Space odyssey

March 31, 1995

Fari Akhlaghi describes the launch of an MBA in facilities management. Last year Sheffield Hallam University launched an MBA programme in facilities management. Already it is able to boast 33 industrially-sponsored distance-learning students who are employed as facilities managers.

Later this year, the course, run by the unit for facilties management research, will be accepting sponsored students from the recently formed "facilities directorates" of some of the United Kingdom's health and higher education establishments. You may well be asking why is there such an interest? Who are facilities managers? And what is facilities management anyway?

Improving quality and productivity while reducing costs of operation is the key performance challenge faced by universities. In some institutions it is a matter of immediate survival. But how they face the challenge gives vital clues to their position in the market in the near future.

Surveys of general management literature show that most chief executives and senior managers across all sectors of industry and commerce feel that it is plausible to expect to achieve higher quality outputs and greater productivity in core activities and reduce operational costs at the same time.

What is perhaps not so well recognised, is that the way to achieve this is a description of the key principles at the core of the new profession of facilities management.

Facilities management is concerned not only with the design and management of buildings and plants but extends to the support infrastructure and services in the work environment such as space planning, time-tabling, cleaning, catering, portering, mailroom, data, voice and visual communication, and many other technical and administration functions.

Indeed, apart from the core business activities of say, lecturing, research, surgical operation or handling insurance claims, it is hard to imagine what else, other than "managing the facilities", takes place in any organisation.

The unit's recent research into examples of excellence in facilities management includes comparisons between some UK and United States universities. The research confirms that best performing institutions in their class proactively seek to address issues such as cost effectiveness, added value and customer satisfaction. In addition they are efficient in supporting and engendering creativity, innovation and academic excellence by creating suitable working environments.

Other important features contributing to high performance levels in institutions include rapid physical and operational response to change and general appreciation of the importance of the customer.

It is through the drive for innovation and change that one would seek to evaluate issues such as options for space provision, timetabling, provision of support services, outsourcing and other challenging organisational matters that affect the performance of an institution as a whole.

It also follows that the favourite subjects of the past, such as backlog of maintenance, energy efficiency and maintenance of listed-building stock can only be dealt with through commercial imagination in the context of an overall facilities vision.

The "virtual universities" of the future may not need any buildings, just a sophisticated data and telecommunication infrastructure. The "premises strategy", therefore, with which most directors of estate in universities are familiar, will need to be part of a well defined "facilities strategy".

Early findings from the unit's research into facilities management shows that in a highly successful institution, the design, structure and management of facilities and facilities services is a vivid manifestation of all facets of the institution's "business plan".

In such an establishment, millions of pounds and many hours of daily effort are given the chance to be imaginatively and efficiently responsive as successful workplaces and supportive environments appropriate to the specific circumstances of the institution.

The unit's analysis of leading research-based universities in the UK and US, however, illustrates the fact that while there is no absolute "good facility" or a facilities-management model for everyone to replicate, there are some consistent indicators that connect institutions with similar corporate and academic goals in an internationally competitive market.

Allocation of space to different categories of activity is one such area whereby it is common to see that leading institutions have as low as 2 to 4 per cent of their total space devoted to teaching, while research activities may take anything up to 40 per cent of the total space budget with the balance spread among academic, administrative and other support functions.

Ultimately, universities have a clear choice: they can either view their buildings and support services as overheads that are under-utilised, expensive and slow to change or instead see them as key organisational resources that could create a vehicle for display of corporate identity, a valuable source of income, and most important a source of positive stimulus to the individuals that create the organisation.

After all, the most costly item in running a university is the cost of staff (in UK about 70 per cent of total annual spend) and thus a small percentage increase in their productivity and quality of output far outweighs the same percentage saving in the cost of running the buildings.

Facilities management as a professional discipline backed up by high quality and current research has a significant role to play in this arena.

It is for this purpose that in addition to the MBA and other research activities, in May 1995, the unit is launching a research and application forum in higher education.

This follows the successful launch in 1994 of a health forum which has attracted support from the Department of Health and currently has a significant number of NHS trust members who participate in research into areas such as benchmarking, outsourcing, risk management and information handling.

Fari Akhlaghi is head of the unit for facilities management research at Sheffield-Hallam University.

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