• David Sharp
  • 8 April 2013

Taming technology: can you afford not to?

Talking to a long-standing contact in FM recently, I said that well-worn phrase ‘what goes around comes around’. It came back to punch me only the next day.

Urgently and unexpectedly while on leave, I’d needed to get some documents over to the office. With no scanner or fax machine to hand I had to resort to asking my local pub for help. “Not a problem”, said the girl behind the bar helpfully, “but what’s a fax?” Ouch! Not only did she not know how to send a fax, she didn’t even know what a fax was!

This exchange whisked me back to my first office job, in October 1989, when I was first shown how to use a fax machine. Faxing was relatively new (we still had a telex machine); to deal with partners in America you still needed to write letters and enclose printed documents. Even international phone calls were barred to everyone apart from the company’s director.

At its height, the fax machine was an essential business tool, with statistics from Microsoft in 2004 suggesting an install base of around 150 million machines globally. But it’s undoubtedly in decline. Fax usage has declined rapidly in the face of paperless communication (texting, email, social media, the ability to digitise documents and share them in the cloud etc.).

[Incidentally, a notable exception to the decline in fax usage is that of Japan, where for some very good reasons nearly 60% of homes still have a fax machine and where there are 93.31 fax machines per 1,000 people, nearly four times the rate in the UK.]

So it’s fair to say that, as far as faxing goes at least (and discounting the Japanese experience), there is firm evidence to suggest that what goes around comes around: it’s taken about 25-30 years to go from virtually unknown, to incredibly useful, to virtually unknown again, if our local barmaid is anywhere near representative.

Consumers in the driving seat

What’s all this got to do with the price of eggs?

Technology has been on my mind since a strategic review we undertook at Workplace Law that led to us appointing a Technology Director in January this year, our first new board director for eight years. We have the insight of Nick Mayhew’s (@mayhewnick) team at Price Bailey to thank for this.

Around the same time, I was involved in a discussion group where an FM service provider explained how important a role technology played in helping to meet and exceed client expectations. And shortly after that I was pleased to hear MITIE CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith relate at the annual Workplace Futures conference her views on the importance of technology to her company’s own success.

What particularly impressed me about Ruby was her honesty about how hard it is for businesses to keep up with the expectations clients and indeed her own staff bring with them as consumers. Few BTB businesses can match the investment and expertise levels of consumer firms like Apple, Sony, or Google – and even giants like Facebook get it wrong from time to time.

So how are companies like Workplace Law supposed to keep up? Part of the answer, of course, is that ‘end users’ (clients, customers, whatever you call them) don’t care – and why should they?

I was reflecting on how things had changed since my introduction to the fax machine. Back then, IT was mainly a business tool that gradually made its way into the home. My first laptop was a business one, and my first use of email and the internet was at work.

Now, it’s the consumer who’s in the driving seat. As consumers, we expect the highest levels of sophistication whenever we encounter technology. We expect the standards set by our mobile phones and tablets to be replicated everywhere.

We want an app that condenses all the information from a BMS / safety management system / CSR index (you name it, we want an app for it) – and that works just as smoothly regardless of whether I’m using my Dell laptop, Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy 4S phone (but still compatible with my old Jellybean model). We want the app to be provided by the FM service provider / landlord / safety consultant (you name it, we want them to build it) because – frankly – that’s what we expect from them.

So cleaners don’t now just clean, they also report in real time on cleaning performance.

As a service provider to the FM sector, we’ve had to think hard about what this means for Workplace Law, the way we work, and the way we can add value, and indeed for everyone else working in a commercial environment. As the cleaning company example illustrates, you need a much wider set of skills to be an effective cleaning service provider than, say, 20 years ago.

Whereas we once spent a very small portion of our time and budget on technology, as commercial organisations we now all face a difficult challenge of ensuring we invest resources in IT in a clever, value-added way. Some time ago at Workplace Law we built internal back-end systems, at great time and cost, that were actually replicated and surpassed within a couple of years by professionally developed software that is, by and large, available freely to everyone. What’s the point of us building an internal communication network when we can take something like Facebook or Yammer off the shelf and plug it in to our IT systems instead? How much time and money did we waste, and who paid for it? Because it wasn’t ‘free’.

This doesn’t seem like it should make much difference to clients, but I fear it does. For example, the decision over whether we should produce a certain sort of app – because the client wants one – is tortuously difficult. If we can’t produce a really good app that works smoothly on all platforms, should we do it? If we get our project timings or resourcing wrong, what will be the implications for the app, the client or our overall competitiveness? Will we lose the client if we don’t develop it? It takes a bold supplier to ignore their customers’ wishes, but there are times when this is the right thing to do.

Constant technical innovation also brings with it a danger of using the client as a guinea pig. It’s an accepted practice in consumer IT applications: when do Facebook, Google etc. ever stop innovating? But in a commercial setting, it doesn’t always sit well with the desire to offer a high quality, tried and tested service. Car manufacturers are already working on models two versions ahead of the one you buy from them today. But can we, in the services we provide to the FM sector?

In a world where consumer experience and expectation is driving change and blurring boundaries between ‘business’ and ‘consumer’ markets – and where many of the competitors are monolithic technology corporations who are able to provide services free of charge at point of use – what does that mean for service providers, how they invest in technology, how they add value to the customer, and how it’s all funded (especially the ‘mistakes’)?

It’s a great challenge (I’ve always liked them!) and not one we are ducking. For now, I’m with MITIE’s Ruby McGregor-Smith: "In such a changing world with respect to technology, we need to think of many ways we can harness technology to help us … I look at some of our clients in the retail and other sectors and think our industry needs to catch up."

There’s some catching up to be done. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.