#43 Suri Suriyakumar: Digitizing Tribal Knowledge

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Episode Summary

Suri Suriyakumar, CEO of ARC Facilities, is this weeks guest.  After founding ARC Document Solutions almost 30 years ago, Suri has recently led ARC to invest in technology to become a leader in 'Access to Information in Facilities for the Built Space'.  

At the end of 2021, the average commercial building in the United States was over 53 years old.  Most organizations are documenting crucial building information through manual processes.

This problem, in addition to the 'Great Resignation' of Facilities Managers, is what Suri is on a mission to resolve.  

Tune in to this weeks episode to learn more about the importance of digitizing tribal knowledge, using AI and Machine Learning to empower your organization, and the impact that technology can have in reducing risk and increasing productivity.


Episode Transcription

Suri Suriyakumar on Digitizing Tribal Knowledge

Intro  00:00

Welcome to another episode of The Modern Facilities Management Podcast brought to you by Stratum. I'm your host, Speaker: Griffin Hamilton. This is the show where I interview industry experts who share their stories, strategies and insights into Modern day Facilities Management, from hospitality to commercial real estate and everything in between. We'll learn what it really takes to succeed as a facilities manager.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  00:26

Welcome to another episode of The Modern Facilities Management Podcast. I am your host, Speaker: Griffin Hamilton and today my guest is Suri with ARC Facilities. Suri, how are you doing today?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  00:38

Good, very good. Griffin, excited to be on your show.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  00:41

Well, thanks for coming on. I know we've gone back and forth quite a bit and glad we could finally hit the record button and get the ball rolling here. I know this is a conversation a lot of people are having and I'm glad that we can get your expertise and your insights into it. So, before we go into the nitty gritty, let's give the audience a little bit more insight into who you are and how you got into facilities?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  01:05

Yeah, you know, obviously my name, as you said, my name is Suriyakumar. I'm actually Chief Executive Officer of ARC document facilities, you know, ARC Document Solution, sorry, I missed the name right away, the CEO of ARC Document Solutions. And you know, I've been in the business for over 30 plus years, basically dealing with construction, documentation and information that used to be my space. And then in the last three, four, five years, we have pivoted largely into this facility space, which is very interesting and a whole lot of opportunities out here.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  01:43

Yeah, and I guess, going way back, you mentioned several decades of experience and you mentioned construction, kind of getting your foot in the door there, what really piqued your interest about construction and what led to you guys pivoting into facilities, being more facilities focused?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  01:58

So, I got into the business, honestly, accidentally, you know? I had a friend of mine, who was a banker and I was an engineer and we got together, migrated to you know, the great, you know, country of America. And then you know, got into this business you know, got introduced through a friend of ours, got into the business. And we really liked what we you know, saw. It was the reprographics industry or the next you know, 15, 20, 30 years, we expanded our business and you know, we became a public company. And then in the last few years, we realized, we have learned so much knowledge, we've got so much knowledge from the you know, the blueprinting industry or the reprographics industry that, that information can be used in the built space as against the new building space. So that's what allowed us to pivot into this facility space, Griffin.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  02:56

So, what's been a big difference between the two that you've noticed?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  03:00

So largely, when we did the construction documentation, it was largely to do with new buildings and all the new buildings which is coming up. But in the facilities space, it's always to do with information we already have in the build space. You know, buildings last forever the you know, average building in the United States, you know, all 1/3 of the buildings in the United States are all 50 years old. And all these building information, which is largely made up of drawings, documents, you know, specifications, you know, continue to be used in maintaining the building and operating the building. And they were largely still in paper format or stuck in some desktop and we thought, you know, extracting that building intelligence from those documents would actually deliver great value to the building and their facilities operators.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  03:52

Yeah and I guess, offhand question here, as far as the number of folks that are still in that paper of manual process versus digitize and moving towards being digitized, is that still a ratio that is abnormally high, if you think about it?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  04:08

Yeah. I mean, it is pretty high. I mean, it's exceptionally high, 80% of the building owners in the United States still own, you know, building information in some form of paper. Right?

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  04:20


Speaker: Suriyakumar  04:21

80%. I mean, that's what we did 100 years ago, Griffin. I mean, we stored information in paper, that hasn’t changed. It's not uncommon for us to walk into any one of these facilities, we just paste this technology. It doesn't matter what the industry is, whether it is, you know, technology company or a healthcare institution or one of the most sophisticated banks. But when we want to get the building information, it's largely in paper and the few who have digitized them basically have them, stored them, you know, stored in desktop servers. Which is equally confusing and that's probably the reason why most people don't digitize it because it becomes even more difficult to track information on a desktop server.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  05:11

Yeah and I guess as a follow up to that, because what's really terrifying about that number being so high is that we all know in the industry that in the next few years, I've seen anywhere, from the next five to seven years, almost 50% of facilities managers are going to be at retirement age. So, we're at risk of losing all that tribal knowledge and if it's all manual and not digitized, I think that would just compound that problem. Would you agree?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  05:39

Absolutely. I mean, everybody is talking about the great resignation and about the number of people, you know, who are retiring in general but in the facilities industry, it is already in the works. Griffin, as you said, a large majority of the technicians and engineers are baby boomers, they were already, you know, retired or in the process of retiring. So we already had a situation, which is, you know, starting to impact the industry because the large majority of the people in the industry are actually baby boomers. And you know, the pandemic is accelerated that and so that's a big problem in itself. And then the second problem is, especially in the facilities space, right? Because buildings last forever, the tribal knowledge that these 10 year old technicians and engineers have.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  06:35

Yeah and I think that's something that is I mean, you guys are obviously doing a great job where you are trying to address that 80%, right? Where you are getting people into 2022, right, where we have our computer in our pocket, right? Where we should, it seems like it would be natural to have everything digital in that transition to our buildings. With that said, I mean what challenges do you guys see individuals face when they are looking at, okay, I’m coming up on retirement or I have all of these different processes that I need to document and digitize? What are some challenges that you guys come across, whenever you're trying to make that transition?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  07:19

So there are two issues. One is the information, the legacy information itself because when the buildings last 10, 15 years, you know or 50 years like I said, there's a lot of information, historical information, which has been collected in the building, whether due to renovations, retrofits, change orders, you know, all of the changes, the building goes through. Sometimes buildings, you know, occupants change from a hospital to you know, maybe a hotel or maybe a hotel to a hospital, all kinds of changes take place. So all that in historical information should be captured and you know, that's generally considered to be captured but it’s not necessarily captured fully. But the 10 year technicians will have all this information in their head so that is first point, right, to get that information? Second is, how do you do the knowledge transfer, it's one thing to have the information, it's one thing to also know that is going to, let's say, you know, Pete is going to retire or Carl is going to retire in two years, we know that already. So, we want him to transfer this information to the you know, the new recruit or somebody who's going to take his place? How do you do that? You know, okay, you can train him, walk him around every day for the next two years, you know, how much of that information can be captured? Is there a way that you can capture that information, that's what we were focused on? And today, there are technologies which will allow us to capture the knowledge and be able to transfer that to somebody who's taking in place within seconds, you can use tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to build a platform, which will facilitate that knowledge transfer.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  09:05

So you mentioned two buzzwords there, AI and machine learning. So let's deep dive there, what do you mean by AI and machine learning in this sense?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  09:14

So one of the difficult things about the drawings is people think when you digitize drawings, it solves the problem, it doesn't, that's why most people don't digitize it. When people generally say we scan or digitize documents, they basically took photographs of those, you know, drawings and put it in their service that doesn't make or break anything. In fact, it makes it more complex from a technicians perspective, you still have to search them and somebody has to physically leave those drawings perfect. But using our artificial intelligence and machine learning and tools like that, which is available today, which has become very sophisticated, you can extract building intelligence from these drawings and documents and be able to deliver it through simple apps. Which will allow you to tap and swipe to get this information, so instead of really reading a document of find out where the shutoff valve is for a water leak or for an electrical issue where the electrical panel is, what if you can actually go to a building drawing and you know, tap on a button, which says, shadowfell, right and you find the shadowfell. Now, a security guard or executive in an office can find that shadowfell. Well, instead of a technician searching for it in a drawing and only he could then read the drawing, right? So that's what I mean by saying using technology to extract that information and really, you can use you know, either you can, you know, it's commoditize or basically democratize that information so that anybody can get access to that information.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  10:55

Yeah and looking at it from the organization standpoint, what kind of impact can that have? Where if you do have that knowledge transferred across the organization, not limited to just one, two or a handful of individuals?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  11:12

Yeah, I mean, the impact it will have is phenomenal because now, you suddenly realize that if you have say, let's say, 10, 20, 15 technicians, depending on the size of the facility, if you have less people, your productivity goes this, you know, doing something like this will significantly improve field productivity, that's what is the secret here. Because what we find out, what our experience shows, Griffin is people spend hour and a half to depending on the size of the campus. If you take a large college campus or a school district, they are spread across 1000s of square miles, a hundreds of square miles, there's still a very, there are large properties. So people have to go from building 16 to building numbers 2, then get onto the documents storage room and then roll out the big drawings and find the information, then walk back to the same place to find out, you know, fix the problem. So you're really talking about an average technician spends two hours plus a day, just windshield, we call that windshield, time driving back, you know? Maybe it's a golf cart but you still have to drive back to the building or walking back to the building. So your wrench time is significantly reduced because you know, you're spending time looking for this information. So, if you take two hours a day, that's a substantial amount of time, your productivity can be up 20, 30%, at least, when you have that information like you said, Griffin. If it is coming off your mobile device from your pocket, you're like literally carrying the plan room in your pocket. Right?

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  12:43

Yeah. And I guess with that, I imagine if you're looking at an organization has multiple campuses or you're covering hundreds or 1000s of square miles there, I imagine there's a heavy lift? No?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  12:56

Absolutely. I mean, you know, if you take large counties, they do have, some of them have 200, 300 technicians on staff or outside contractors so that's really a large property. And it's not a small phenomena, you have 1000s of properties like this or you have large campuses, where you have your buildings, 30, 40, 50, 60 buildings and some of them are 30, 40, 50 stories. I mean, so you're coming down all the way down to the documents storage room to find that information and then get back up there so yes, it's heavy lifting by any stretch of imagination.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  13:41

So, on the flip side of that though, what if someone is listening that they recognize and they catch that two hours a day, I mean, that's 25% of your time that you get back. If you have a big campus, you probably have a big team and let's compound that two hours over the course of a year across 20 or 30 people. I mean, that's significant time there so that's the main story here, right is how much time you get back in the current state. But how could someone begin that process, I mean what are some best practices to make this an easy transition of those physical copies to a digitized world?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  14:15

So obviously, with the technologies available today, one should think about actually capturing this information and putting it on the cloud. And using a tool to access that information, no different to geography, we access encyclopedia today on the web, right? I mean, previously, it used to be what 24 volumes, 36 volumes depending on, you know what kind of books you have and what volumes you have. We took forever to find information or no different to Thomas maps, right? Right now, we don't bother, we just tap and swipe and you can get to the location and that information is available within seconds. Not only within seconds, you know how long it will take to get there and what the traffic conditions are same thing with, you know, whatever we do. So this is something that we’re already doing, the differences is in the facility space. At one time, have software to read building documents and you know, blueprints and drawings and information related to the building itself, now we have that. So, the most important thing is to have a tool, any tool for that matter, to be able to access that information and be able to access that on a mobile device, the new generation is all going mobile, as you know. You know, we might have facilities technicians who are retiring after 30, 40 years but Griffin, you're not going to hire them back again, that generation is gone, you're going to hire millennials, whether you like it or not. Whose average days, like three years would be a long tenure for them, not 30 years, it's not uncommon for us to find somebody working in a facilities engineer for 20, 30 years, it's not uncommon at all. But you will never find a millennial working for you for 20 years, forget it, so they will last three years. So think about it, this information, it's so important for facilities, you know, especially the senior building owners, operators, you know? C suite to understand, they have to have custody of this information because this information has to be moving all the time, not just this one time, when you move out to the you know, the what do you call the tenured staff. From here onwards, it's always going to be very fluid because people will be walking in and walking out and building owners should have custody of that information. So literally, if you lose people, you should be able to employ that.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  16:35

Yeah and that was going to be the next point I made, I'm glad you bring it up is that, it is this big fear that a great resignation, as you call it, where we are over the next couple of years, we're going to lose a lot of our talent. But it's not, you know, you're not going to flip the switch or fined for you’re on, until the next great resignation, it is going to happen every couple of years as that is more and more common.

Speaker: Suriyakumar  16:55

Exactly. I mean, we were very fortunate in the sense that facilities have had these technicians for a long time. It's an acid which we never counted on but now that information, number one is walking out the door, that's a problem in itself. We need to figure out a way to capture that information and take custody of that but we need to have that in a form that it can be delivered to anybody who joins the company and be able to use that. In fact, the other day, I was hearing a gentleman actually in a meatpacking plant, he was describing the story, there was this accident and there was a leak and somebody called him and he was not even inside, he was somewhere else, it was late in the night. And he was able to basically pull up this information on his mobile and basically instruct this person, you know, go to this place, here's what you'll find, you know, here's the switch and was able to bring that situation under control. So, I mean this becomes very useful on multiple facets, just not maintenance but it's you know, emergency and life safety. It could be for any one of those users, Griffin.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  18:00

And that was going to be, I mean you're one step ahead of me here. So that was my next question of beyond just the productivity and the hours that you're getting back. If I'm looking to making that type of investment beyond what we've already described, where it may, it is intuitive to have that digitized, right? Having this information in the palm of your hand but I'm still skeptical for the return on that significant investment. I mean, what else, what axillary benefits can I find beyond just the convenience and additional productivity out of my team?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  18:34

So I mean, if you really think about it, I mean, this is all about access to information. Once you have that information on a platform, Griffin, it can be used for a variety of things in variety of industries. The use cases are limitless, you could go to a ballpark in a stadium and you could literally keep track of every suite, you know, every hand sanitizing station or your every TV in the place. I mean, you name it, whatever you want to do, you can go to a health care facility and now keep track of all the information you want in the healthcare facility for let's say, for compliance reasons. Right now, one of the biggest challenges which is coming up is basically water treatment plants and the Legionnaires disease, right? Everybody wants special attention paid to that, how many water outlets do you have and where do you have them? You know, from the time the water enters the building until it goes through the wastewater pipe, you know, how does that go, you need to track and have some controls on those. So I mean, there is a use case, right? Or it could be classrooms, regular maintenance in classrooms, you know, many of the old buildings have led paint in classrooms. How do you keep track of that? You want that information when you need it within seconds, not for you to reach out to a plan room and take hours to look for it. So, the use case can vary from you know, healthcare facility to industrial complexes to, you know, data centers so it's extraordinary. With regard to the second question you asked, Griffin, with regard to, you know, what does it cost? How, you know, I think the simple thing is people have to come to terms with the fact that look, we have to invest some money to extract this information, that's the key. Because right now, it has stayed on paper for 100 years and you almost think you don't have to spend money on that, right? So as a result, you never thought about it but if you really look at the cost, the cost is inexpensive compared to what you do. For example, if you take a school district and divide the number of schools by the number of buildings, you'll realize you'll spend on a solution like this less money than what you spend on cleaning or for example, for your landscape. It's less money than what you spend on cleaning and landscape but if it is money you haven't spent, you always thinking, my god, it's big money. But if you break it down by building, it's really very inexpensive if you think about the emergency life safety situation, student health or you know, staff help or patient, you know, students safety, you know, patient health or building occupant safety. If you think of, if you put all those attributes together, really, it's inexpensive investment. And plus, on top of that, you really say one productivity, like you said, 25% of the time, right? 

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  21:33

Yeah, absolutely. And you brought up a point earlier, as far as the age of current buildings and you mentioned, a third of buildings are coming up on 50 years or over 50 years old. And you just alluded to lead paint and that’s one example here and there's been countless examples where you don't have that type of tribal information on what materials were used in what locations at a building. So, if something does come out after the fact, after the build and you don't know how to pinpoint where that potential problem is, then that's 10s if not hundreds of 1000s of dollars, you have to spend on consultants coming out. Identifying exactly what you should have already captured and maintain and digitize from a data perspective.

Speaker: Suriyakumar  22:17

Exactly, your insurance cost, you know? Your what do you call, when you go to fix a problem, you know, whatever the repair damages, you know, a simple water leak, if it is, you know, addressed within seconds or within minutes, you know, it could cost you $300, $400 in carpet damage and somewhere damaged, you can get rid of that pretty fast. But if that, you know, leak is not addressed for two hours, it could be $15,000. If it is not addressable for hours now, that could be $200,000 and business continuity, right, you need to shut down the location, people can't access, infections could be out of control in health care facility, there's all kinds of complications which come up. So, it's really significant savings for any facilities operator, if you take into consideration the amount of money you spend or you didn't budget but you spent because you said well, it was an accident, it was something we didn't expect so that happened. So, it's money you're already spending. So I always feel like when you make an investment in something like this, you're really, you know, saving money you’re already spending. So you don't need a budget because you already spending that money.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  23:28

Yeah. And I think the good thing about our audience being in facilities is it's the never-ending quest to answer why and diving into that next layer where it isn't always a, you know, black and white, here's the money I'm spending and here's what I'm not spending. There's always that investigation into that next step and what's the risk of this? What is the potential spin that I could have? So, absolutely love the direction that you're going there and especially, I mean, as we look ahead into the healthy building movement and I think a lot of these data points are just going to be that much more important as we are going to be evaluating what materials we build our buildings in. How our occupants are, you know, living what they are healthy or not and so everything that you mentioned is just perfect there.

Speaker: Suriyakumar  24:15

Yeah. I mean, it's a question of you know, obviously new buildings have different tools, new tools, IOTs, that's fine. But the challenge we have, Griffin, is for every new building we build, we already have 95 plus existing infrastructure, right and they are going to be around for a long time? So, when I meet facilities technicians or facilities directors, they, you know, universally agree, absolutely. This is a problem which needs to be solved and it's a problem which is going to get worse in the next 5, 10, 15 years with all these retirements coming up and then knowledge just walking out the door. I call them walking encyclopedias, that is, they are these technicians. You know, they've been around for a long time and it's hard to do capture that knowledge. So that's a problem, you know, it's only going to get worse. So and you know, we had to find a way to address it but I'm really excited about the technologies, which is available to all the facilities, you know, people today because as we go on, it's only going to get better, right? I mean, they, you know, and this technology can be delivered through really simple, easy to use tools so people can have access to that no different to what we do in our personal lives, right and that's exactly what we should be doing for facilities technicians at real estate investment in the future really?

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  25:36

Yeah. No, it is certainly an exciting time with how frequently people are adopting new technologies and how common that is with these buildings but still very much something where you guys are addressing our current problem and our very near future problem of all these older buildings, this new influx of talent and this great resignation and addressing it right now. So the future certainly brighten the technologies that are being adopted in these new buildings but that doesn't eliminate the problem that we're facing and you guys are addressing, so. Well, I do have one last question that I asked everybody to who or what has had the biggest impact on you and your career?

Speaker: Suriyakumar  26:22

Thank you, that's a loaded question at least from my perspective, Griffin, you know, I always say we live in this great place called America, there are 1000s of companies, success companies, success stories here in the US. And behind every one of them are really interesting stories, you know, by the people who founded these companies and what they had to do and the struggles they had to go to build these companies, right? And those stories inspire me, whether it's Amazon, whether it's Tesla, whether it's Google, whether it's Facebook or Microsoft or IBM, new and old, you know, small and large, they all have very interesting stories and I love reading about them and get excited about it. So, you know, if anything inspires me, it's just all those stories and I never seem to cease to be amazed by these stories and what, you know, all those things people had to go through to eventually make it. So, it's really exciting, you know, I find it very inspiring.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  27:28

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I love that and as an entrepreneur myself, I can certainly relate to that and just seeing the foundation that others have laid and kind of the models that have been laid before us. That is certainly been great but love the answer and I certainly appreciate you coming on and provide some insight what you guys are doing at ARC Facilities, the problem you guys are addressing and certainly love to have you back on here sometime soon.

Speaker: Suriyakumar  27:54

All right, thank you so much again for the opportunity, Griffin. I love talking to you.

Speaker: Speaker: Griffin Hamilton    27:57

Of course. Hey, take care. 

Speaker: Suriyakumar  27:59

All right, take care. Bye bye.

Outro 28:00

Thanks for listening to another episode of The Modern Facilities Management Podcast. Make sure to subscribe for future episodes and visit our website stratumcommunity.com for more facilities management content.

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