Jan 26, 2016

Get Smart

#helpdesk #outsourcing #smart apps

by Brian Atkin in Software

Which is the best solution for an owner/client – outsourcing, insourcing or co-sourcing of facility-related services? Think carefully before you answer. Got it? Yes… it depends. No one can say which is best without knowing about the organisation that needs those services. Selecting any of the above options without fully understanding the owner’s/client’s business drivers, for example end-user satisfaction and best value, is possible; but it hardly amounts to an informed business decision.

Digital models enable histories of building use and performance to be amassed
Digital models enable histories of building use and performance to be amassed

The “outsourcing decision”, as it is generally termed, is repeated time and again by owners/clients as they periodically re-evaluate their options for the delivery of facility-related services. Sometimes, the effort required to prepare the ground for the outsourcing decision results in the current arrangement being retained because it seems to be working well enough; so why change? It is a pragmatic reason, but it is not necessarily the best. If only the decision could be reached with the benefit of knowing about all of the things that have happened and/or changed since the last time the decision was taken then a lot of time, effort and cost might be avoided. Just imagine it, an independent evaluation of the options with the answer delivered in minutes. This would be no super-consultant, but a smart app built to acquire knowledge of past and current performance and then to recommend the most appropriate solution based on an objective assessment of current and future needs.

Artificial intelligence has found its way into many fields, including medical sciences where it is used to guide clinicians towards prognoses far quicker than is ordinarily possible. It is not providing the answer, but it is helping to narrow the field by focusing on available evidence that it can analyse objectively and then present as ranked results. Medical journals will continue to play an essential role by adding new science, knowledge and insights. There is, however, a limit to how much knowledge and experience a single clinician can amass and retain over a lifetime’s work, which is where artificial intelligence has the edge. It can provide access to the experiences and knowledge of large teams of experts and thousands (even tens of thousands) of their cases.

If we can trust clinicians who are supported by artificial intelligence to provide a reliable diagnosis to complex human problems then artificial intelligence can help real estate owners/clients to select the most appropriate sourcing arrangement for their facilities. No doubt someone will find an obtuse basis for arguing that facilities management is more complex than medical science – for them, it probably is. The point they would likely miss is that artificial intelligence is there to support not replace. If it takes less time to reach a decision then there is more time to devote to other challenges that humans are still better at overcoming. In the context of facilities management, it could be new ways of improving the end-user experience.

Now, if we return to the medical analogy, much of the evidence is case-based and that is an approach that we see increasingly in design where owners/clients rightly want to have the evidence that they will achieve the performance required of their facility once it is operational. In turn, designers are seeking out hard evidence to support their design activities and deliverables. In facilities management, we have the additional benefit of codified knowledge in the form of national, European and international standards (i.e. specifications, codes of practice and guides) covering all areas of practice. With so much data available and the technology to analyse them, producing smart apps for a range of cognitive tasks is entirely feasible. Whether or not there is a market for them is another matter.

The sourcing decision is one example of where a smart app could fulfil a valuable purpose. This decision often incorporates procurement – another area that can be time consuming and resource demanding – and which provides a basis for contract management, performance measurement and benchmarking. Much of what is done on a daily basis can be routinized; in fact, much already is. Then there are front-office functions that could also be supported by smart apps. Unmanned receptions can be replaced by something more engaging than a telephone perched on the counter, with a scruffy printed message taped next to it. Help desks, whether physical or virtual, rely more and more on IT support to provide answers and pinpoint the cause of problems and, in general, improve coordination of the facility’s management.

In time, most of what we recognise now as facilities management – the managerial, administrative and financial functions – will be embodied in smart apps running on an owner’s/client’s enterprise system. This is an (already) established direction of travel with a move away from standalone systems towards greater integration and tighter security. The rising tide of asset management, which is already a feature within enterprise systems, could displace or, at the very least, re-focus an organisation’s attention away from facilities management as we know it. Add to that novel building design solutions, incorporating artificial intelligence that eliminates the need for most labour-intensive facility-related services, and we have a very different scenario for the future. At some time, the point will be reached where it will be a case of “get smart or get out”.