight days between the start of the tournament and the last of the forty countries taking part in its first match.
2. Because each round of matches leaves one of the competing countries out (1 vs 2, 3 vs 4 leaves team 5 kicking its heels, etc.), then the team not taking part in the last round of group matches could, if they’ve already qualified, have as many as six additional rest days prior to facing their opponents in the second round.
3. There’s considerably more potential for ‘dead rubber’ matches towards the end of the group stage.
4. You’d have no fewer than 95 competitive matches in the tournament, up from 63 at present. (I don’t count the third-place play-off. Who counts the third-place play-off?)
5. You’d need there to be four group matches a day, which for TV purposes would mean games kicking off at 12:00, 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00. Now, I enjoy a “feast of football” as much as the next man, but that’s full-on gluttony. Even armchair enthusiasts will lose track of who’s playing who, and when, and what it all means.

So, all in all? An absolute nonsense, up there with Brazil being invited into the Euros (Michel Platini was thinking about it), or each 45 minutes of the 2020 Euros being played in a different time zone (or whatever Platini’s visions have decreed).

Keep it as it is, I say. There comes a point when things done in the name of progress just aren’t that progressive.

And anyway, let’s face the baldest fact: even a 40-team tournament would do nothing to improve England’s chances of winning the bloody thing.

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.