Facilities management, on the other hand, is predominantly parochial. Bound to the earth by its focus on buildings, its providers and practitioners usually only have regional (at best, national) remits. There are very few companies with any sort of credible multi-national capability, and only a handful with real global reach. And there are equally few facilities managers who have experience of work outside the confines of their home territory.
Thus while no one would consider it premature to write of IT in the context of an international stage, most would consider that FM does not operate at this level. This may reflect a number of things - lack of knowledge in our industry about how it operates, perhaps, or a lack of ambition, or maybe just false modesty. Whatever the reason, those facilities managers who do work internationally - whether professionally or through associations like IFMA and EuroFM - know that FM is quickly becoming a widespread (indeed, pervasive) element of most businesses. And yet the profession of FM struggles for recognition.
Mixed success so farIn the UK, US and a few other countries, the issues about recognition and names for the industry have largely disappeared, and to that extent FM has arrived where it aspired to be ten years ago. But what does this mean? FM is still not coherent - the scope and responsibility varies hugely, the available skills and training are diverse, the respect for our advice far from universal, and we have started to cede some areas (like telephony) to IT. So what is happening? Is there a risk? And what can we do as individuals, businesses and organisations to continue the development achieved so far?
Briefly, what is happening - at least at the corporate level - is that FM has been accepted and is seen as a tool to achieving cost-effectiveness and service resilience within internationally diverse property portfolios. Witness the escalating importance of business continuity planning and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, where FM's ability to deliver flexible and intelligent responses is seen to maximum benefit. However, two factors undermine this strength: a lack of general management skills of facilities managers, so that credit for performance goes instead to auditors, consultants and accountants; and a lack of client understanding of the role that facilities managers play in delivering effective business performance.
This position is exacerbated in Europe, where people working in FM roles often don't describe themselves as facilities managers, and also tend to come from administrative rather than building or services backgrounds. That means that usually they have not been able to access the best training and see the facilities task as reactive and routine rather than creative and innovative. It also means that they are considered within their organisations as fairly lowly - not as managers to be involved or consulted on changes, and certainly not as people who may contribute positively to scenario planning and property strategy.
It is this area above all that challenges FM internationally. Just as it has taken years for the profession to develop credibility in the US and Western Europe, now that battle is being fought again in central Europe, Asia and Africa. There are plenty of signs that the battle, having been won in some regions, could be briefer in others. And the driver for this is, inevitably, the multi-national corporations, because one of the key features today is a rising expectation that common standards of service, design and performance can be delivered across global portfolios. That is driving changes in management structures that benefit those with the right training and experience.
What that doesn't lead to, of course, is unalloyed good news. For all that high expectations exist of the possibilities that FM can deliver, multi-national organisations (especially those based in the US) have real difficulty in adjusting to local market conditions. Repeatedly one has to deal with an expectation that because a common standard can be achieved from Washington state to Washington DC, it can be delivered from Dublin to Warsaw too. This myopia ignores the fact that language, custom and the supply chain vary hugely across geographic boundaries. It also ignores the varying quality expectations of building occupiers and the supply chain: it is amazing how people can be thrilled with (objectively measured) quite poor service if they have never seen really good performance. It is also amazing how much business risk is tolerated simply because it is unknown.
Understanding the challengeThese twin aspects of complacency are a significant challenge, because one constantly has to demonstrate the reasons for (and costs of) change to local management teams who have no experience of such change. At the same time, even though poor FM performance always means that savings opportunities exist, those same local managers are deeply sceptical of the realism of predictions of shaving 10-15 per cent off base costs.
The other issue that always creates expectations of slow change is 'culture'. What people frequently mean by this is nothing more than resistance to change, but in the international field it gets bundled up with notions of national identity and an intuitive resistance to globalisation (widely perceived to mean Americanisation) of Anglo-Saxon values.
As briefly as possible, I want to reject this as misplaced in Europe. Because, after all, European cultures are very similar - cultural attitudes that Europeans share include a secular organisation of society, an understanding of the value of people, 'liberal' education systems, belief in democracy, and a general acceptance of the role of trades unions. Where our 'cultures' tend to diverge is socially, either actually outside the workplace or in terms of relationships. Now it is obvious that relationships are crucial within the workplace, but what is required to deliver good relationships is management skill and personality, not shared culture. After all, we all manage diverse staff even within our home country. We might reasonably have an expectation that corporate culture will be strong enough to overcome national or regional cultural barriers.
However, working internationally we carry with us a number of assumptions that are potentially harmful:
- Insularity - the belief that our values are unique and cannot be shared by or explained to others, and that it is these others (rather than us) who are disadvantaged by not sharing our value set;
- Lack of mutuality - the assumption that it is 'their' culture that is strange, rather than that our values and behaviours may be equally inexplicable to those outside our 'tribe';
- Quasi-racist stereotypes - whereby we assume that other peoples are mono-cultural, and thus we fail to take the time to understand individual characteristics;
- An unwillingness to engage effectively with the differences we encounter, because they are assumed to be unchangeable.
On top of that, there are common errors that particularly afflict cross-cultural teams:
Even superficially similar cultures can have very different norms - for example, people in France and French-speaking Switzerland have completely different expectations about decision-making processes (the first very hierarchical, the other consensual). Outsiders often make assumptions about culture based on the existence of a common language and apply these to other features of the business environment. Consider the gaps in norms between the US and the UK as another example.
We are affected not just by the language in which we communicate, but by varying abilities and interpretations. I have had discussions with European colleagues who dispute with me what particular English words mean; at the same time, some differences of understanding can help because they challenge the jargon that we tend to use internally within cultures. For example, a Norwegian colleague suggested that the way the English use 'process' to describe a prescribed system was a mistake because a 'process' actually suggests something that is developing, whereas English managers use it to describe something fixed.
'Head office' effect
No one anywhere likes people who are parachuted in from HQ to change things. Whether the distance involved is 10km or 10,000 km, people outside the HQ always believe that "head office doesn't know what goes on here", and they almost always believe that managers from head office are just out to make cuts.
Consensus or direction?
Some cultures prefer a consensual approach to decision-making in which everyone participates; in others, staff like to be given a clear sense of direction. This difference is particularly acute between European and East Asian cultures, but also occurs within Europe to some degree. It may also vary with status and hierarchy, and with organisational norms as well, so it is difficult for newcomers to judge.
Hierarchy and status
As implied above, norms can change within an organisation according to the level of decision-making. Senior managers - who are more likely to have been exposed to international management and training - are likely to be both more consensual (at least among themselves), and more prepared to delegate than their subordinates. It can be extremely confusing to find these two different approaches within the same organisation and to have to adapt behaviour in this way.
The route to best practiceDeveloping FM as an international discipline is going to be challenging for all of us. For example, do we aspire to a common level of design practice and safety policy across boundaries? If host organisations have deliberately moved into a low-cost region, are they prepared to off-set some of that benefit by raising space standards and desking to western European levels?
Often the answer is that we haven't considered this or do not treat it seriously - see how infrequently effective environmental compliance follows an organisation into developing nations if you doubt this.
So what can we do to raise the levels of success and make FM as internationally successful as IT is? I suggest the following points are essential:
Senior management commitment
Where we have successfully obtained recognition for our work, use our customers as sponsors of our FM approach with their doubting peers.
Master the facts
We can demonstrate that FM reduces costs and raises productivity. But to do this we have to take time to assemble all the supporting information, to master it, and to present it confidently to our senior management teams.
There is a need to over-communicate to avoid confusion. This can be a delicate balance because it is difficult to communicate complex or technical concepts other than in your own language.
Be confident in yourself
And if possible surround yourself with people you can trust. Any work in a new situation requires self-analysis and assessment, and working in a multi-national context can make such analysis more difficult because any feedback can be coloured not only by vested interests, but also by language issues, by cultural discrepancies and by misunderstanding. It requires a high degree of self confidence and ability to sustain a viable balance between accepting valid feedback and rejecting undue or misplaced commentary.
Self-confidence must not mutate into arrogance. As in any management role, there are contradictory forces at work, especially when dealing with more than one culture. Flexibility is required, as well as a genuinely open-minded attitude. What looks consensual in one culture might look weak in another; a strong direction can look dictatorial from another viewpoint. Perversely, even listening (which is obviously a requirement in understanding the culture) can be interpreted as weakness in some cultures. This sort of tension between behaviours is one of the reasons you need people with you who you can trust and listen to, because without that genuine, agenda-free feedback it is very difficult to establish the correct balance and to know at what point to draw the line on the behaviour and comments of other participants.
Do your research before you start
There is a lot of written and anecdotal data about various cultures and experiences. Good sources include EuroFM, national IFMA Chapters, websites like www.babelgroup.co.uk, and even things such as good-quality tourist guidebooks often explain the basics of national norms of behaviour. Networking in the FM organisations can help introduce contacts who (in my experience) are always willing to help with advice and support.
ConclusionWhere all this leaves FM is not so much at a crossroads as coming down a slip road onto the motorway: are we going into the fast lane or the slow lane? To demonstrate the value that FM can bring requires us to break the mould in Europe away from a technical or an administrative function and into a dynamic, expert and fully contributory support service. There is no value in simply having a lot of people classified as facilities managers: we need senior people, and we need recognition of what we do as being essential to our organisation's success. The fact that we may have already won the argument in the UK won't help us elsewhere, but it should give us confidence and the experience necessary to carry the day; and the more global the industry becomes, the more we can feel that we have succeeded.
About the author
Dave Wilson is Consultancy Director at FM provider Macro and President of IFMA UK. Please visit www.mac-ro.co.uk/
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