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The University of Leicester's 3-Year Journey to Adopt an IWMS

Sean O'Brien

Sean O'Brien

Editor's Note: Although this interview took place recently, the University of Leicester's experience adopting a new software system in the estates department occurred before the current pandemic. We realise that all of the focus inside the estates industry is on the public health crisis from COVID-19. Whilst we are sensitive to this reality, we believe sharing Leicester's experience adopting a new system might help those who now face challenges with their own systems as they plan for a Post COVID-19 World. Without further ado, here is the story of the University of Leicester's experience adopting a new IWMS with AssetWorks as shared by Anne Harvey, Associate Director of Estates and Campus Services at The University of Leicester. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.



Hello Anne, thank you for being open to sharing your story about adopting a new estates and facility management software system at the University of Leicester with us. Before we get started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Before joining the team at Leicester, I'd been in the private sector my entire career. (I'm nearly 50, but I won't go into that too much!) So, I've worked for commercial entities. Then in 2013, I got the job at the University of Leicester on the commercial side of the University. One of the reasons that I thought I was brought in was because the University was now charging fees to students. We suddenly found ourselves in a competitive market, with customers who had expectations around the service they received. So, we had to become as efficient and effective as possible.

When I came in, Andrew Gahagan, who's my Head of Business Systems, had been at the University for many years. I started talking to him about how we integrate systems, how we link it from end to end to make it more efficient and effective, how to reduce the administration, So we had done quite a lot of work on the commercial side of the University. And then in 2016, the commercial side of the University, where Andrew and I worked, was amalgamated and joined together with the estates part of the University.


After you joined together with estates, how soon did you realise that you needed to do something new with your system? What happened that made you believe that?

The estates department had lots of different systems, such as Excel spreadsheets and Access databases. To generate a report out of that and have that be meaningful took weeks every time we wanted to collect any information - that isn't what you need to do if you're going to be truly efficient and effective.

So we got lucky because when we amalgamated, a new director joined who had also come from a private sector environment. She said, "I just want to know where we are, what we're doing, and if we are compliant? Have we invested enough money in that area? What kind of errors and issues are we having in this other area?" She knew there was lots of work going on, but it was hard to have visibility into the details. She wanted it to be relatively easy to attain, and as near to real-time as humanly possible.

How long did it take you to find what you were looking for in a new system and what happened on the journey to the one you chose?

It took us from 2016 until we committed to AssetWorks last year to find the system we wanted. We have seen quite a lot of different systems. They did maybe compliance really well, or service desk, or project management. But actually, we wanted something that did everything really well. We didn't want to have five systems that we then had to integrate into each other and support those integrations, but we couldn't find a solution that did everything we wanted it to do.

How did you find AssetWorks?

We got lucky because we met Randy (Randy Walsh, Vice President of Sales). I think Andrew was at a user conference. Andrew and I had been working together on trying to find something for a couple of years by this point. Randy gave him an overview of AssetWorks, and Andrew came straight back to me and said, "I think we need to demo this. If it's as good as this guy says it is, it will cover all our bases." So we had a demo, and I was impressed straight away with all the different modules and all the different parts of it. It was a certain level of relief. I thought this really could solve our problems.

It sounds like you and Andrew knew you needed a change from the outset and that your new Director agreed with the two of you when she came on board.

Yes, absolutely. Within Leicester, our tagline as a University is that we are citizens of change. I'm lean six Sigma green belt certified. It's exactly what we do here. My direction has always been - go out there, find if there's a better way. If you have to implement that change, then work together to get it done. It makes it much easier if you've got senior support saying, "I want a solution to this issue, go find me something." But, it was absolutely about bringing on some of the people that weren't quite so used to change. But, we are citizens of change and I personally definitely embrace that as a tagline for this University. And that's how Andrew and I work together.

AssetWorks came along with a change that was easy to sell. As you know, change can be resisted quite a lot. But when you can show all those benefits, it's much easier. For example, you can put a service desk ticket in, and it goes all the way through the system and becomes a reportable item. The maintenance team can see that the water pump that they've had to fix five times, that they've got a maintenance contract on might just need to be replaced rather than applying more expensive sticking plasters. It just blew away all the arguments.


Along the way, who were the people that you needed to have on board before you could effect the change you believed was necessary?

The estates department was broken down into a reactive maintenance team, a planned maintenance team, an asset management team, a projects team, and a space management planning team, as well as social impact and insurance. Although these departments worked together, they all kept separate records and information. So reactive maintenance would go and fix an asset, not knowing the planned maintenance department had the asset serviced the week before because they had no visibility into each other's data. And so it was kind of addressing each of those different areas. Bringing them all together and trying to ask them, "What do you need a system to do?". We were trying to show them the advantage of having a more holistic view of the estate so that we could ensure we were efficient and effective.

So when it came time to make a group decision, how did you come together to do it? 

If you can bring your customer - anyone in my environment that I support is my customer - if you can bring them with you on the journey, they will buy into it, and it will be easier to implement. I needed the team to champion it within their areas and to understand what we were trying to achieve and to be with us on that journey so that it wasn't a surprise to them when I said, "Oh, by the way, we're going to change how you report a query. We're going to change how you look at space management. We're going to change how you look at projects."

It's not a surprise to them. The whole estates and campus services teams all know we're working on this project. They all know that we're close to making the whole thing a real solution for them instead of it just being something we've talked about for a while. They have been involved with workshops. We've done all sorts of stuff. I absolutely believe that if you bring your customer with you, it will make your job much easier when you're implementing.

Were the members of the estates and campus services team, therefore, ultimately instrumental in identifying requirements for the new system?

Yes. We had numerous workshops with blue-sky thinking. That is where we had started to lose a little bit of hope because we got all these different areas and said, "Well, what do you want?" They all came back with a list. I'd go out there, and I could find somebody who did space management well, but they had no service desk attached to their solution. Or I could find somebody that did project management well, but they had nothing to do with the buildings after they'd been built. It was like, we hand it over now, and we don't record anything, and nothing is linked. So we got together quite an in-depth list of requirements which is what we used when we went out to the marketplace. So when we met Randy and then Steven (Steven Denning-Garrison, Vice President of International Operations), we shared that list with them. We said, "It sounds like what you can do is what we want"."

Here's the list we've put together. When you come and talk to us, this list is what you need to consider. The individual managers, the asset managers, the space manager, the reactive maintenance manager, the campus services managers were all thrilled that their list was explicitly addressed. Then, the AssetWorks team could come prepared to show us the reality of the solution for us, not just to collect that information because we'd done a lot of that work in the beginning.

How long did it take to facilitate from the concept of a new system to having a complete list of the requirements for it?

It was probably a good five or six months because there were so many different areas to address. When you ask somebody what they want a solution to do, what they tell you is what's wrong with the solution they've got. And what we were focusing on was, forget the solutions we've got,  what do you want? What if you had a perfect solution? What would it deliver for you? And that's how we had to frame it. So we had to get them in that mindset, so they didn't just sit in front of us complaining about the solutions that they currently had, but they really understood we were talking about what you want your solution to do - what would your perfect solution do for you.

When you were doing that, did anything surprising happen?

The team didn't want to have to reinvent all the wheels they've already got in motion. They just want it to be available from a technology point of view without them having to retrain. They don't want something that's not intuitive or be put in a position where they don't know what they're supposed to be doing. Or something that just feels very complicated. Those are the kinds of things that everybody says.

You mentioned that you met with Randy once you had your requirements. What was it like to work with AssetWorks on bringing those requirements into their environment so you could see how the system would work for you at Leicester?

It was simple. Andrew and I have worked together for several years now. If he tells me that a technology solution is a good technology, then that gives me confidence, but I wanted to know what it would do for the customer. When we had the first demo online, it was clear that Randy knew and believed in his product, which is a good sign for me. So, we asked him questions, and we threw a few things at him. We'd met several vendors already by this point; we would ask them, "You can do a service desk, but can you do a compliance tool? No. Okay, you can do a compliance tool. Can you do a service desk? No." So that was the basis for questioning Randy, "You say you're going to send this information, but what do people do with that information?" And all the answers were what we were hoping they would be. It was a very positive thing for us. I think it was an hour to an hour and a half demo. And I went straight back to everyone and said, look, I think we found something that will do what we want it to do.

And then Randy and Steven offered to come over and demo it to the different area teams face-to-face and to do some workshops with them. We were very impressed because we knew, coming from the States, it's a lot more expensive than if they were just a UK company that was driving up and down the motorways for us. So, we were impressed with that commitment, that AssetWorks really wanted our business. I was impressed with what I'd seen with the product. I was impressed with all the different modules and that it looked like the product was fully integrated. There was nothing that came up for which there wasn't a positive answer. Can you do access control? Yes. We've got a key and lock solution. Okay. Can you do vehicle management? Oh, yeah. We've got fleet management modules. They seemed to have all their boxes ticked. So Randy and Steven turned up, and we met with all of the different departments. We'd given Randy and Steven the list, the mind map of what we were thinking of as a solution. So when they were talking to people, they had that list helping them ask relevant questions to get more detail. After those meetings, they were better prepared to present back to us at the end of the visit. So, we first met on a Tuesday. They spent the whole day with different people coming in having mini-workshop sessions on what they wanted. Wednesday they went away. On Thursday, they came back and presented.

Everyone was impressed with the presentation. It showed AiM and ReADY and everything. This is how you would do this. This is where this information would be stored. This is how this would link to this. You click on this, and you'd go into that. We were impressed. I was happy that it was a solid technology solution, but I needed my customers to be happy. And I think Randy and Steven did a fantastic job of selling to that customer base for me. When they'd left, and we had internal meetings, there was not a negative voice in the room.

Once you had that consensus, what happened next? 

Unfortunately, at that point is when the Director left. Then we got a new director, so that did stall us a little bit because obviously, nobody wanted to commit in the middle of a transition when there was no director to sign off on it. It caused us a little bit of an issue. But it also allowed us to get ITS involved and start talking to people about the solution that we wanted to implement. Further, we could work on business cases and financial modeling. Steven and Randy came over to demo AssetWorks with our new Director, Michael Flanagan. Michael was interested in the projects module. Randy gave Michael complete confidence in what we were showing - even though he'd only been there two or three weeks himself, it was a product he needed because it could give him the right information and visibility. Michael, within a few days of walking in, would say to me, "well, where do I get this information?" I was like, strange you should say that because I've got a product that I want to buy. And luckily after we'd seen the demo, he went - go ahead, get on with it.

Before you got the final approval to purchase the new system, what did you have to give your Director and the University leadership to get the purchase made? 

It was more a case of what I couldn't give him. He'd ask, "so where's my dashboard on these projects?" I'd respond, "we don't have one of those. I can get you an Excel spreadsheet." He'd reply, "Well I don't want that. I want something real-time. I want something that I can get by clicking a button. If I'm seeing the Vice-Chancellor, I want something I can pull up on his big screen and go, there you go. This is the situation, and this is where we are." From Michael's point of view, this is where he'd come from. And he was like, "I don't get it. Why can't I do this?" As you do with a new Director in any organisation, he had meetings with the heads of the other areas. He wanted real-time data. However, the current system took some time to produce it. When he asked, I would say, "we've got the data, you're going to have to wait while we produce it." This kept giving me the open door to say, "and that's why I want AssetWorks."


How did you sharpen up your pencil and decide based on the costs and benefits for Leicester?

We created a business case because for AssetWorks, and they quoted us a figure. One of the fortunate situations we're in is we are in the middle of some pretty major projects, which are exciting however risks include a lack of up to date information impacting on the outcome of a key decision – this is why we want informed and correct decisions based on data that is accurate and up to date. If you have an issue on a project and you realise too late because you didn't have the data in a timely fashion, something that could have been resolved pretty quickly can gather momentum and cost a huge amount of money. If we just spent some money on a solution that would eliminate these issues, we would have more confidence.

Was it challenging to make the economic argument?

‍Yes, because Excel is free. The other big driver was about compliance visibility. We needed to be able to prove that we had undertaken the servicing and that we had the compliance certificates that proved that we had done what we were legally required to do all over the campus. Because right now, if somebody asked for proof that we had serviced the air handling unit or something like that, it is in a file store on a server and you have to go through each and every folder to find the certificate you want. Only then can you then send it on by email to the right person to provide the proof. But by the time you found that out, it could be days.

How did you get the word that the new system was a go? What did it feel like for you after having gone through all this?

Once we were given the go-ahead by the ITS Director, and others such as procurement and our DPO, Michael signed. We are still engaged with ITS processes, which we are happy to do as it benefits everyone to make sure we have a good implementation.

Sounds like a relief after all of the time and effort over three years!

‍Yes, definitely relief. And it was because I knew it was a good product and I didn't want to have to keep going around the houses and talking about something that I'd been talking about for three years. We'd been out in the marketplace. We'd done all the due diligence. Randy came along just at the point where we were starting to think we were going to have to buy four or five systems and then work out how to integrate them. And then suddenly, it's like, no, there is a system. It was one system that does what we want it to do. This is excellent. This is what we were hoping for two years ago when we started that process.


One last question for you, off the topic. Work has begun at the £100 million Space Park Leicester in collaboration with local, national and international partners. President and Vice-chancellor, Professor Nishan Canagarajah said: "It is a real step into the future and will secure the University of Leicester's spot as a world-leading centre for space research and development, building on our rich heritage as leaders in this field. I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to all involved." 

What role has the estates department played in making Space Park Leicester a reality? How will you support the vision for the Park in the future?

I had been speaking to the operational manager for Space Park Leicester about AssetWorks. He was keen to offer his users a way to report that there was a problem in their room, or that they weren't happy. Because it's going to be a collaborative space, it's not just going to be the University. We intend to let parts of the building to external people that want to collaborate with our scientists and engage with our activities in the Space Park. So we are looking for that space to be managed as automatically as possible without lots of bits of paper. We want people to be able to go in and say, I'm not happy with this, I' m not happy with that. That's where we were talking about the ReADY Engagement products. We talked about how requests would lead straight through to our maintenance team, to our porter, to our cleaners who could then go out and do some actual activities in those areas without the customer needing to know about the solution in the background. It would just be that they would have a link in the room. They'd be able to follow that link and report an issue, and we would pick that up from them.

We've started building the Space Park. We are at the point of talking about operational support and facilities. That's where I've been talking to their operations manager about what he wants. And I absolutely see AssetWorks as contributing to that solution.


Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Anne. We look forward to hearing more about it as you move further with your implementation.