How Much Technology Is Too Much?

How much technology does a facility manager really need? How much is too much? When does surveying buildings and equipment turn counterproductive? How much data can a facility department evaluate? Where is the point of diminishing returns?

"Those are good questions, and I think the answer is another question," says Tom Davies, executive vice president of Vanderweil Facility Advisors, a facility management consulting firm based in Boston. "How much technology is an organization ready for?"

Using technology eventually suggests new organizational patterns and relationships, continues Davies. Businesses driven by the profit motive often find these suggestions easier to perceive and to analyze. If technology suggests an organizational change to a business executive, he or she will consider that change in terms of profit potential and adjust organizational structures if it makes sense to do so. If not, the executive may discard the technology.

Different forces drive college and university organizations and make it more difficult to perceive changes suggested by technology. Likewise, long-standing management structures make it difficult to adapt to new, more efficient operations made possible by technology. Academic organizations may also find it difficult to detect flaws in one or another technological approach and to get rid of it.

"In the area of university facility management, available technology often outpaces the ability of the overall organization to absorb its benefits," Davies says. "At Vanderweil, we tend to see significant potential integrations of technologies used by our clients in different administrative departments, but the effective integration ends up producing maybe 10 percent of the full value that a complete integration might offer."

Any organization, says Davies, passes through two stages of technological adaptation. In the first stage, people automate the work they have always done. What used to be done by hand is now done on a computer. But the work itself does not change. In the second phase, people begin to change the way they think and find new and better ways to use technology to do the work.

Doing the Obvious

In certain instances, adapting the organization to put technology to better use may appear obvious.

Six years ago, for example, Rick Myers, the director of the physical plant at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., installed maintenance tracking software to generate work orders and record maintenance that had been carried out. The system automated the process of tracking work in the maintenance department but did not improve the level of service provided.

If, for example, a student needed a lightbulb replaced in a dormitory room, the student told the resident advisor, who filled out a work order and dropped it in a box at the student affairs office. Some time later, a secretary would bundle up the work orders and use inter-campus mail to send them to the maintenance shop. At that point, an administrative assistant would enter the maintenance requests into the maintenance database, generate a work order, and the student’s room would receive a new lightbulb. The process would take a week, about as long as it used to take. To be sure, the technology helped the maintenance department work more effectively. But no one else received any benefit.

Noticing this, Myers changed the way he thought about soliciting work orders. "We put a work request system onto our Web site," he says. Students, faculty and staff simply go to the Web page, complete a form and e-mail it to the maintenance department. Service time has declined from about a week to one day. The system even sends a copy of the work order to the e-mail-box of the person requesting service, providing a record of when the order was filed.

In setting up the system, Myers came up with new ways to organize campus facilities. One simple example involved assigning numbers to all exterior lights and painting the numbers on the poles. Reporting a burned-out exterior light no longer requires a labored paragraph on where the lamp is located. Now the individual making the report simply types the number onto the work order form at the Web site.

In both cases, service improved when Myers went beyond the relatively simple chore of automating his department’s records and changed the way the department thought about and organized its work.

Doing the Difficult

Developing new ways of thinking about and organizing work isn’t always so easy, though. "There’s a lot more that you can do with a computerized maintenance management system," Davies says. "If you survey your facilities and record first costs of existing equipment, you can begin to optimize a facility department’s work. First, you can be sure that you’re changing filters and so on at the right times. You can also track the frequency of repairs and make informed judgments about when to replace equipment. If you’ve spent 100 hours in the last quarter repairing a piece of equipment that is 25 years old, that’s a strong argument to stop maintaining it and replace it."

Recording adequate data for such an application can seem ridiculous. "In the past 10 years, we’ve begun to micro-manage our time and our facilities with our maintenance tracking system," says Pieter van der Have, director of plant operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "When we first started to keep these records, we charged all efforts to large cost centers. Today, we track activities in 15-minute increments by specific buildings and specific pieces of equipment. We assign costs to individual pumps, air conditioning units and even drinking fountains."

It’s tedious, but effective. "We use this data to justify expenses, from chiller replacements to overall budgets," van der Have says. "Funding bodies are much easier to deal with when you can show them reams of appropriate data."

In addition, tightly controlled data make for effective partnerships with other departments. "We can work more closely with our design and construction department," van der Have says. "If they decide to remodel a floor or a building, we can provide them with data on the age and costs of light fixtures, carpeting, paint, heating and cooling, and other systems that they can work into their remodeling designs."

Eventually, van der Have plans to integrate the department’s maintenance data into a geographic information system. "We want to enable an architect in the design department to click on a screen icon and call up a map showing the configuration of a particular space, complete with details," he says. "The map will provide layers of data. It will show the light fixtures. By clicking on those icons, the architect can call up the specifications for the fixtures and the lamps. The system will also house specifications for carpeting, paint, furniture, heating and ventilation, and other components of the facility. The goal is to provide the design staff with more accurate information while reducing the need for field survey work."

Doesn’t this idea lead to a lot of field work for the facility department? "Yes," says van der Have. "But we have found that going through the inventory was a good exercise. We found things that needed to be done, and the process created better awareness among our people. That in itself is worth the investment in time."

From the Beginning

At Washington University in St. Louis, the facilities department viewed technology as a way to renovate organizational structures from the beginning. Five years ago, the department installed a work order system called Maximo, which helps plan maintenance projects, control inventory, and purchase materials and services.

"Our feeling was that it was time for a new organizational concept, and technology helped us to reorganize," says Rose Mary Schultze, assistant to the director of facilities and director of administrative services.

When the new work order system came on line, Schultze and her staff decentralized the departmental organization chart. Instead of maintaining the university’s 115 buildings from a single maintenance shop and inventory warehouse, the work order system made it possible to divide the facilities into six zones with about 20 buildings per zone.

"Each zone has its own inventory, which is tracked through Maximo," says Brad Averbeck, the university’s network administrator. "When inventory arrives, it is transferred to the proper location. Then we track the inventory in each zone.

"In addition, when a work order comes in, we use Maximo to attach materials to the work order. The existing stock goes out, and the system re-orders. So less inventory is sitting around."

According to Averbeck, the department has just begun to track data to see if the new system has produced any savings. "We’re just at the point where we can evaluate the data we’ve collected," he says. "We’ve found that our inventory costs have dropped by five percent in the past three years."

While Maximo could manage a centralized system, Schultze and her staff sought the human benefits that would accrue from the zoned approach. Creating the zones has improved the quality of maintenance work, says Mike Starkey, the university’s information systems manager. "The crews now have ownership of the buildings they maintain, and a healthy competition has arisen among them," he says. "They each want to be the crew with the best-maintained zone of buildings."

For the Sake of Other Departments

Automating the facility department can also provide benefits to the master planning process, as long as the master planners know about the facility department’s data and can access them.

Late last year, the North Carolina legislature ordered the University of North Carolina to evaluate its system and provide information related to the adequacy and equity of the facilities serving each of the system’s 16 campuses. The data would fuel funding and planning for a 10-year university master plan.

The scope of the mandate boggled minds across the system, which encompasses 50 million square feet and 750 buildings.

Worse, the legislature wanted the information in about six weeks.

To organize the project, university officials held a three-day session with two consulting firms beginning January 4, according to Kevin MacNaughton, associate vice president and university property officer for the university system. Eva Klein & Associates Ltd., Great Falls, Va., provided academic expertise, and Vanderweil provided technological assistance.

Under the plan developed at the meeting, MacNaughton and his staff used HEGIS Room Use Codes to create three categories under which buildings would be evaluated. The first category would include low-, medium- and high-cost science buildings; the second category would list core academic space like classrooms and libraries; and the third category would cover student support buildings such as dormitories, student unions and recreational facilities.

"We set up a cost model for each of these categories," MacNaughton says. "The science buildings, for example, had the highest costs per square foot. Next, we developed a series of 23 questions, with those covering issues with the highest cost impact topping the list. Questions about building configuration came first, followed by questions about the HVAC and electrical systems. The list concluded with questions about floor finishes and lower cost issues."

The questions formed the basis of a software application designed to gather and then evaluate the facility information. Facility managers at each of the system’s 16 campuses received the software application, loaded it and found a graphical questionnaire.

"To answer the questions, they would click on a picture or scenario illustrating the condition of the building," MacNaughton says. "The worst scenario meant that we would have to clear out everything between the walls and perform work on load bearing walls. The best meant that only regular maintenance would be required.

"Clicking on one of the pictures recorded a certain cost. The costs recorded by each click appeared in a box at the top of the screens related to individual buildings."

The results, which came back in three weeks, included the cost to bring each building up to par; a ratio comparing the cost to repair the building and the cost of replacing it; and a basic project list for each building.

Before returning the questionnaires, the facilities staff at each campus checked existing data on deferred maintenance and modified the costs related to certain buildings.

"Suppose a building had introduced a huge HVAC load by installing new computers," MacNaughton says. "Suppose also that the existing deferred maintenance data indicated that the chiller in that building needed to be repaired. If the building needed a new HVAC system, that would include the chiller, and we would have to take the chiller off the deferred maintenance list.

"We did this by hand. We thought about including a mechanism in the questionnaire that would crank in deferred maintenance, but we decided against it because the programming expenses would have been too high."

How much technology is too much technology? As Vanderweil’s Davies says: The answer is no more than an organization can absorb.

Then again, by thinking in new ways about how to do the work that needs to be done, many organizations can absorb and use more technology. A lot more.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in higher education issues.

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