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Digital Effects

Steve McGregor, Group Managing Director of building services and maintenance specialist DMA Group (DMA) argues that FMs may not be realising the full potential of digitalisation and automation for effective property maintenance.

Effective maintenance is a vital part of the property lifecycle. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the properties that will be around in 2050 have already been constructed. Therefore, the continual and successful functioning of this majority of buildings over the next three decades (at a minimum) will be largely dependent on the ability of property maintenance and facilities management professionals to service them effectively. 

But is the sector in its current state set up to properly meet the needs of today, let alone the future? For Steve McGregor, Group Managing Director of building services and maintenance specialist DMA Group (DMA), it’s hard to justify a positive answer.

From the introduction of mobile broadband to the widespread adoption of ecommerce platforms in retail, many sectors have advanced dramatically in recent decades. Yet during that same time, property maintenance and FM has made comparatively little progress. 

“I’ve been in the industry for 43 years, and sadly, not a lot has changed in that time,” McGregor explains. “We didn’t even have mobile phones when I started my career in 1979. Back then, maintenance projects were managed incredibly manually, moving T-shaped cards along a wall to give a visual representation of what had been done and what was due.

“All that’s really changed in the four decades since is the wider use of computer aided facilities management (CAFM) systems to digitise some of the transactional processes. But there’s so much more to delivering maintenance effectively than a slick, shiny front-end. In fact, these systems have unwittingly masked the fact that the same old problems still exist beneath the surface. We simply addressed the easy stuff. And we know because we’ve bought and operated most of the proprietary CAFM systems available today.”

Carrying out property maintenance to a high-quality standard has always been difficult. It requires an extensive cohort of different resources, including a variety of specialists with varying skills, the right parts in the right place at the right time, and all while maintaining statutory compliance. That complexity magnifies exponentially at scale. So, the stark reality facing our industry is that the only route to consistently delivering better efficiency and customer satisfaction is through tech-enabled business process automation. 

However, in a spring 2021 survey of FM professionals conducted by DMA Group, 77 per cent of respondents agreed that FM is ‘behind the curve’ when it comes to adopting smart technology. Meanwhile, only 27 per cent reported that their organisation’s property/FM teams are unlocking the full advantages of smart technology in business process automation.

It also appears that many providers have ultimately been failing to provide satisfactory services to their customers for many years now.

The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) M&E maintenance KPI survey is a representative of this. For more than 15 years, the survey has been measured against 10 KPIs including reactive response, relationships, communication, and site management, with very little having improved since the first survey. Again, just 20 per cent of customers in the most recent study stated that innovation was satisfactory or above.

Unlocking benefits for customer and provider alike
Given the criticality of FM in upholding a rapidly expanding urban landscape, and our race to net zero it is vital that the industry adapts, evolves and progresses. “Having been around for 219 years, we had clearly been part of the problem ourselves,” McGregor admits. “Characterised by average service levels and systemic inefficiency we have all given our industry a poor reputation.

“However, we’re now genuinely trying to break this mould, change opinion and help customers look for something different – something better, even if they don’t yet know what or how. 

“FM providers and property maintenance managers need to be prepared to constructively challenge their customers. There is a better way, and we can all demonstrate the added value possibilities via smart technology.”

To achieve its ambitions, DMA launched its own proprietary BiO® platform – a cloud-based, service-backed technology solution capable of unlocking the FM industry’s tech-led potential.

McGregor explains: “Our intention is to provide ourselves with the automation to grow at scale without compromising service quality.

“Smaller organisations dealing with fewer customers and fewer assets are generally able to deliver good service. They haven’t got so many customers, and senior leadership is very visible. The success of those smaller companies generates more business. But when it gets to any level of scale, that’s when the wheels begin to wobble and, on occasion, fall off.

“Recognising those signs and symptoms ourselves, and to ensure we didn’t end up in this same boat, we used our expertise to create BiO® and make buildings work better. Having automated all of our business processes from A-to-Z, we’re going to change the UK maintenance industry for good. BiO® now drives everything we do, making a massive difference to our people, our service partners and our customers.”

Placing a finger on the pulse
Critically, the platform provides real-time insight into all operations for all key stakeholders from any device, anywhere, anytime. From customer to engineers to service partners, everyone can see exactly where operations are at – from financial to operational. 

All of this real-time data information is delivered via dashboards for every role in our business and is focused on the user experience, with customers also being presented with proactive remedial and recommended calls to action. 

“A remedial signifies greater urgency because it relates directly to statutory compliance, while a recommendation might be more of a nice to have, but both alerting customers to things that they ought to be thinking about, or acting upon,” McGregor affirms. 

When onboarding new customers to their platform, DMA initially focuses on asset register integrity, or in other words the inventory of equipment to be maintained. 

“We regularly take on new contracts that many providers have operated previously for many years, yet the crucially important asset register is still wrong,” McGregor adds. “Very often we’re investing in validating that legacy asset data right at the start because we know how important it is, one for automation, but two for service quality and efficiency. Equally, if customers don’t know exactly what they’ve got, how do they know what’s been done or what it should cost?”

Once this has been established, the firm’s planning team plot a 12-month maintenance delivery plan divided into 60-day windows to schedule and assign tasks to engineers within a more realistic timeframe. 

“With all of that visibility, our customer service teams, account teams, service partners and engineers become empowered,” McGregor affirms. “Although some might argue that focusing on the asset register at the start slows things up initially, once you’ve set it up, it runs like a Swiss watch and you’re safely away, with a permanent finger on the pulse.”

Attracting talent and embracing a new mindset
Indeed, the benefits of leveraging technologies to support property maintenance and FM services are extensive. Providing access to real-time, totally transparent service management data anytime, anywhere, on any device at no extra cost will enhance decision making; drive consistently better service standards through automated business processes and enable scalability without diluting service standards. These are just some of the rewards that those enterprises stand to reap powered by technology. Not only will they be better positioned to navigate exceptional events in the future, but they will also secure an invaluable competitive advantage in a saturated marketplace.

So, what needs to happen to stimulate the adoption of vital solutions such as business process automation on a broader basis? In the eyes of McGregor, there are several challenges which need to be navigated.

“One challenge that we face is recruitment,” he affirms. “Getting hold of qualified people within our business is tough, and everyone is in the same boat.

“What we’ve found, however, is that technology can help, because it’s a tool for attracting the best talent. Millennials, Gen Z… new generations want to work with solutions of the future, and so are expecting to see key technologies being used.

“Equally, our engineers have become more productive and happier since we introduced BiO®. They no longer need to fill in overtime sheets or ring the office for a purchase order. We’ve empowered our people, through better engagement and shared values, all of which will result in improved talent retention.”

Technology in this sense presents something of a virtuous cycle. While it’s primary purpose will be to improve operational efficiencies and eliminate the time-wasting administrative burdens placed on employees, its ability to help attract top talent should not be understated. Indeed, having the right people in place is pivotal to the success of digital transformation plans. 

“This might be more difficult for smaller organisations who perhaps don’t have the budget to hire a renowned CTO,” McGregor states. “These people are expensive, difficult to find and rarely have all the skills and experience to tackle everything themselves. The digital change process takes years to achieve and relies upon involving and collaborating with the whole business. There are no short cuts, but the dividends are enormous and sustainable.

The MD continues: “At DMA, we actively engaged with our front-line staff and engineers throughout. We recognised that our investments would only be successful if real problems were being solved, so transparent communication is entirely necessary.”

Of course, this all must begin with a mindset shift. In the case of DMA, the firm’s willingness to admit and accept its flawed, outdated methods proved to be critical in laying the foundations for futureproofed transformation.

As DMA’s survey findings show, the FM workforce acknowledges that smart technologies can save them money and time, improve quality of service and deliver a multitude of other customer benefits. Yet many organisations are showing a lack of proactivity in taking the necessary, yet difficult steps to adopt them.

Moving forward, McGregor reiterates that this simply has to change. “We were in this majority,” he affirms. “But we were desperate to find a way to do better. And while we have not solved every single issue – far from it – there is no doubt that we have come a long, long way and there’s clear water between us and our competitors, large and small.

“Of course, it’s an ongoing process, and we will continue to iterate and improve the ways in which we leverage data and technology to the betterment of our efficiency and customer service. However, it is an entirely necessary process. We genuinely, boldly believe that by balancing the right expertise and technologies, maintenance firms can make buildings work better.”

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