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The Integration Imperative

Buildings are like bodies. In the same way that the nervous system is connected to the muscular system, which is connected to the skeletal system, the electrical system in a building intersects with the HVAC system, which in turn can impact the plumbing system. All systems impact one another.

These days, however, buildings are so much more than wires, ducts and pipes. Increasingly, they’re also hardware, software and sensors. Unfortunately, buildings’ new digital infrastructure isn’t as united as their physical infrastructure. And that’s leaving valuable opportunities on the table, according to Rocky LaCross, Senior Director of Facilities Services at KinderCare Education, America’s largest private provider of early childhood and school-age education and child care.

“A lot of people in organizations feel as though they’re working in silos. As the company grows, however, you realize that you can’t afford to operate that way,” LaCross said. He recently completed a massive project that married KinderCare’s new facilities management software with several legacy systems, including its operations and financial management systems.

Although the project took longer than expected — a year instead of the two months that LaCross had originally expected — its benefits were worth the wait: At KinderCare facilities across the country, staff can sign into the facilities management software using the same secure login credentials they use to access their email and other work tools. And when they have a service request, the software automatically generates a work order and sends it directly to the appropriate supplier or technician. When the work is completed, the system can generate an invoice and automatically upload it to KinderCare’s financial management software for payment.

“It saves time, and it saves manpower, and that saves money,” LaCross said. “If it usually takes a [child care center] five minutes to put in a work order, and now it only takes them one minute, they’re saving four minutes of time. We process close to 250,000 work orders a year, so that’s 1 million minutes. If you divide that by 60 and multiply it by $50 an hour, that’s over $800,000 in soft-cost savings, just in time.”

Whatever metric you use — time, money or productivity — the potential upside is tremendous not only for the business, but also for FMs. By being champions of technological systems integration, FMs have a unique opportunity to transform their domain from one that costs the business into one that generates real and lasting value for it.

What Is Systems Integration?

Your business probably uses myriad different software applications for myriad different purposes. The facilities department, for example, might have a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) with which to track and manage maintenance activities. The finance department, meanwhile, likely has payroll and accounting systems. The marketing department probably uses a customer relationship management (CRM) tool, and human resources almost certainly uses a human resources information system.

If those systems were people, each of them would speak a different language. Systems integration is the process of getting them to communicate with each other in the same mother tongue.

“Systems integration, in its simplest form, is connecting computer programs together,” explained Tim Bernardez, Head of Global Mid-market at JLL Technologies and former President of Corrigo, a CMMS that JLL acquired in 2015. “Your CMMS, your payroll system — they work independent of each other. What systems integration does is connect them so they can work together in a more unified fashion.”

Time and money savings are just the beginning. The real promise of systems integration lies in data. When a company’s human resources information system can access data from its CMMS, for example, it becomes possible to layer insights about physical assets on top of insights about human assets.

“When your systems are all talking to each other and working together, datasets become much richer and more complete, which helps you make better business decisions,” Bernardez said. The business case for systems integration will only become stronger as businesses accelerate their adoption of cutting-edge facilities management technology, including digital twins, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT). “My CMMS, my HR system and my finance system — those are table stakes,” he said. “But when you get past that, there are really cool things like sensors. For example, maybe I’m a large grocer with 300 locations and thousands of refrigerated cases. If I put sensors on those and integrate them with my building management system, I can know instantly when one gets too warm and set it

up so a work order gets fired off automatically.”

Proceed with Caution

It’s easy to see the advantages of systems integration. It’s more difficult, however, to bring them to fruition.

That’s because systems integration projects can be extremely delicate and complicated, which makes them vulnerable to failure.

“Depending on the size of your company, it can be a very simple challenge or a very difficult challenge,” LaCross said. “In my previous job, I used the same [CMMS] that I brought on at KinderCare, and we were up and running within two months because we were a smaller company. When I came to KinderCare, however, I found that I was a small cog in a much larger machine. I had to partner with several different departments to integrate my software into the KinderCare network, and that was tough.”

One reason systems integration projects are so difficult is a lack of IT resources. “Every company has an IT department, but IT departments have only so much bandwidth. That’s the No. 1 challenge I see FMs encounter,” Bernardez explained, who said another common source of integration failure is overly ambitious FMs. “The second most common hurdle I see is having a zero-to-everything mentality. FMs have no integrations, and then suddenly they want to integrate everything. Integrations are massively complex and resource-intensive, so that’s not a good idea … The more you try to boil the ocean, the more susceptible you are to scope creep.” The age of your systems also can be a factor. “The act of integrating is common practice today, so the API infrastructure with newer technology tends to be more modern than it is with systems you’ve had for 10 or 15 years,” Bernardez continued.

Intelligent Integration

Systems integration isn’t easy. But with careful planning and smart execution, its fruits are ripe for the picking. LaCross and Bernardez agreed and offered the following tips for achieving integration excellence:

1. Be strategic about your scope.

Without a clear and definite scope, systems integration projects are doomed to fail before they even start, according to Bernardez. “If you fail to think things through clearly from the start, it will cause delays and push costs through the roof.”

To avoid scope creep and resource drain, start small and build from there. “Don’t try to integrate everything at the same time,” Bernardez advised. “If 80% of the benefit will come from integrating 20% of your systems, get that done, and layer in the other 20% over time.”

2. Establish requirements.

To determine which systems will deliver the most benefit if they’re integrated, consult your internal customers, LaCross suggested. He asked his business partners in the finance and operations departments which functions, features and benefits they most wanted to gain by integrating their systems with KinderCare’s new CMMS.

The most important stakeholder of all, however, might be the IT department, which often is skeptical of projects that originate outside its ranks. To win them over, LaCross suggested, seek technical requirements from IT leaders before the project begins instead of after.

“I met with my IT business partner and asked what the requirements were to bring third-party software into the KinderCare network,” LaCross said. “He gave me a laundry list of requirements, which I immediately took to our supplier to confirm that they could meet them all. Once I could prove to IT that we could meet all of their requirements, then they were willing to sign off on the project.”

3. Sell the business case.

Satisfying requirements may get your project through the door. To actually get it funded, however, you’ll need to convince business leaders that systems integration will generate real value for shareholders, employees or customers.

It’s important to stress both tactical benefits and strategic benefits. When he approached executives about his CMMS, for example, LaCross explained that it would not only improve work order management — a tactical benefit — but also child care, a strategic benefit.

“It’s a win for us, but it’s also a win for the children,” LaCross explained. “Work orders are dispatched automatically, which means our centers get serviced more quickly if there’s an emergency like a flood. That’s a benefit because it’s one less thing the center director has to focus on. Instead of worrying about the plumber, they can focus on the children.”

Bernardez agreed. “Everything used to be about ROI, but that isn’t the case anymore,” he explained. “For the foreseeable future, I think the priorities are going to be enhancing safety, improving the employee and guest experiences, and being able to capture and use data in

a meaningful way.”

4. Appoint a project manager.

Because systems integration is so complex, it’s important to have a dedicated IT project manager who can keep integration projects moving.

“It’s crucial that you’re really tight with your project manager,” LaCross said. “I was very fortunate to have a project manager who was very responsive and held not only me, but also all of our IT partners, accountable for meeting deadlines.”

In the absence of an internal project manager, you might consider outsourcing project management to a supplier, suggested Bernardez. “There’s a litany of options. You can do the integration yourself with a dedicated integrations team, or you can have your technology partner do it for you,” he said. “If I were an FM thinking about integration, I’d immediately talk to one of my technology partners and ask them to help me build an integration roadmap. A good technology partner will sit down and walk you through that process; if they won’t, then you probably don’t have the right partner.”

5. Test and validate.

Before your integration project crosses the finish line, there’s one more thing you should do ad nauseum: test.

“You have to find out the requirements of the different departments in your company, [and] then you must test it to find out: Does it actually work?” LaCross said. “The worst thing you can do is roll this thing out and discover that it doesn’t work the way everyone expected it to work.” That’s because systems integration, at the end of the day, isn’t about technology; rather, it’s about the people who use it. “Focus on your customer,” LaCross concluded. “In my case, that’s 1,500 [child care] center directors. If I can make their lives simpler, that makes me a hero.”

ConnexFM Technology Council

Chair: Sal Alhelo, EOS Labs LLC

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