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Article 'Believers & Cynics'

In the sparkling university main building, the freshly appointed Director of Facilities Management Services reads through his FM Creed once more before clicking Send, and dispatching his vision to all senior, middle and supervisory managers throughout the recently integrated department. For some undefined reason, he still feels a little uneasy about circulating it to the frontline staff. Later perhaps.

"I believe. I believe in Facilities Management, in the British Institute for Facilities Management, in Customer Focus, in a Broad Pallet of non-core services, in Value for Money and in Integrated Service Provision. I believe in Seamless Delivery, in a Silo-free mentality, in Multi-disciplinary Information-sharing. I believe in Client Relationship Management, in Proximity to the Customer, in Synergy. I believe in the Helpdesk, the One Stop Shop, and the Single-source Invoice. I believe in Service Level Agreements, in Market Testing and in Partnering. I believe that we can be represented on the Executive Board, that we can be a Strategic Advisor to the University, and the Provider of First Choice."

Minutes later, deep in the Estates Division, the Buildings Maintenance Manager looks at the clock on the pre-fab wall. Tea time. He turns to the smudged computer as the water boils, and the FM Creed appears in his Inbox. He's got fifteen blokes working for him, Caretakers mainly, and Handymen. Used to have twice that many in the department once, skilled chaps too. But these days it's contractors who do the bulk of the work. And a fat lot of good they are. Our lads spend most of their time putting right what the contractors couldn?t get right first time.

Later that evening, he traces his headache back to the moment he opened his email. He'd printed out the Director's vision statement, and stuck it on the wall next to the trusty spike with the dockets on it. Damn-fool FM nonsense, he'd muttered. Twenty years ago we provided a far better service than now, for all their trendy gobbledygook. Too many chiefs and not enough indians, that's the problem. Where's the sense in wasting hours of my time in fancy multi-disciplinary meetings with people who make sandwiches, answer telephones, deliver post and process waste ? Why do we have to pretend that the people who mow lawns, organise conferences, and repair dripping taps have a single jot in common ? One Stop Shop my elbow! At best it's a gimmicky new mall with the same old shops in it. Give me my Silo, it's what I do best.

FM Believers and FM Cynics. We all know them. You can probably think of their names. Both stereotypes and all shades of grey in between can be found in the support services departments of our universities up and down the country. A random scan of the web-sites of UK universities will reveal that non-core services are broadly organised in four different ways. There is still a minority of universities that have a collection of fragmented services such as maintenance, post-room and security that are not represented by a larger FM department. A second and more significant group of universities maintain the tried and tested 'hard / soft' dichotomy whereby buildings-related services (including cleaning and security) are bundled in an Estates Department. The catering, student accommodation and conferencing are typically united in a Hospitality or Business Services department. A third type is the increasing number of universities that are embracing the total FM model where a broad pallet of hard and soft non-core services are clustered in a single (Estates &) Facilities department, and may include services as diverse as Capital Projects, Grounds Maintenance, Printing, Room Planning, Conferencing, Sports services and Nursery. The fourth category is similar to the third, but rather than being content to cluster the services, they purport to integrate the services. The reasons for a university opting for one of these arrangements may be historical, happenstance, or political. Divide and rule can after all be an excellent reason for maintaining separate hard and soft services.

The students, parents, visitors, and all members of the academic community from Dean to laboratory assistant are probably blissfully unaware of how the support services are organised. And why indeed should they ? They care only about the output, and have little interest in the input. Consciously or not however, in output terms there is an increasing expectation on the part of the users that non-core services are integrated, customer focused and value for money. Universities are currently operating in a keenly competitive regional, national and global marketplace for higher education. Over the last decades, government funding has been declining in real terms, and the students, conference guests, and business have often been making good the shortfall in income. The choice of a prospective student to enrol at (and stay at) a particular university depends to a large extent on the quality of the core business of the organisation, namely teaching and research. In recent years the holistic notion of the 'student experience' which goes far beyond the academic experience alone, is frequently used in attempts to measure the relative attractiveness of universities. This student experience will include the quality of visible non-academic services such as night-life, student accommodation and the perceived level of safety and security on campus, as well the host of other FM services that are only conspicuous when they are absent. Consciously or otherwise, a student or staff member will choose to study at or work at a university by judging the quality of the total package of academic and non-academic services.

In short, if the university is expected to think and behave as a business, the support services will have to follow suit in order to retain their 'right to existence'. In this light, some FM services have indeed taken on a greater importance to universities than the purely support function. Services such as Halls of Residence, Sports and Conferencing have the potential to be significant earners for the university, bringing in welcome 'third stream' incomes. Already many universities contract out single services such as cleaning or security. In the highly developed private sector environment in the UK, populated by a multitude of single service and 'total facilities management' companies, it may well be a matter of time before some universities out-source the entire range of FM services in the wake of PPP / PFI development schemes, as a number of NHS Trusts have already done before them.

The FM Cynic will always question the validity of clustering or integrating support services. He will go for easy targets in arguing his case. Take the Nursery, he'll say. What links child-carers with operatives who fell trees with chain-saws ? And what about Sport ? These people are Physical Educationalists. They're dedicated to sport and sporting achievement. What binds them to the Caretakers, Office-movers, Printers and Telephonists ?

The FM Cynic has a point, and we have to accept that on the face of it, it is difficult to see what connects such diverse disciplines, particularly from the point of view of frontline staff. What does the FM Believer say ? What indeed would you say ? For this difference of approach goes far beyond the university context, and is equally relevant in Healthcare, Government and Business.

There are clearly limits to how far you can take the broad-pallet integration model. Common sense would suggest that functionality is the key. Where there is evidently no 'party wall' between one service and any other, it would seem sensible to accept that it is a stand-alone service 'without a home' which has happened to end up as part of the FM department. We should only invest resources in maintaining a functional communication between that service and its FM siblings, and continue to provide the central support that the wider FM department can offer. That said, it is important not to focus solely on the interface between departments at the operational level, because there may be potential for co-operation at the business level. For example, where Sports may not have any obvious link with sandwich-making , it is clearly in the same blood-group as Catering and Conferencing in that it is a commercial operation generating 'third stream' income from staff, students, the public and business.

So what are the benefits of clustering and integrating support services, apart from the obvious advantages of economies of scale and avoidance of duplication in the administration ?

At the operational level there is a need for dovetailing different services that taken together provide a broader service. Maintenance will need to co-ordinate closely with Projects, Procurement and Stores on the one hand, but also with Cleaning, Room Planning and Halls of Residence to synchronise work schedules. Security is required to work closely with Grounds, Reception and Car Parking. Conferencing may engage the services of Catering, Cleaning, Multi-Media, Printing, Sport and Space Planning in order to co-ordinate a successful corporate or academic event.

If there is a shared identity amongst FM staff, there is also a huge potential for operating as 'eyes and ears' for each other in order to create a positive student experience in the teaching, living and recreational spaces of the university. Security guards are in a position to flag up damage to buildings and grounds. Cleaning staff will be the first to notice broken windows, flickering lights, and dripping taps. Rather than seeing a fault and thinking 'that's a problem for Them (Maintenance)', they will instead think 'that's problem for Us (Facilities)', and report the fault to the relevant colleague.

Integration also enables services to share information. Internally, cross-disciplinary communication lines are established so that 'the right hand knows what the left hand is doing', and that valuable experience can be shared that is applicable across the board, such as contractual, legal or performance-management issues. It is also vital that customer information is shared internally, so that a coherent client relationship management can be pursued.

The integrated FM department can also provide a single point of contact. At the operational level, the department can bring itself closer to the end-user by installing an IT-supported helpdesk that logs, tracks and signs off jobs. Increasingly, the helpdesk is being used not only for mechanical, electrical and buildings maintenance works, but will include services such as cleaning, room-reservations or lunch bookings. The Building / Campus / Site Manager role is in ascendancy, whereby a single man or woman is responsible for all FM services in a certain building or site, and may be seen as the FM point of contact for all users of that building.

An integrated approach enables the department to engage in a structured Customer Relationship Management. At the higher levels within the University community, Estates & Facilities endeavours to actively manage the relationship with the customer at the Head of Faculty / School level by initiating periodic meetings with senior academics, administrators and user-groups. Comprehensive FM Service Level Agreements are negotiated with customer groups so that expectations remain realistic within the context of budgetary constraints. Invoicing or cross-charging may be done centrally in order to present the customer with a single bill.

Less visible but no less significant are the benefits at strategic level. The FM department may seek to ensure that it can act as a strategic advisor to the university as well as an operational service provider. If the department is able to strengthen its representation and influence at the Executive table it must sit there as a single integrated force that can think and behave as strategically as the other people at that table. The Executive Board will not consult a host of managers varying from Hospitality and Cleaning to Maintenance and Projects. If the Executive Board recognises that the property, facilities and non-academic services represent the present and future of the university in the same measure as the quality of the teaching and learning, they will wish to engage with a single FM professional who will assist them in making that present and future a reality. By the same token, any attempt at integration of FM services will be doomed to failure in the absence of the understanding and support of the Executive Board.

What binds all the support functions of the university together is the service role ; the common 'duty of care' to create and maintain the conditions under which the staff and students can concentrate on the academic process. Shared training events for FM managers and frontline staff can assist in stimulating and strengthening the common identity at Estates & Facilities level by focussing on what connects them rather than what separates them. There is little to be gained from stretching the notion of integration beyond the bounds of functionality, and requiring managers and staff to attend needless meetings with distantly related FM cousins. But where there is potential for improving the communication, co-operation and integration between disciplines, it should be developed and expanded. Believer or Cynic, FM departments will only continue to earn their keep if they can offer the Executive Board, the staff and the students a service that is not only integrated, customer focussed and value for money, but also adds value to the long-term strategic positioning of the university.

Adrian Hackford, ACS Training