Smart building strategy: Tackle behavior first, technology second

Smart building strategy: Tackle behavior first, technology second

It’s no secret that technology changes behavior, and that’s likely to be just as true with buildings as it is with, say, mobile devices. But while we often think of the latest technology as a way to improve building functions, we usually fail to fully consider how technology might alter the way people use those buildings. In other words, we tend to overvalue the role of the technology and undervalue the resulting re-engineering of the operational processes. And those process changes, rather than the technology itself, actually can have the biggest impact on costs, effectiveness and efficiency.

To demonstrate the relationship between technology, behavior and performance, here are a few examples of smart devices that use automation technology to change, control and adapt behavior.

  • The smart fork: Eating too fast can lead to overeating, indigestion, heartburn and other problems. The HAPIfork smart fork changes eating behavior by monitoring how fast users are eating – measuring the time it takes for the fork to travel from hand to mouth – and alerting them to slow down when necessary. It comes with an app to track users’ eating via "fork servings" per minute as well as intervals between "fork servings."
     
  • Smart garbage bins: In order to encourage more recycling, the BinCam – essentially a smartphone in the garbage bin – takes a photo of everything thrown into the trash and uploads those photos to an Amazon service called Mechanical Turk. That service analyzes the photos to determine whether a household is recycling correctly, and then can post those photos to Facebook along with a rating of your household’s recycling habits. Think of the peer pressure and the possibilities to increase recycling as a result.
     
  • Smart Scales: These Wi-Fi-connected scales can measure, not only weight, but also body fat and a host of other health statistics, which they then send to a personal website that tracks and trends the data. The information can be shared with doctors, family or social media. The idea is that all of this scrutiny supports dieters’ efforts and helps them stay fit.

The commonality of these devices is not the technologies, but their clear focus on changing behavior. People who will buy and use these products have clear goals and objectives summed up in a few words: don’t overeat, recycle waste, stay healthy, etc.

The lesson for buildings

Those devices may not seem related to building operations, but they do underline a lesson that we can learn. With all of the technology being deployed in buildings, are we linking the technology to clear objectives and process improvements the way the smart fork links its data to slower eating?

Image of business hall blue by Dmitry Yashkin via Shutterstock.

The current market reflects continued penetration of IT infrastructure in buildings, new technology systems related to energy and sustainability and increased interest in systems integration, software applications and data analytic tools. Surely all this technology is changing the processes we use in operating buildings. But exactly how, and in what amount? Are we directing that change in a way that furthers our goals?

Ideally, process change involves the optimization of workflow to make it more efficient, more effective, less costly and better aligned with business strategies. There are dozens of workflows in a facility-management organization: work orders, space planning, inventory management, purchasing, maintenance, testing and inspection, cleaning, tendering, business continuity planning, capital planning and more. Data from these activities should drive whether or how these processes are re-engineered.

Dashboards, which are common in many buildings and applications, can be a good place to observe the way technology influences behavioral and procedural change in buildings today. Technology acquires data from various building systems and presents it via a user interface. The key to success is presenting the data most important to a particular user in an actionable way, so that the user quuickly can perceive important information and project what tasks he or she needs to do to make use of it. Only then can dashboards affect behavior.

How to get started

If your intent is to deploy technology and provide discipline in operational processes, you’ll need a methodical approach. The starting point includes: 1) an assessment of existing processes; 2) the identification of pain points and, more important, the root causes of those pain points; and 3) a review of strategies and current business objectives.

The key here is clearly identifying the real problems. You don’t want abstract goals and objectives; you want concrete steps. If the proposed change is meant to streamline a workflow for facility engineers or technicians, estimate the benefits of the proposed change and develop specific metrics to measure the effects and eventual success. Also identify expected benefits for other departments. An energy-management initiative might help purchasing and accounting departments, for instance, or a proposed workflow change might improve coordination with the IT department.

Two goals should drive the changes: making your processes more efficient or effective, and better aligning those processes with the business strategy.

Get some skin in the game

Process change is a collaborative activity, so very broad organizational buy-in is needed. Yes, you need the senior executives and different departments on board, but it’s also critical to involve and co-op the people who will be directly affected by the proposed changes in their daily work. Put together the right project team from a cross-section of the organization to run the project.

Don’t buy into the widget solution

Technology facilitates and catalyzes process change, but it’s secondary to the change itself. So procuring building technology and automation should be one of the last steps, not – as it so often is – the first. All too frequently, a salesperson will meet with facility personnel and pitch some hardware that he or she will claim to solve all of their problems. The organization might buy the technology with little or no thought to the root causes of the problem that the solution addresses or the process changes that may be required for it to work.

Instead of falling prey to the pitch, develop a list of requirements and specifications, then proceed through a request for information (RFI) with potential contractors, followed by a tighter and revised request for proposal (RFP) with three or four contractors who can meet your requirements.

Measure twice, cut once

The deployment phase of any process change should start with a pilot or test period. This is the proof-of-concept phase, allowing for adjustments prior to a full rollout, as well as pilot results that can be used to raise financial support for a complete rollout. During this test rollout, make sure to measure and monitor everything, and get feedback from everyone involved.

Make change part of your DNA

The idea of constantly assessing existing processes within building operations and readjusting as required should be integral part of facilities management. Change can be hard. We tend to get into a comfortable routine and want to stay there. But the culture of facilities-management departments should be “systematic innovation,” somewhat like the mindset of large IT companies that are continuously pushing the envelope. The ubiquitous nature of technology and the complexity of modern buildings are strongly pushing facilities departments into the same frame of mind. 

For more information, write us at info@smart-buildings.com.