ASSET MANAGEMENT IS AN AWKWARD TERM AND CONFUSES EVERYONE: “We have managed assets for decades and understand what that is and what we are doing. Suddenly we took two very simple words, reversed them, and went from managing assets to asset management. The result? We confused everyone,” stated Wally Wells, Executive Director of Asset Management BC


“SHARE INFORMATION. INFORM DECISIONS.” This soundbite lines up nicely with the mission of Waterbucket eNews which is to help our readers make sense of a complicated world. Waterbucket eNews celebrates the leadership of individuals and organizations who are guided by the vision for Living Water Smart in British Columbia to build greener communities and adapt to a changing climate; and embrace “design with nature” approaches to reconnect people, land, fish, and water in altered landscapes. 

The edition published on April 26, 2022, featured an essay by Wally Wells, Executive Director of Asset Management BC. By focusing on the distinction between a “plan” and a “strategy”, Wally’s storyline goes to the heart of output-oriented versus outcome-oriented approaches.

What’s in a WORD: Do you know what the word “Plan” means in a local government context and wonder whether it is appropriate for infrastructure Asset Management?

The Partnership for Water Sustainability and Asset Management BC share common interests and are jointly operationalizing lynchpin action items identified in Living Water Smart in British Columbia. Our shared commitment to Living Water Smart actions provides the foundation for collaboration goals that are defined in a Memorandum of Understanding.

The umbrella for collaboration is Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery: A BC Framework, released in December 2014 by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) through Asset Management BC.

An over-arching goal of collaboration is to advance a mutually supporting approach that profiles and raises awareness of the guiding philosophy, principles and objectives embodied in the BC Framework. This includes publishing articles by each other. Today, we feature a reflective essay by Wally Wells, Executive Director of Asset Management BC.

Wally Wells is an original thinker. In the Asset Management BC Newsletter, he has a column titled What’s in a WORD. In it, he draws attention to how we use (or perhaps misuse) words. The Winter 2022 issue of the newsletter includes Wally’s article about the word ‘Plan’.

What is the story behind the story?

“An issue we have in communicating our message often seems to relate to the use and interpretation or misinterpretation of words or phrases. Too often we use technical terms within our own skill sets, not appreciating that others may not know what we are really saying,” explains Wally Wells.

“In asset management and other areas, we use language different from what common language is that everyone understands, or specific disciplines understand a word or phrase differently.”

“Asset Management, itself, is an intimidating term. The process of asset management or ‘managing assets’, is not new. The process, as defined today, just leads to better decisions across the entire organization for priority setting with limited budgets. However, we have succeeded in confusing everyone,” concludes Wally Wells.




“A conversation with Wally Wells is always fun. It is not just that he is enthusiastic and passionate about asset management which some might consider a dry topic. Wally is a deep thinker and draws on many, many decades of experience to put engineering practices in context,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Executive Director.

“When Wally Wells asked me to read What’s in a WORD: The word ‘Plan’, his storyline resonated. Time and again in my career, I have observed a pattern much like what Wally describes in his article. All too often, our engineering profession takes a seemingly simple concept or idea, surrounds it with layers of complexity, and ultimately confuses everyone.”

“By focusing on the distinction between a “plan” and a “strategy”, Wally’s article goes to the heart of output-oriented versus outcome-oriented approaches. That is the takeaway message. Wally Wells has done a public service by drawing attention to the need to retrain elected representatives to look at “plans” differently and think about risks and consequences for the community because of a Council doing or not doing things.”

“The issue of ‘output versus outcome’ is one that the provincial government first identified two decades ago when it released Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. The Guidebook premise is that a focus on desired outcomes would lead to action, whereas a focus on output leads to “analysis paralysis”. Living Water Smart in British Columbia is outcome oriented.”

“The complementary efforts of Asset Management BC, the Partnership for Water Sustainability and our local government partners are operationalizing some of the 45 provincial actions spelled out in Living Water Smart, British Columbia’s Water Plan. These actions are the foundation for a whole-system, adaptive approach to connecting the Built and Natural environments through Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery: A BC Framework.”

“In 2019, the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs established an expectation that grant applicants would integrate natural assets into their asset management strategies. And to quote Wally Wells, asset management is a continuous process, not a discrete task, whether the assets are constructed or natural.”

“The Partnership contribution is to show local governments how they can integrate stream systems and water assets (such as wetlands) into their asset management budgets. Our commitment to the BC Framework is reflected and embodied in the Sustainable Creekshed Systems through Asset Management initiative,” concluded Kim Stephens.

Reflections by Wally Walls, Asset Management BC

This column addresses our language of asset management and the use of terms. Do we use them correctly or are we creating a new language and meaning when it is not necessary?  Is this part of our communications problem? I think so. Based on dialogue with many, this article reflects the writer’s observations of what we see and hear.

“Asset Management”, itself, is an awkward term.  We have managed assets for decades and understand what that is and what we are doing. Suddenly we took two very simple words, reversed them, and went from managing assets to asset management. The result? We confused everyone.

Too much attention is given to only the Asset Management Plan as opposed to all elements of the process.  Even then, should we be calling the outcome the ‘Asset Management Plan’?  It is likely too late to change our words, but we do need to be careful in how we communicate what we do and what the expectations are with the results.

What is a Master Plan, really?

A Plan usually talks about things in the future with choices on both potential services, assets to provide the service, costs and timing premised often on growth assumptions.  These are usually called Master Plans and are related to specific services or asset classes. For decades, we have trained our elected officials to understand the decision process and flexibility available for them when presented with a Master Plan.

In a ‘futures’ document, based on existing inventory and services premised on growth and growth strategies of what MIGHT be needed, the Master Plan defines and documents the options and cost to do so and when the service/ assets will be required to be operational.  Councils have choices of doing or not doing the recommended activities based on growth and service needs. There is often few consequences and little risk in doing or not doing the suggested activities.

Life-cycle context for asset replacement over time: 

The same flexibility, risk and consequences of a decision are not the same with the Asset Management Plan. The plan, other than based on “futures”, is based on existing services and service levels. So why call it a plan?

The Asset Management ‘plan’ addresses life cycle assets related to the service they provide and the basis for capital replacement and/ or upgrade over time, a very different set of circumstances. The risk and consequences of not taking action are substantially higher and more consequential than the Master Plans described above.

Asset Management is a Strategy, not a Plan

An AM plan is not the same as a master plan. There are two parts to an AM Plan. The first is the inventory, condition assessment, and estimated life of assets translated into the cost both in dollars and time to renew, upgrade or decommission.

At this point it does not deal with resources available and the ability to pay.  It just deals with what is need to continue to provide EXISTING services at an existing level. The second part of the “plan” is not a plan but a strategy document. Instead of choices, it deals with the risk and consequences to the community of doing or not doing things.

Something completely different: 

For decades we have trained our elected officials how to think and what to do with a plan. But now, with the Asset Management Plan, we want them to do something completely different. No wonder they are confused. The decision from the AM plan and strategy are tested against service with risk and consequences.

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About the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC

Technical knowledge alone is not enough to resolve water challenges facing BC. Making things happen in the real world requires an appreciation and understanding of human behaviour, combined with a knowledge of how decisions are made. It takes a career to figure this out.

The Partnership has a primary goal, to build bridges of understanding and pass the baton from the past to the present and future. To achieve the goal, the Partnership is growing a network in the local government setting. This network embraces collaborative leadership and inter-generational collaboration.