Bridging the gap between FM and IT

by Rob Martens — Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of FMJ — The adoption of technology in physical access control has proven incredibly beneficial for facility managers, but it has also necessitated a closer integration of FM and IT teams. While overcoming perceived cultural differences and knowledge gaps on both sides can seem daunting, proper integration of these new systems requires both departments to not just tolerate, but actively collaborate with, each other.

In the past, when integrators were brought in on large security projects, one of the first tasks was often to introduce the chief information officer (CIO) and FM. This unfortunate situation still occurs in some facilities, particularly on large college or business campuses, but after years of discussion about the growing involvement of IT in areas that were traditionally the sole responsibility of facility managers, we are finally beginning to see more successful blending of physical access control and IT.

As facility managers have grown in general technical savvy, CIOs are becoming more familiar with physical access control information and best practices. Companies are beginning to recognize that there is no surrogate for physical access control knowledge, and that even if they purchase the best systems money can buy, if they are applied incorrectly or if those systems do not have the basic connectivity and bandwidth necessary, they won’t function properly and the facility will still be insecure.

If they are to have any hope of withstanding cyber or physical threats to organizational safety and security, FM and IT must cultivate what is known as “tribal knowledge,” or collective wisdom. Ultimately, the success of this convergence depends on the willingness of facility managers to share their in-depth knowledge of buildings and their systems with CIOs, and the ability of both parties to set aside differences, recognize shared goals and begin fostering an open and interactive relationship.

Security partners

Although there has been progress, few facilities can claim to be fully integrated, and an almost palpable disconnect often lingers between IT and FM. Convergence can be difficult, because each team has its own priorities, perspectives and opinions. While CIOs own the budget and digital assets, they may have no grounding in physical access control. Meanwhile, facility managers understand that they will be held accountable for a security breach regardless of who has ultimate fiscal responsibility, and may therefore be hesitant to relinquish control.

However, the adoption of technology continues to evolve the facility management role and, subsequently, FMs’ relationship with IT. It’s becoming apparent that the institutional knowledge of facility managers, combined with an aptitude for technology, can result in formidable leadership. Many FMs are now capable of doing and understanding things that many IT executives are unable to do. In addition to being the traditional jack of-all-trades, today’s FM is apt to be technologically savvy, to the point of having far more knowledge of what data is being collected by the facility’s systems than the CIO.

But the full scope of data and resources facility management teams own is likely just the beginning of the list of things a CIO won’t know and, without input from FMs, CIOs can paint themselves into a corner very quickly — not just from a physical access control standpoint, but also concerning data management and cybersecurity. FMs are uniquely positioned to know the technological secrets of their buildings — from Wi-Fi dead zones to overall network reliability.

This level of familiarity with the facility means FMs are the experts who determine what combination of mechanical versus electronic solutions makes sense for each application. They are best equipped to determine whether battery-operated or hardwired systems are better suited for egress areas based on traffic frequency at each point, as well as any fire, life safety and compliance codes that may impact the decision. It’s not enough to be familiar with the technology; someone needs to know how to properly apply it. Smart CIOs will recognize this fact and begin to view FMs as true partners in maintaining safe and secure facilities.

Common ground

In the past, one could joke that CIOs thought that egress was a rare waterfowl and facility managers thought that encryption was a funeral burial option. Thankfully, that level of disconnect is changing, though not as rapidly as many facility managers would like.

Often, the best solution for bridging this gap is to bring on an integration partner to facilitate assimilation of more than just security systems, but also the people and their skillsets and cultures. Integrators can start with the basics, whether that means making long overdue introductions, or helping the teams level set on the needs of IT versus those of FM.

One of the best analogies for the role that integrators play is that of a symphony conductor. Just as conductors ensure that the disparate parts of a symphony are played in harmony, integrators support a smooth collaboration process. Integration partners can help mediate differences that may arise between IT and FM teams, particularly for those organizations still in the early stages of working toward true interdepartmental cooperation. They can also help establish effective methods of communication as well as create a plan for deployment.

As a neutral third party, integrators are ideally suited to blend IT teams’ strong understanding of network capability with the detailed facility knowledge and best practices represented by FMs. They can also be incredibly successful at building the framework for future partnerships.

Sometimes, the most effective method for resolving differences is to highlight the similarities between the two sides, as they may have more in common than either would suspect. Both departments are under a tremendous amount of pressure and spend long hours ensuring business-as-usual operations for other teams — efforts that may go unnoticed unless something malfunctions. Failure is never an option.

Both teams guard against the threat of unauthorized access while ensuring maximum convenience and accessibility for authorized users. Both the computer codes of one field and the fire and life safety codes of the other require incredible attention to detail to implement effectively. Both teams must deal with end users whose behaviors may unwittingly compromise security, whether this manifests in the form of propping open a fire door or inadvertently downloading malware.

Sharing these types of stories should prompt enough commiseration to break the ice and allow both sides to recognize their shared goal of safeguarding facility occupants and assets. While there’s no denying the number of differences — both real and imagined — to overcome, there is more than enough common ground on which to build a foundation of trust and active collaboration.

Collaboration is key

Technology continues to advance at an incredible pace, but the speed at which these two groups can bridge knowledge gaps and learn to work together effectively is the biggest factor in determining how adoption will take place.

Although many of today’s FMs are exceptionally tech savvy, some still lack a basic understanding of networking. It’s not necessary to become an IT expert, but as products increasingly become tech-enabled, it’s important to know the basic vocabulary. Good manufacturers aim to make their products simple to use, but understanding how they will interact with the physical and technological realities of your facility will make or break implementation.

Once you’ve overcome these obstacles, you may need to help the CIO understand the basics of physical access control — points of egress, points of entry, and the different requirements of high- versus low-traffic areas and what they mean. A few lessons in regulation compliance and fire and life safety codes may be necessary as well.

It’s likely that both the IT and FM teams could benefit from a greater degree of mutual understanding, and a good integrator can facilitate this process. However, the real change that must occur is for both sides to begin treating each other as equal partners in the shared objective of maintaining a safe and secure environment for facility occupants.

Rob MartensRob Martens is the futurist and director of connectivity platforms at Allegion. He focuses on forward-looking solutions and is responsible for staying up-to-date on emerging trends such as the Internet of Things. Martens has more than 11 years of experience in the safety and security industry, focusing on technology, innovation and business intelligence. Learn more at

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