Wanted: flexible, responsible, all-round genius

April 4, 1997

There seem to be more and more advertisements for heads of estates. They all say they want the successful candidate to be a seasoned all-rounder, with a proven track record of delivering an economic operational estate and balancing the conflicting demands of users. This lucky person will also be able to look beyond operational issues to formulate and implement strategic initiatives to allow profound changes in the delivery of education itself.

Institutions are redefining the duties and responsibilities of heads of estates. But why? One clue is the impact of the proposed Higher Education Funding Council for England estates policy, as set out in a recent consultation paper. This requires the new breed of estates manager to deliver on three challenging fronts: greater operational effectiveness; linked business and estates strategy; and risky capital works projects.

Because educational accommodation is a physical and immediate fact, the estates team is sandwiched between users and financiers. It is here that the day-to-day battles over economic controls are fought. If estates managers are to improve operational effectiveness, they will have to create a "buyer/seller" relationship with staff, students and other facilities users.

This means turning around an organisational culture that supports an overly technical estates team and users who have become accustomed to a no-costs service. They will have to get the finance department to adopt user-oriented pricing models such as equitable space charging. Making this sort of change sustainable is difficult, and demands political and human resource management skills.

Perhaps the most significant challenge is to make sure that the potential savings made by outsourcing services such as catering and maintenance are not swallowed up in management charges, poor contractor performance and general loss of control. Many managers are realising that before they can set up sophisticated outsourcing contracts, they have to install sophisticated professional expertise and special management control systems. Just changing a few job descriptions is not enough.

They also have to integrate the management of facilities. Accommodation strategy documents lifted the lid on educational estates and exposed the gap between business intentions and the actual assets estates held to carry them out. But though such documents are informative, they are of little lasting value unless they are implemented. This is the rub. Changes to real estate practices cut across nearly all operational aspects of an estate's business, and implementing them can be highly complex. To complicate matters further, education policy has changed since most accommodation strategies were formulated.

A major concern for institutions is how to get value for money from estates. The estate manager has to up-date the existing strategy and set up a comprehensive premises strategy. This involves re-evaluating options, seeking opinions and supporters, and agreeing a programme for change that avoids business interruption.

Increasingly the manager also has to go after funding under innovative and, as yet, in the education sectors unproven mechanisms such as the Private Finance Initiative. Our experience with higher education institutions has shown that a more collaborative approach with the private sector is needed. This approach would combine in-house resources and external technical support to address complex strategic and operational requirements.

Developing a new culture that encourages service delivery according to need - bearing in mind users' needs when looking at service provision and basing service specifications on their output - means cuts can be made. It will also improve monitoring and management of service costs. This can be consolidated in an integrated facilities management plan addressing the strategic, organisational and operational issues relating to the management of the estate.

Estates management demands a complex mix of skills in facilities and project management and business administration. This means using external technical support and focusing on the customer, so that services can be bought and managed efficiently and economically, and fit with what users say they want.

Marcus Bowen and Michael Ansa are facilities management consultants at international property advisers Grimley.

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