High lines and dry lines: the skirmish for the soul of FM

The lines are drawn in the great FM and Workplace battle that no-one in Workplace is especially bothered about because it’s all still rattling around in the post-project-completion world of FM.

On one side IFMA, recently landed again from the USA, has shacked up with that bastion of radicalism that is the RICS. Let’s call them IFMARICS. On the other, BIFM, now becoming the IWFM ditching its ‘B’ in the process to try and be more international. In the middle, a whole lot of slightly confused, possibly bemused, people. ‘Too dangerous?’ Hardly Fistful of Dollars stuff.

But IFMA didn’t just decide to rock up again (they were here once and it didn’t work out). Effectively IFMA were petitioned Hengist and Horsa-like by those who were uncomfortable with BIFM’s direction. Just as the grand IFMA-arrival announcement was going to be made, BIFM made their name-change announcement, rather pulling the rug. Cue a lot of unnecessarily aggressive language and posturing. Anyone would think this is politics.

While the small number of interested folk still argue about whether ‘workplace’ or ‘facilities’ in the parent and the other the offspring, the whole debate is missing the point. The IFMARICS crew say its facilities-as-parent because lots of people work in schools and hospitals and factories and it’s not just about offices, while IWFM say its workplace-as-parent because schools and hospitals and factories are workplaces too. Both, of course are correct, because while they are two opposing arguments the cases made to support them are not. No-one at IWFM ever said it was all about offices. No-one at IFMARICS ever said offices weren’t important.

IFMARICS appear to be taking a dry line, focussing on the actual practice of FM contracts, like procurement, standards and stuff particularly deemed necessary in the wake of the failure of Carillion. (Note – this rather locks out its own version of Momentum, namely the Workplace Evolutionaries group, who probably in reality agree with IWFM as their prime focus is Workplace. The clue is in the name. Don’t be alarmed no-one ever took to a barricade demanding an evolution). The new IFMARICS board of eleven of which nine are men rather reinforces this position, and appears to be an own goal of Jamie Pollock proportions.

Meanwhile the IWFM are taking a high line. They are starting to make contact with the as-yet-alien world of people who actually create workplaces and invariably don’t know who any of IFMA, BIFM or IWFM are, albeit a lot know RICS because they’re the only Chartered one right now and so membership signifies a qualification and thus creates a right to work in the field for project and cost managers. That’s the strange thing for IWFM – they’ve changed their name and don’t know much at all about a world they now claim to represent. They’ve landed a fleet at Beachy Head.

IWFM are also looking to get Chartered which will create a very interesting situation for all those working in the broader field of FM, and a number working in the other as-yet unrelated field of Workplace who haven’t yet heard of it but might one day have to. You’ve then got a lobby group emerging within IWFM who think there should be a Chief Workplace Officer at every organisation responsible for FM, workplace, and a swathe of HR and IT to boot – because FMs aren’t that busy and they’re looking for something else to learn and do, and there are no vested interests in the professions of IT and HR to worry about. Unsurprisingly most of the advocacy comes from those who have never held an in-house role.

You then also have a whole other parallel universe of firms and people and networks looking after assets for landlords, invariably drawing on the same subcontractor pool yet remaining strangely separate from those firms and people that manage facilities on behalf of tenants. The former tend to generate building service charges, the latter query them and claim they could do it all for less. As they usually work for large property firms and speak in a deep, clipped manner they have a bit more interest in the RICS.

Hopefully if this is all new, you’re following. I’m not sure I am. If you’re involved I’m sure there is a lot more beneath the inevitable web of NDAs that I don’t know and isn’t described here. However, all parties do need to be aware that this is how it looks from outside the NDAs.

Yet while the argument rages like a barbecue you walked away from to put more beer in the fridge and has gone out save for one or two of the smaller coals, it’s all about the wrong thing. It actually all hinges on what management means.

Let’s look at the names for a moment. IFMA – International Facility Management Association. As in, people practising and interested in managing facilities. And then BIFM – British Institute of Facilities Management. FM is an operational discipline that can have a strategic impact – it is not a strategic discipline that manages operations. It has always been about managing facilities – looking after them and their occupants. A few of the enlightened think it’s about ‘enabling communities’, which sounds lovely and aspirational, but bears no resemblance to reality for most.

Let’s also not forget that the FM business model remains almost entirely built-asset-based despite all the strained appeals that it is ‘all about people’. Revenue is derived from management. It is similar to large property companies claiming to be focussed on empowering people, while relying almost exclusively on commissions from property transactions.

IFMARICS has opted for the cause of management. It is vitally important and has to be done well. It is a simple, unspectacular proposition. It is very much a continuation of what FM started as, and has always been. FM is an operational discipline that can have a strategic impact.

For IWFM the situation is less clear. Is it:

  • Institute of Workplace & Facilities Management, in which case nothing much has changed as it has simply expanded on the scope of what is managed (and may not have actually expanded it at all); or
  • Institute of Workplace (& Facilities Management), in which case it is a very different proposition. That is because the ‘Workplace’ industry – those who envision, strategise, design and create workplaces – are all about creating workplaces, not managing them. They consider that their work ends when FM picks up the operational responsibility. With every workplace being in perpetual beta that means either that those in the Workplace industry they can’t walk away as the traditional structure of a project prompts, or FMs have to get considerably better at understanding how a workplace comes into being and how to steer its design and composition over time. This leaves the bulk of the existing membership in a strange place, as they are still very much in management. It leaves the workplace industry in a strange place too, with a professional body they never asked for claiming to represent them.

As it’s all about management, it could be argued that our understanding of what management means therefore needs to change. IFMARICS appear to be quite clear on how they see it, which is the way FM has always seen it, hard and soft services, asset-based contracts. The IWFM proposition appears to be saying that management will not always be this way. Its where the advocates of the Chief Workplace Officer envisage a professional who doesn’t just understand and look after fixed assets but ‘gets’ people and fibre optics too. Of course, this could just as easily happen without a lot of nervous energy being expended over job titles.

The IWFM position is therefore evolutionary in two ways. Firstly, emerging from a pure management role to cover the creation of workplaces too (of all types, not just offices), and secondly seeing the on-going management of workplace evolving into a broader discipline. Effectively then that sees IWFM grappling with two areas of some magnitude that it doesn’t presently represent, or to a huge extent understand. There are those who would claim that the IWFM is not yet master of its original playground, in having attracted far too small a proportion of those working ‘in FM’ to its ranks and having been a lobbying lightweight for most if not all its life – and so how can it claim new territory while on such insecure footing?

It appears therefore that the IFMARICS are carving out a role in sound, familiar territory building very slowly yet taking few if any risks and avoiding stepping too far into an uncertain future, while IWFM are taking a huge leap into the future without having a firm footing in the present.

Yet, while it appears that there is a skirmish for the soul of FM, there isn’t really. There is potentially a greater sum of the two parts. From here, both sides would do well to stop claiming some kind of moral superiority. It’s time to stop arguing, and to work together.

The future will be about whether IFMARICS survives – both as an alliance, and as a US group (an Association – the loosest collective form) in the UK – and whether IWFM manages to transform itself, understanding where it is actually heading, carrying its members and making an appeal to new – and survives. The tragedy would be neither happening, with FM in the UK effectively destroying itself. The last thing the industry needs is a turf war, down to the last sod. Wonder who that might be, if it came to it.

Anyone for dialogue?


2 thoughts on “High lines and dry lines: the skirmish for the soul of FM

  1. Pingback: A little local difficulty, treating people as pets, designing for serendipity and some other stuff you might like - Workplace Insight - Loved Workplace

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