Digitisation isn't always the path to greater productivity, but GRITIT argue that keeping things human-centric is the key to successful evolution for Winter Gritting and Grounds Maintenance.
Evolution teaches us that all businesses need to adapt to survive. This is considered a self-evident truth, but it’s easy to forget that evolution is also the story of many, many failed attempts. Another article of faith is that investments in technology will help drive greater productivity. Like past industrial revolutions, surely digitisation will revolutionise how we live and work?
Disruptive or productive? Technology has to be applied in the right way
Despite undeniable advances in efficiency and the convenience delivered by digital technology, a troubling fact has started to emerge. Productivity has actually started to stagnate across the developed world, and increasingly questions are being asked as to whether technology is actually the cause. According to Harvard Business Review, today’s executives receive over 30,000 communications a year
– a staggering rise since the 1970s when the number stood at around 1,000. At the same time it has been noted that the downside of disruptive technology in the workplace is disruption of the worst kind – a slowing effect as your workers adapt to new systems and new technology. Rather than AI and robots making human labour obsolete, we are now realising that digitalisation can create additional work rather than eliminating it. Ultimately, the key to successful evolution isn’t technology, but technology that is appropriately applied.
In the FM world, we’re actually well placed to consider these lessons from the corporate sphere given that our industry is really only at the start of what is touted as a major digital transformation. Ushered in by sophisticated yet affordable data and analytics tools and the wide ecosystem of connected sensors and devices known as the Internet of Things (IoT), new practices such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) are starting to gain traction. BIM promises to provide data for more efficient management and also help FM provide its stakeholders with a better experience. Combined with the rapid evolution of sensor technologies and robotics, it is anticipated that more services will be automated, and delivered efficiently on a just in time basis. The challenge lies in ensuring that these services truly add value and reduce cost rather than just providing alternatives that fail to deliver significant improvements while increasing complexity.
Despite the hype, vast amounts of the FM industry remain as yet relatively untouched by technology – especially when you step outside...
There are diverse challenges in FM and hence it is understandable that the main focus has to be those areas where there is greatest strategic need. And while outdoor FM is important, it often falls lower down the list of priorities, and hence can be managed less carefully. The exception has always been where risk management or health and safety come into play.
Managing Risk in Winter Gritting and Grounds Maintenance
At GRITIT, we offer services in two areas – Winter Gritting and Grounds Maintenance – and these are both, to varying degrees, still markets dominated by traditional processes and manual labour. As a result, there is still a significant scope to be gained from exploiting technology. The key is to understand how and where investments can truly add value.
While outdoor FM is often lagging behind in its adoption of technology, safety critical areas are an important exception. In winter maintenance, the potential liabilities arising from trips and falls on ice have proved a significant driver for the adoption of digital technologies. Today, the entire process of when and how to grit has become far more efficient thanks to the ability to offer proactive real-time service delivery on the basis of highly accurate real-time weather data.
For example, the sector has adopted technology and location intelligence to automate service activation and scheduling whenever zero road surface temperatures are forecast. This ensures a consistent and accurate response to unexpected bad weather, as well as better scheduling and vehicle route planning (i.e. to avoid gritting sites just before heavy precipitation). This also reduces wasteful gritting on days when it isn’t needed – a real-world example of technology delivering cost savings.
As conditions become more extreme this level of flexibility really proves its value. Indeed, the incredibly harsh winter we have just experienced was an important test for our own investments in technology, and the ability to manage and automate the operational aspects of scheduling and communication enabled us to continue to deliver a very efficient and effective service even when demand soared. As climate change forces more unpredictable weather events in all seasons, the agility provided by technology will matter more and more.
These considerations are also supporting investments in the Internet of Things. For example, GRITIT is developing a next generation service that uses sensors to provide a live feed of actual road surface temperatures for even better accuracy. In safety critical contexts, we also see a clear role for robotics and are developing and piloting self-driving Winter Gritting machines that can work to support and enhance the productivity of human operators.
Across FM, technology can help to increasing accountability and this is true in both winter maintenance and landscaping. Our teams use PDAs to log activity in real time, which makes reporting and tracking activity simpler – cutting admin rather than adding layers of extra work. This adds value to managers or clients – particularly those managing multiple properties – as they can draw on the information they need more quickly and conveniently, whether through desktop software or on the move via smartphone apps. This also simplifies tracking delivery against agreed service levels.
This sort of data could prove to be a micro-manager’s paradise but if used appropriately, automated reporting can help cut out middlemen and actually empower your operatives. Indeed, with grounds maintenance we see technology as being the key to helping our clients place more trust in teams on the ground so they can build better relationships and work more collaboratively.
In Winter Maintenance, accountability also goes hand in hand with risk management. For example, employers have a Duty of Care to provide a safe working environment and to document the reasonable steps taken to ensure this. With snow and ice clearance, technology has made it possible to build in this requirement for evidence at every stage – from vehicle tracking to logging service delivery by scanning onsite QR codes.
Keeping it human centric
The use of technology can solve the productivity conundrum. It is already reducing needless labour through data-driven decision making and service delivery and cutting down on admin to track and monitor deliverables. Just like in manufacturing, robotics will soon be used a force multiplier to let fewer employees achieve more when working on site. Ultimately, technology will prove invaluable in delivering productivity gains across FM, but only where care is taken to build services that closely align to human needs.
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