World FM Day and the workplace design and management elephant

facilities managementThere is an ancient Asian parable which has found its way into a number of cultures including Hindu and Buddhist lore. In one version, the Buddha tells of a king who has nine blind men summoned to his palace. An elephant is brought in and they are asked to describe it. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and describes it to the king. In turn they tell him it is a pot (the man who feels the head), a winnowing basket (ear), a ploughshare (tusk), a plough (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail). They disagree violently with each other to the amusement of the king, and the Buddha surmises that ‘in their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.’ Around 2,500 years later, groups of people continue to describe big things solely based on the bits with which they come into contact and bicker with others who are close to other bits.

facilities managementIt’s a problem that plagues all professions, their media and various conferences, of which there are many at this time of year. For example, today a large number of people involved in World FM Day will be fondling the facilities management elephant and describing what they see. Some of them won’t be blindfolded, but they’ll still be ignoring large bits of the elephant. As the banner for the event has it, this is all about ‘Empowering people for a productive world’.

There are invariably a number of issues with these events. They tend to feature the same people discussing the same things, all invited to the King’s chamber to talk about the elephant’s foot like they all did last year and the year before. And sure enough there’ll be a lot of , including the obligatory consideration of the need for facilities management to make its voice heard in the boardroom and demonstrate its value in the context of something we now call ‘workplace’ on the basis that it’s more about people than the building. This will all be couched in the context of a wider debate which focuses on a lot of complaints about how people simply don’t understand how important facilities management is, a debate which never goes anywhere and ignores the fact that facilities managers are not alone in feeling undervalued, misunderstood and underrepresented. Pretty much everybody feels that way.

What is missing from these kinds of events is a discussion of the whole animal. For all that they talk about certain bits of the elephant, nobody is really there to talk about the other bits away from the grasp of particular professions and nobody is there to talk about the whole beast. In some ways this is understandable because the modern workplace is such a difficult idea to pin down in its entirety, not least because so much of it now extends beyond the walls of the office. This is not just about some tired twentieth century concept of the virtual office but an idea that the workplace is bound up in technology, people’s lives and the outside world to such an extent that it can be indistinguishable from them.

These are the elements to which events like World FM Day are drawn. That is perfectly understandable because it is obviously far more interesting and far more likely to get you an audience outside of the FM bubble if you talk about design, technology, people, productivity and so on than if you talk about the functioning and maintenance of the building. I was asked about this point by the inestimable Ian Ellison of Sheffield Hallam University at a recent Workplace Trends event in London. My answer was that I get the feeling that FM has had been facing the same existential challenges for its entire history, but that right at this particular moment in time it feels it needs to talk primarily about workplace issues, which are often peripheral to what its practitioners do and are already the primary concern of other professions.

Although maintenance is a noble art, as this excellent article confirms, the FM sector often treats it and the management of buildings as a dirty secret. It’s the elephant’s innards, the essential bits that nobody likes to talk about and certainly not touch but which make the whole thing work. As Simon Heath puts it in characteristic style in this feature, the role of facilities management is essential for people’s day to day experiences of the workplaces, a fact that is most often acknowledged only when the role stops or goes wrong. In many cases the demarcation between workplace and facilities management is based on the mistaken idea that the two have little correlation when in fact the relationship between them is more akin to that between sex and parenthood. One is an act of creation and the other of care, with the latter a direct consequence of the former.

The challenge for facilities managers and all the other professions who have to wrestle with the mammoth problems of people, place and technology is not to get too close to one particular bit of it, especially if they’d like to claim that they have a strategic role to play in developing and managing workplaces. That can only happen if they take a step back from what they do, stop fumbling around and see things for what they really are.