I've had the good fortune to consult on federal facilities programs for the last 12+ years. No, seriously. The issues around managing our buildings and road and utility infrastructure is important, interesting work. It's real, it's tangible, and the people devoted to these programs are some of the most smart, earnest, passionate, and hardworking federal employees that you'll ever meet.
But the biggest challenges facing facilities aren't facilities problems at all.
Managers and engineers have the facilities best practices nailed through the concept of proactive, life-cycle asset management. The work is done. It's written down. The measures are in place. What's left to do is to hack away at building buy-in and coping with the massive, growing mountain of data. These are known problems with knowable solutions. Not easy problems to be sure but fixable.
Instead, I see three big challenges on the horizon for facilities that are unrelated to the construction, operations, and maintenance of the asset itself.
- Funding and financing. Figuring out how to pay for desperately needed repairs and new construction is in no way figured out. This is true for everyone and most of all, the feds. Creative solutions used by the private sector and state/local governments provide some hints but for the most part federal program managers lack the authority and support to tap into alternative funding and financing sources. So, for the time being, most fixes depend on federal appropriations which is not likely a sustainable, long-term solution.
- Leapfrogging technologies. We celebrate innovative technology advances in consumer products and services every day. Yet we focus less on areas of real need in fixing our infrastructure. Engineering innovation could help overcome the limited options facilities managers have today to fix really big problems. When you think of leapfrog technologies think of cell phones in the developing world. 20 years ago, leaders in Africa were stumped on how to come up with billions to build out the telecommunications infrastructure needed to connect people. Then, pop! Cell phone technology advanced, costs went way down, and now nearly every community-- no matter how poor-- has at least one person with a phone. The technology negated the need for a big infrastructure build out. Amazing. The same phenomenon is possible for other big facility and infrastructure issues. I'm personally hoping for self-driving (and eventually flying) cars.
- Professionalization. Okay, a big, fussy made up word for an issue that isn't made up at all. Facilities folks are awesome in many ways. However, they've historically been excluded (or just skipped over) from participating in C-suite level leadership discussions and decisions. This is a huge missed opportunity because facilities leaders are responsible for what is often the single greatest budget line-item (and value generator) behind labor and personnel costs. Facilities managers are getting better at making their case for inclusion but there is still a ways to go. All facilities organizations would benefit from elevating and professionalizing their interactions with their leadership and other division chiefs.
I'm still interested in the nuts and bolts of asset management and the incremental improvements that can come from thorough, thoughtful implementation. However, for those looking to make a bigger impact on the future of facilities, the frontier is funding/financing, leapfrog engineering solutions, and professionalization. There is lots more discovery to be done.