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Energy markets, talent, transparency and cybersecurity for industrial control systems are the four priorities to watch in 2023

by Mark A. BodenschatzAs we wrap up the first few weeks of 2023, FM educator and director of the Penn State Facilities Engineering Institute Mark Bodenschatz, P.E., CSSP, ProFM, is back to break down the top four FM priorities for the coming year. Want to read Mark’s 2022 breakdown? Read it here.

Many of the challenges in facilities management (FM) that I shared in my articles from the last few years are unfortunately still relevant today, particularly those of inflation, workforce management, and security and cybersecurity.

I remember a professor in graduate school consistently pushing us to not just make decisions based on the current status, but to look at the trend and to consider both root and contributing causes in finding a path forward. These assessment techniques to solve for dynamic multivariable problems were essential to success then, and they apply directly to many of the dynamic challenges facilities managers (FMs) face today. In other words, the solutions we applied to problems in the past may not be relevant in 2023 because their trends are influenced by different elements than they were in the past. So with that in mind, let’s dive into a few significant challenges for facilities managers to illustrate this point.

Priority #1: Managing energy risk

First up: managing energy use in an increasingly volatile market. The manager of our energy team recently shared that the energy market was the second most volatile market in 2022 next to cryptocurrency. This volatility was fueled by variables including, but not limited to, the war in Ukraine, Russian sanctions, pipeline explosions, explosions in U.S. export facilities, bankruptcies, weather, production limitations, infrastructure challenges, and even Covid.  Energy supply is not scarce, but there are more demands and impact from these variables. The experts monitor these market trends and try to seek understanding through the root causes, but accurate predictions are hard when the variables are so…well…variable. 

Several trends to keep an eye on this year are the correlation between the electricity and natural gas markets, the volatility in future year pricing, and the viability of renewable energy markets. All three point to a few strategies that should reduce energy expenses during such volatility. The days of finding lower utility costs each time you purchase or negotiate a new agreement are likely over. What is more, planning ahead and procuring future energy rates years in advance offers benefits of predictable energy budgets and relatively lower costs. This is easy to do if your energy utilization is relatively flat and consistent. If energy conservation, facility renovation, or facility growth makes future consumption less predictable, you can still utilize this strategy to lock in a predictable baseline portion of your anticipated portfolio and allow the variable part of your energy demand to shorter term agreements, presumably at a higher rate.  

This is all about understanding the trends, acknowledging the volatility, and effectively managing your energy risk by adapting to different strategies that meet your needs and minimize financial volatility.  

Priority #2: The evolving demands of our workforce

We are all at war for talent. Most of us are dealing with workforce shortages.  I have talked in prior years about the impact of the great resignation and, while still relevant, we’ll look to other trends on the horizon.

My focus this year is on flexibility, such as hybrid work arrangements and flexible hours. This is especially important as workers spent many hours rethinking their personal and professional priorities during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

FM employers demanding a full return to work may find them themselves in search of new workers. Those showing flexibility and creativity in work arrangements have the upper hand in attracting new and replacement talent.

A second strategy related to finding and attracting qualified employees is to build up your own existing talent. As wise advisors say, hire for attitude and teach for skills.  Professional development is the best way to take good employees and make them great by providing the skills to excel in current and future roles. What is more, this sincere interest in your staff’s professional development is considered a benefit to them and is a differentiator in the marketplace.

Priority #3: Responsible FM

Employees and consumers alike will continue to demand transparency and action in many diverse topics of our FM world. They watch and grade our activity in relation to criteria that include sustainability, reduction in carbon footprint, material sourcing, issues of social justice, issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or others.

Great FMs will learn and seek to understand all angles of these difficult and contentious topics. Organizations who can articulately express their conclusions, values, stances, and positions in these topics are likely to have more success. Obviously, organizational integrity and responsible facilities management practices establish and maintain respect, and even pride, from constituent groups.

Priority #4: Cybersecurity for industrial control systems

My hope is that the computers on our desks and networks in our buildings are by now well protected by firewalls, robust passwords, two-factor authentication, intrusion detection systems, etc. So with that in mind, I am focusing my cybersecurity discussion this year on a particular vulnerability which seems to have fallen under the radar for defenders, but certainly not attackers: industrial control systems (ICS).

ICSs are prolific in the FM world and include building automation systems (BAS), distributed control systems (DCS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, programmable logic controllers (PLC), and others. As the Internet of Things continues to grow, so do ICS devices.

ICS devices connected to the internet provide unique security challenges, as they are often connected without taking cybersecurity knowledge into account to protect systems and remote access.  As such, they often remain undetected and unmanaged by the IT staff that are experts in cybersecurity. In these cases, ICS devices exist as exploitable weaknesses. They offer back doors to those with ill intent, and the results can be very devastating.

The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, assists with all cybersecurity breaches, tracks and monitors them, and provides reports and advisories. I highly recommend reviewing the CISA advisories for ICS vendors on a frequent basis. You may discover new vulnerabilities that were previously unidentified.  

Once you identify vulnerabilities, I also encourage you to enlist the support of your IT professionals with cybersecurity knowledge, control system operators or service providers until you have mitigated or eliminated the threat by closing and locking these back doors. In doing so, you will protect yourself from losing control of your systems and potentially handing that control to hackers.  

While many of these challenges and priorities are new to our generation, they are not new. Those who continue to excel in 2023 will be lifelong learners who are trainable, curious, and able to discern fact from opinion and to apply learned facts to the challenges they face daily.

If you’re interested in training to help you better prepare for 2023, you can learn more about Mark’s ProFM credential here. And if you’d like some extra help with your 2023 priorities, check out the free resources available to FMs here.