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Artificial intelligence, the rise of the robots, the internet of things, big data: technology is coming to take over. But how much of it is delivering real FM benefits today? Fiona Perrin went in search of those who are keeping it real.
Assisted robotic processes could affect more than a quarter of business services jobs in the next 10–20 years, said Deloitte in a 2016 report. The installed base of connected devices was expected to be a billion more than the world's population in 2018, according to Gartner. The amount of data worldwide will swell to 163zb by 2025, more than ten times what it is today, points out IDC.
It’s enough to make the average FM professional want to stuff their head back under their pillow and go back to sleep. Even if we did get out of bed, the chances are we’d be reliant on Alexa or Siri to help us work out the travel challenges on our daily commute. (*presses snooze button*).
But how much of this fast acceleration of technology has real application in today’s FM environments? Are automated cleaning machines, drones and droids really part of our current workplace solutions? Should we be embracing artificial intelligence and attaching smart devices to all our building management systems in order to maintain our competitive edge?
The problem is, no one wants to be the guy that wrote off the personal computer or said mobile phones would never catch on. And we all know the technology is coming, and if the last couple of decades are anything to go by, its coming faster than we anticipated.
Understand the reality
“It’s important to recognise that there is often smoke and mirrors within the sector,” says Graeme Hughes, MD of Innovise Software, which delivers workforce management and service delivery software to 42 of the top 50 FM companies in the UK. “This is a very competitive space, so you don’t want to appear to be behind the others and not able to throw the same kind of punches. Talking to the end users of support services, though, most of what they value comes from a well-run, efficient partner who can not only help them with their interests but who can demonstrate the introduction of technology successfully and intelligently each and every time.”
ISS recently published its white book Future of Work, Workforce and Workplace – the last in a series of books focused on the future in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, concluding that “the forthcoming wave of automation will be carried by progress in several technology areas – with artificial intelligence being the common denominator”.
But artificial intelligence itself is an over-used term and one which is bandied about at conferences with little true understanding. “A true artificially-intelligent system is one that can learn on its own,” says Robert Adams, writing for Forbes. “We're talking about neural networks from the likes of Google's DeepMind, which can make connections and reach meanings without relying on pre-defined behavioural algorithms. True AI can improve on past iterations, getting smarter and more aware, allowing it to enhance its capabilities and its knowledge.”
This leads to what experts call the AI effect: as machines become increasingly capable, tasks considered as requiring ‘intelligence’ are often removed from the definition, leading to the quip ‘AI is whatever hasn't been done yet’.
It’s on its way though
“Human-like interactions are definitely coming,” says Hughes. “Some of the best examples are from Boston Dynamics. But I would argue that it’s not really here today in an everyday application context as often it is still too human-dependent. I was listening to a speaker at an event in June who referenced aircraft navigation from take-off to landing, but in reality the pilots have configured/programmed the flight, they must then sit in a chair and monitor the flight and adjust for when things go wrong. This shouts to me that we largely have semi-autonomous, intelligent automation - so what you do have is IA: intelligent automation.”
In essence, machines, whether robots or computers, automate a laborious, rules-based task in order to make human beings more efficient.
An example is the robotic cleaning machine at Fife’s Victoria Hospital which makes a task that was carried out by two people possible with one. But the machine is never left on its own; a staff member is close by and it follows ‘maps’ developed by the team. It can work without pre-configuration but is not yet as efficient as the human-mapped output.
Similarly, there has been much made of robots replacing manned guards. But these are not much better than CCTV cameras, says Hughes. They can’t replace the guard that greets visitors, shows them the way and provides excellent customer service. He advises against ‘gimmickry’ – the devices that service providers showcase on their exhibition stands in order to attract visitors, but that are rarely deployed on the front line.
The key is intelligent automation
Automation, therefore, should focus on getting rid of repetitive tasks. “Any task that is time-consuming, monotonous and that can be expressed in logical rules and workflows will be automated in any business within finance, administration, facility management and HR,” says ISS.
According to Hughes, one example of what this means today is automating tasks such as workforce checks and payroll management, so that humans can focus on the intelligent tasks they do best. Typically, this means resource reductions but rarely that people are out of a job – instead, natural attrition reduces labour over time and colleagues are redeployed to drive service quality and innovation elsewhere. And technological advances such as facial recognition speed up reception services and make them more secure, adding to the workplace experience.
Technology to drive better decision-making
ISS says machine learning and deep learning in FM will assist in “better data-driven interventions”. A BIM-based approach will transform to one in which we use information to optimise building performance. It gives the example of a computer, which will be fed ‘rules’ instructing it to develop a design with a building’s optimal footprint, structural load capacity and thermal performance. From this basis, designers will be able to do multiple design iterations, scenarios and simulations very efficiently for new designs as well as for redesign processes, ISS says.
An example of how technology is being used to help in workplace decision-making today might be a prototype from Vantage Space which superimposes the utilisation data of your workplace onto the real environment – you can see how a decision made could impact a real space through visualisation. But both the ISS optimised building design and the augmented reality workplace tool are simply helping humans make faster and better decisions and freeing them from interpreting data for decision-making.It’s always all about the data
Which brings us to big data - another buzz phrase, but one that can be seen as simply using computers to find patterns that people can’t and then help them make intelligent applications of the conclusions. For example, FMs will have better awareness of resource utilisation – energy and water, for example - from data, better benchmarking of facility performance and occupant behaviour, and better utilisation of human resources. This is a big win as Paul Djuric, CEO of Urgent Technology recently pointed out, but needs to be deployed carefully, even as it makes us more efficient.
Tech makes people better
Graeme Hughes says that better utilisation of humans is the prize. He cites clients who have deployed Innovise’s systems in a way which significantly drives up employee engagement and satisfaction. These are clients using systems to ensure employees understand the values of the brand, help them efficiently manage overtime and ensure they are always paid correctly - therefore, driving better loyalty to the organisation. “Data is a prime benefit of our software solutions; it’s something we practice internally and is fundamental to our conversations with customers,” Hughes says. When the data is not there, it’s vital to find it – via pilot programmes, for example, where data is extrapolated to underpin a business case, or from Innovise’s wide view of the sector.
The internet of everything
Then there is the much-lauded internet of things. The BIFM recently published its white paper on IoT, with a helpful list of today’s applications, from smart bins that help schedule collections to sensor-controlled HVAC and data that helps drive PPM regimes. It also included a list of future applications – from sensors in hands to replace ID cards to driverless cars and augmented reality to help users find their way within a building. The message is that IoT is definitely here and the number of devices connected is growing exponentially, but buildings are not yet thinking for themselves.
Consider these two markers from different ends of the current technology spectrum. One of the winners of this year’s Technology in FM award was Yodiwo – whose system is described as ‘a highly intelligent one-stop shop solution that uses sensor, visualisation and analytics software to make drastic facilities savings’.
Interestingly, the other winner of this year’s award used much less sophisticated technology but still had real application in the facilities world, according to the judges. UhUb is an online training app for cleaning and facilities staff praised for ‘a remarkably simple and cost-effective engagement tool for an industry that often struggles to enfranchise and empower operational staff.’
Technology to make us more productive
It is this broad area of productivity where Hughes suggests organisations should be focusing as part of today’s software implementations. “I come at this from a workforce management and service delivery perspective, so right now I see a distinct failure by too many service providers to help frontline teams, keeping the silent army of cleaners, guards, caterers, baristas and gardeners happy and productive,” he says. He also talks about meeting with owners and leaders in FM focused on “excellent collaborative, service-focused initiatives” in security and asset maintenance.
These organisations typically “are trying to engage their workforce, equipping them with the right tools for the job as they recognise a happy employee, who can do their job effectively, is an advocate for them - promoting their brand and their values in ways that a logo carrying droid or drone cannot”.
Drones have their place, of course – why endanger a human by sending them up a ladder when a drone can do the job? - and they are definitely part of our future, according to PwC, which estimates there will 76,000 drones in our skies by 2030. But they are not ready to take over from us just yet.
Keeping it real
Right now, technology in FM – however much we hear about the fantastic applications that are coming and should prepare for them – needs to be focused on automation of more ‘mundane’ tasks rather than looking to robots to take over the whole task landscape. The ‘connected workplace’ is all about speeding up the way we interact with systems to drive efficiency – with computer power helping us to make sense of data to enable us to make faster, better decisions..
It’s the applications that make people more efficient for commercial and social benefit, rather than those that might replace people, which are really relevant in today’s FM world. “We learn from all the leaders in tech, Google and Facebook for example, but then we always ask ‘what does this mean in FM?’”, says Hughes.
The robots aren’t (yet) coming to take over, and computers can speed up our jobs but are not ready to do them altogether. For the time being, we will have to get out of bed, have a chat with Siri or Alexa and go to work after all.
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