Is anybody listening?: Training without action needs a human touch
“If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”
This classic Zen koan cuts to the heart of issues surrounding data, information, and energy efficiency. Data is great, but all the world’s data would be meaningless without people to “hear” it — our success or failure depends on how we absorb information and, ultimately, take action.
Commercial building energy management and energy management information systems promise a step forward from traditional building controls and automation systems. Cheap sensors give us the ability to collect more data than ever, and the Internet and the cloud lets us store, retrieve, and communicate that data. If life were simple, information alone might herald a new age of energy efficiency — but first we need to translate abstract information into people’s actions, keeping in mind that our goals are for better building operations and maintenance, not data and dashboards.
Efficient building operation inevitably relies on building personnel. We often assume that proper training and knowledge will result in data-driven action and better building operations. But research suggests the success of trainings is limited and not persistent:
- Trainings are designed to provide generalized information for the widest audience, but trainees often need methods and solutions that apply directly to their specific situation.
- The classroom setting is too far removed in both time and space from the actual circumstances to which the new information must be applied.
- Training programs traditionally employ methods that are not appropriate for the learning styles and competencies of most practitioners.
- The training can become irrelevant as soon as systems are upgraded and replaced with more modern and sophisticated equipment.
In fact, rather than implementing operational improvements taught in trainings, certified building operators cite capital improvements
as their more common means to improve energy efficiency. More often than not, operator training resulted in new or changed equipment
rather than improvements in operation
A 2015 survey by the Cadmus Group of trained building operators found that, of the group’s successful post-training projects, 54% had replaced existing equipment, 39% completed new construction projects, and 46% involved existing equipment modification. Trainees cited budget, costs, and payback as the main challenges to any energy efficiency upgrades. In another certification training evaluation completed by Navigant (2011), over 60% of participants listed money as their main barrier to implementing best practices learned through training.
Additionally, Cadmus reported that only 18% of survey participants made operational changes following training, and Navigant found that savings from operational or maintenance changes “comprise roughly 8 to 29% of [Building Operator Certification] Attributable Savings.” To produce efficiency savings through operations, researchers found utility-rebated projects to be more effective than training
. Changes in operations and maintenance practices accounted for 24% to 41% of the savings from utility-rebated projects.
So we know what works best in many cases and we’re certifying building operators to ensure they have that information — but many of them are not acting on it. So what are we missing?
To achieve full savings potential in buildings, we’ll need to bridge gaps between current “business as usual” and identified best practices. Although training is still a must, this shift will require shifting our focus beyond certification. Better use of our expanding access to data can help us understand barriers that prevent the adoption of the best operational practices, while identifying the most powerful ongoing supports to foster efficient building operations.
Used or not, there is data at our fingertips — trees falling all around, heard and unheard. It is time we take advantage of this wealth of knowledge, incorporate human behavioral sciences, and develop real-world resources to help building operators perform their jobs more effectively.
The Cadmus Group. Focus on Energy MEEA Training Program Evaluation. Waltham MA: Cadmus Group, 1/2/ 2015.
Navigant Consulting. Evaluation of MN BOC Training. Chicago IL: Navigant Consulting, 3/24/ 2011.