A mobile fix

Discovering just how much of an impact a mobile platform can have on the FM service market

ANALYSIS, Facilities Management, FM service market

From managing simple databases to overseeing an entire data centre, mobile applications are quickly becoming a common sight in realm of business.

More and more companies are transforming their respective infrastructures to accommodate the use of mobile devices in day-to-day operation. Within the GCC’s facilities management market, the trend has taken hold and is slowly maturing.

“The potential is limited only by the imagination of those who seek to implement it,” beams Alan K. Millin, scientist, engineer, environmentalist and thinker. An active consultant in facilities management, Millin finds that many FM providers are exploring the potential of mobile applications as a means to enhancing their respective service models.

In addition to cutting down the length of projects or establishing effective quality control, the expectation is typically to achieve reduction of service costs and improve customer service.

“Mobile technology brings the potential for considerable improvement in cost containment and management.

“FM providers can also benefit from improved space management and staff retention while employees can benefit from greater flexibility in work practices,” he adds.

One FM provider who has already incorporated a mobile application into its business is Emrill Services. In May 2014, the company introduced a low-cost mobility software called Business Smart that works with its computer aided facilities management system (CAFM).

The program assists clients in overseeing the productivity of its workforce, ensuring individual tasks are completed to standard. It does this by requiring operators to take a photograph with their device before and after completing their task.

The software also tracks and logs GPS locations of the teams as they complete their respective jobs.

“The mobility solution works well on any given smart-phone platform and is currently being utilised by our technical, housekeeping and security teams to increase efficiency, accuracy, reduce wastage, costs and the time required to attend to a job,” comments Jason Ruehland, managing director of Emrill Services, as he describes the software.

As the interaction between both the CAFM and Business Smart platforms is done in-house, the setup allows the company to manage the software’s security, while maintaining its stability and integrity of data. Additionally, Emrill’s CAFM database collects an immense amount of data from across its active projects.

These can include minor bits of information, such as the start and finish times of tasks, job durations and locations, to more detailed data such as resource utilisation. Once the traffic is collated back at the firm’s head office, data analysts mine the streams, looking for any maintenance related trends. For example, this could be the study of the rate of degration of HVAC units in a facility.

The resulting data allows clients to react to developments on the fly, re-deploying staff where necessary. While not fully-developed by Emrill, the Business Smart software was designed using a combination of a custom-made mobility application and a third party CAFM system from FSI Solutions.

To test and prepare Business Smart for commercial use, the firm invited a handful of its local partners to participate in low cost trials. The process included the installation of both hardware and software at each respective client’s facilities. The learning curve for both Emrill and its clientele was a steep one, but in the end, proved to be invaluable.

“We have tested a vast amount of hardware and systems to find a solution that fits our client’s need for cost efficiency and is at the right price point where we can provide this to our clients without sacrificing quality or efficiency,” explains Ruehland.

As the team at Emrill discovered first-hand, both software and hardware can substantially increase operational costs, to the point that the service itself may become commercially unviable.

Coupled with the need to establish local technical support, it is easy to see why the prospect could be off-putting to FM providers with tight IT budgets. Eventually, as the volume of work increases, and further advances in tech emerge, costs are reduced to a more manageable level.

Not all FM companies however, are in a position to develop their own software — nor should many even consider the idea. As Alan Millin explains, “developing any software application in-house requires considerable expertise.”
Additionally, the application and databases have to be rigorously maintained, an issue that becomes even more complicated should the lead developer decide to depart.

“FM providers should focus on their own core business unless they wish to make software development a core function. Software development is notoriously difficult to forecast and manage in terms of time and budget,” asserts Millin.

The option of appointing a third-party developer always remains a viable one however, and it is an avenue that has been explored by some of the region’s FM companies. According to the industry expert, mobile software has shown promise in enhancing supply chain management.

“FM providers who partner with a range of suppliers will enable field operatives to quickly and easily identify the nearest approved supplier who has the required item in stock,” says Millin.

Leaving its own mark within the procurement market, 36 Strategies, a procurement service company, offers a cloud-based application used for securing supplies. Launched in 2013, the e-procurement platform named Insights, can be accessed online or through an app on a mobile device.

“It is essentially a “store” containing products which have been pre-approved, so the approval process of a purchasing requisition goes much faster,” explains Steven Speter, managing director of 36 Strategies.

One of the more common issues 36 Strategies often has to deal with, is an outdated paper-based procurement system. Unlike their digital counterparts, paper-based requisition forms are tedious to fill and take even longer to progress. The introduction of a mobile app can often cut approval time from a week to mere minutes.

Furthermore, Speter and his team have found that when pressed for time, employees sometimes avoid the lengthy paperwork, and turn to using petty cash to purchase supplies from a vendor without a framework agreement with the company. Such “maverick” employees and their hasty spending can end up costing the FM company more money in the long run.

36 Strategies has also found that without an easily accessible database, it often becomes difficult for FM providers’ management to follow how the company’s capital is being utilised. The issue becomes further compounded when mavericks decide to go off the books and avoid reporting their spending altogether.

The implementation of a complicated enterprising resource planner (ERP) can also be off-putting for many. With multiple modules, an ERPcould also prove to be quite costly and often intimidating to many users. At the end of a day a simple interface is what works best.

“When a system is too complex to use, people usually use it incorrectly or find a way to get what they need without having to use the system. This is the premises for our software – intuitive and easy to use,” explains Speter.

The e-procurement platform has already seen usage in the GCC market, with a number of major FM providers including Emrill, Chicago, and MAB, already utilising it. The cloud-based software offers a variety of tools for both managers and workers alike, which helps streamline the entire procurement process. Project leaders for examples can catalogue items for a specific site, ensuring the right supplies can only be accessed by specialists at the correct location.

At the other end of the chain, workers can then access the program on their mobile devices and use it to requisition items such as papers, plastics, chemicals and uniforms on the go. Managers can then use the app to review logs on purchasing activities, ensuring costs remain within the budget, as well as approving and rejecting orders as they see fit.

“Today, for many FM companies, the procurement process is still very dated – filling out purchasing requisitions, waiting for managers’ approvals, using petty cash to purchase elsewhere because the approval process is taking too slow,” comments Speter, adding 36’s cloud-based software can also track spend data.

While the managing director believes that the modern market is pushing businesses into enabling their processes for online and mobile to remain competitive,the truth of the matter is that the GCC mobile technology market is still in its infancy. Innovation, he says, is still in the “early stages” where software developers are testing what works best for the market. There is also often a bit of friction within companies seeking a digital solution.

“We have certainly felt that whilst senior management tends to embrace new technology, there is a large change management challenge to implement such technologies, as people are not comfortable in doing so nor always interested in creating transparency,” explains Speter

It is a viewpoint shared by Emrill’s Ruehland, who also sees mobile technology in the early stages of its potential. Demand from clients is pushing FM providers to bring more “value and real time visibility of performance.” FM companies will need to embrace mobile technology to achieve more with lower costs. It is a perplexing but necessary step.

“Adapting to mobile technology completely revolutionises the way traditional FM companies operate. This will require organisations to adapt, change and embrace new technology, which I believe will be the biggest challenge for organisations operationally,” says Ruehland.

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