Making Connections in the Digital FM World
Reaching the prestigious “500+ connections” marker on LinkedIn should be cause for celebration, right? When people click on your profile page, they’ll see a master networker who has made hundreds or even thousands of contacts with industry peers.
The only problem is real connections don’t work that way. That’s why Ed Ehlers, CEO of Silver Brook Management, LLC and owner of the Facilities Management Group on LinkedIn, made a conscious decision to focus on the quality of connections over the quantity of network.
You manage the largest FM group on LinkedIn, what was your inspiration behind forming this group?
Ehlers: I chuckle about it sometimes because it was purely self-motivated. It was selfish. I was looking for new job opportunities around 2008 and at that time, Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn had all started coming to the forefront as opportunities to network. I also thought all the younger folks coming into the workforce would be familiar with these platforms and using them so I should look into them and see how they can help our discipline and industry.
I joined LinkedIn and discovered the ability to start groups. I formed an FM group to see if it could help me with my job search and 10 years later it’s global with over 127,000 members. I do attribute its success to staying very focused on the content of the group. LinkedIn has gone through a number of changes over the years and unfortunately for groups on the platform — I don’t think they’ve been the best changes.
Back in 2008, the group owner had a lot of control over said group. I could manage the discussions, delete spam, approve and remove members, and I had a set of rules of how I allowed the group to operate. Using those rules, it stayed focused on real, valuable discussions in FM. I believe that’s what propelled the group, being an active manager with a clear sense and vision of where I wanted it to go.
You’ve underlined that you believe in “connecting” over “networking.” How do you see those as separate when it comes to the FM industry?
Ehlers: Networking has become ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. Networking is also in the IT field. You network hard drives. You network systems and servers. It just seemed to be a very rigid and impersonal term.
Connecting means you have deeper level and understanding of the people with whom you’re in a relationship with. I receive many requests to network on LinkedIn, a number of folks want me to join their network or vice versa. Truthfully, out of the thousands of people on my LinkedIn and Facebook networks, how many true interactions exist? So is it the quantity of your network or the quality of your connections?
To illustrate this, when I first joined the FM industry working for a defense contractor, I was in the army network. Whether I had a connection with these people or not, you had some sort of relationship. Fortunately for me, the hiring manager for my first position had been in the army as well. We had an instant network there, but we connected on a deeper level with a discussion about what units we were in, what we missed about the service, and so on. Forming and developing that closer connection landed me my first job. The network helped, but it was the actual connection versus the network.
In a speaking engagement you did for CIFMers, you presented a survey that found only 35% of respondents were firmly committed to an association. Why do you think that number was so low?
Ehlers: Associations can be rigid. You can say “I’m an FM professional.” Well, for a particular association, you may not be an FM professional. You might be someone who supports it or is interested in it, but because you’re not a designated or registered CFM — you may not fit the mold.
Secondly, associations require funds to do the things they do, whether it’s lobbying, research, or member events. Many folks don’t want to necessarily commit funds to a particular organization. IFMA is a very big and successful organization, but they are stymied because you have to pay hundreds of dollars in dues to be a member. Some people don’t see the value in that when nowadays so much information is available online for free.
Please don’t mistake me, however, I am a member of IFMA. I maintain my designation through them. I believe there is value in associations. That said, especially for younger FM professionals coming into an organization, unless their employer is going to pay for their dues — are they really going to join?
These kind of associations often put on large events where people are able to connect in person. What do you think are some of the biggest advantages of having such a large platform on LinkedIn that connects FMs digitally?
Ehlers: I’d like to start with a disadvantage first. The disadvantage is with over 127,000 members, what is the real depth or quality of the connections within that network? They’re minimal. Unless you take the time and effort, it’s not the same as talking to somebody face-to-face, shaking their hand, sharing a meal and breaking bread with them. There’s a real disadvantage in that sense.
That said, I can touch people in Uganda, Saudi Arabia, England, France, almost instantaneously. I’ve had the privilege of being sought out by folks in other countries that were looking for roles and opportunities in the United States. I was able to share their information with hiring managers and HR folks and they were able to secure positions and jobs here in the U.S., effectively changing their lives. That’s a very humbling feeling. The advantage is really that much larger reach if you take time to invest in the quality of the connection instead of the quantity of the network.
From your experience running the FM group on LinkedIn, what are some of the observations you’ve made about experienced FMs sharing their knowledge with FMs who are in the earlier stages of their careers or simply looking to learn more?
Ehlers: Humans, by nature, are generally social animals who enjoy seeing others grow and prosper. Experienced FMs enjoy sharing their knowledge and the group generates discussion and can create connections. The discussions that I would see frequently that had a lot interaction would be “hey, I’m new to FM, I took over responsibility for this type of facility, how do you handle HVAC maintenance? What do you think of a particular CAFM system?” Questions that seek a solution for a specific issue or problem can generate multiple and varied responses.
Is there anything that you would discourage on the forum? Any FM topics that you deem to be off limits?
Ehlers: I encourage anything I can link to FM in almost any regard. Someone might have a food services question, in some people’s minds food services is a separate issue but in many organizations it relates or belongs to FM. Same with safety and security. If I could, in good conscience, link the post to something in FM — I would allow it.
I would discourage any topic that I couldn’t link to FM. For example, “how to improve sales” is not really FM. I understand some FM service providers need to sell FM services, I understand that FM vendors might be interested in sales, but there’s a whole other group where they can discuss sales techniques and strategies. There’s no room for discussion on a sales pitch.
What have you personally learned from running your LinkedIn group and the discussions that have taken place on there over the years?
Ehlers: Superficially, a lot of technology links, articles, and white papers talking about drone use in FM, intelligent virtual assistance (IVA), and all sorts of practical things.
More importantly, what I’ve learned is each of us has a reach and impact. We have no idea how that pebble we throw into the pond is going to ripple and how far. I’ve been fortunate and blessed enough where I’ve been a position to be able to help a number of folks.