Taking Professional Services Automation (PSA) beyond spreadsheets
Service based organisations are going through profound change. Rising business complexity, increasing specialisation, more rigorous quality standards, growing internationalisation and a doubling of the self-employed1 since the financial crash of 2007 add up to considerable challenges for businesses seeking to marshal qualified resources, onto the right job at the right time and at the right price.
Why not spreadsheets?
Providing services in the modern era has many moving parts, such as identifying projects in the pipeline, resourcing and scheduling project personnel, managing and maintaining financial contribution and increasingly the requirement for close communication and collaboration between project personnel and stakeholders.
But ultimately the success of services organisations vests in their ability to provide service excellence by taking a holistic view of these complicated and interleaved elements. And in a world in which many organisations are focussed on customer-centricity, the ability to share real-time project progress with customers is becoming a service differentiator. 69% of firms indicate changing customer expectations as their top pressure in managing projects2.
So the old-fashioned approach of project managers sitting astride several disconnected spreadsheets (one each for employees/sub-contractors/ scheduling/time/ budget versus actual/work-in-progress etc) and giving monthly client updates is patently unworkable in a new era of real-time communications and collaboration. Neither is it really feasible to ensure timely and complete project visibility when key project elements are manged in disconnected Best-of-Breed applications such as time and expense management or project billing.
Providing services is now much more about end-to-end accountability than accounting and in practice this can only be achieved in a unified application, such as PSA (Professional Services Automation)
Cloud-based PSA (Professional Services Automation)
Cloud-based PSA (Professional Services Automation) applications lend themselves ideally to standardising, automating and controlling service delivery from the initial building of pipeline through to final billing and collection. It is this unified capability in the cloud that is transforming service industries by enabling them to better allocate project resources, drive better project profitability and enhance collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Managing people in the cloud
Managing people onto projects has always been a challenge, now exacerbated by the growing population of sub-contractors upon which many service companies rely. In fact professional services organisations list the difficulty of aligning project plans to resource schedules at their top concern3. Key issues include;
- Matching the technical requirements of the job with the skill sets of the employees and subcontractors.
- Ensuring the right blend of skills from a financial perspective i.e. a mix variance (time and hourly rate) across the team that delivers a profitable outcome.
- Scheduling, i.e. matching and reserving the required skill sets so that they are available to be deployed to the project exactly where and when needed.
But resource scheduling has to be malleable. Teams may have to change at short notice, because critical people cannot be released from earlier projects or because of unexpected delays, illness, holidays and training commitments. And it’s not just the availability of people on the service provider’s team that is important. Critical resources on the client side may also have to be reserved and are often equally vulnerable to unplanned changes and oversights.
This is where PSA systems such as FinacialForce PSA in the cloud are so valuable. They give project managers and the individuals working on an assignment complete real-time visibility of how resources are being deployed. It means that the effect of unplanned changes can be modelled quickly and all of the relevant personnel (including the client) notified as the project team is reconfigured – something that would be impossible in a spreadsheet.
PSA with embedded HCM (Human Capital Management) is a real bonus enabling project administrators to identify suitably qualified personnel as well as new hires in the pipeline who could be allocated in the future. So profound is the advantage of directly linking human capital management to a PSA application (and CRM) that FinancialForce has coined a new expression, “Peoplecasting” to underline the game-changing possibilities of this new level of interoperability. It helps project stakeholders take a more holistic approach to forecasting, capacity planning, recruiting and on-boarding from the very beginnings of a project to its conclusion.
Managing project finances in the cloud
Managing the profitability (or more accurately contribution) of a project can be extremely demanding against the background of constantly changing project dynamics. Modern PSA systems allow finance departments to keep their finger on the pulse and be constantly on the lookout for danger signs of common financial risks. For example cloud-based PSA help ensures that;
- the finance team can dependably forecast future revenues and margin based on a clear view of the probability-adjusted pipeline of jobs coming from the CRM system.
- the cost of sales, i.e. the cost of winning the work has not been ‘lost’ in administrative overheads of the company and is properly borne by the project itself.
- all of the accumulated work-in-progress is billable and will not give rise to an unexpected overrun at the conclusion of the project.
- all of the costs of the project are captured accurately and that additional cost will not appear unexpectedly and irrecoverably after the project is closed and the final bill issued.
The key to managing these risks is complete integration of, CRM, time and expense recording, resourcing, project costing, billing and financials together with real-time visibility (dashboards, reports, enquiries and alerts) of all of the drivers of profitability, for example, blended team rates and utilisation versus budget.
Specialist functionality around revenue recognition can helpfully ensure compliance with accounting standards (IFRS 15) for more complex projects.
Vitally, PSA in the cloud allows the coalescence and synchronisation of operational and financial project drivers. For example, the ability to seamlessly link a CRM system allows an early appreciation of forecast revenues (financial) as well as advanced warning of resourcing requirements to be reflected in forward scheduling (operational).
Enhancing customer/client interactions
An integrated CRM system can capture early stage bidding considerations but there are important benefits to allowing customers selected access to project information as well. In some industries projects may take a well-defined path but in other environments, for example, IT and consultancy, projects are frequently subject to change. For example, customers can change their requirements mid-stream, or delays can occur, say, in the delivery of a vital piece of equipment or a particular skill set which lies on the project’s critical path.
Handling change is not always straightforward and ‘change control’, where supplier and customer, and/or provider and sub-contractor have to agree any additional costs or delays to keep a project on track can quickly become contentious and lead to dispute. So open-book communications and project transparency, before problems escalate may be vital.
PSA in the cloud enables client and vendors to share visibility of progress against budget to see how resources have been deployed and/or additional cost has been incurred. In some instances detailed information about time and expenses is a contractual requirement as supporting evidence at the time of billing. Giving clients direct access via the cloud can avoid needless invoice disputes.
In addition, modern PSA systems such as FinancialForce PSA allow mobile access to project or customer data. This can handle time and expense entry (very important for consultants on the move), as well as approvals by project managers and finance, ensuring that project costs are as up-to-date as possible before billing and ensuring that nothing is left out.
Complex projects involving a mixture of customer and vendor personnel are often challenged with knowledge sharing. That could be in relation to project methodology and documentation standards or it could be around understanding and signing off project deliverables. In many cases a primary object is to make the client self-sufficient and capable of running, say, a new factory, a hi-tech building or a new computer systems once the vendor team has completed its work and left. Sharing project documents and know-how forms an essential part of this process and, for example, FinancialForce PSA allows documents to be shared within “Project Communities”, a sort of workspace, established within the PSA system.
Collaboration is further enhanced through capability such as Salesforce’s chatter that allows all stakeholders (with security permission) to enter into conversation in real-time while simultaneously viewing real-time project information, such as project status in order to make better decisions. And with Chatter those conversations remain time-stamped and auditable within the application as a permanent record of what was discussed and agreed.
In common with the broader economy, services based organisations have endured a period of massive change. The new vogue for customer-centricity has changed the emphasis from one of technical excellence to customer service excellence, ushering in a period in which the focus of project management is on resource management, communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Of course accounting and financial risk management remain high on the agenda since project profitability in large complex projects are particularly vulnerable to unexpected change. So modern project management is about joining up the dots between CRM, Human Capital Management (HCM), social collaboration, billing and accounting. As such, matters have moved well beyond the scope of spreadsheets.
PSA solutions seek to bind all of these moving parts into one unified and automated system and are enjoying considerable success. Firms with PSA deliver 85% of their projects on-time or early3 and with PSA deployed in the cloud smart CFOs know that they also have the scalability and agility for the future.
Note1 The Telegraph, January 2016, The self-employed will overtake the public sector with the ‘gig economy’
Note2 Aberdeen Group, Managing the Customer in Professional Services; Enabling Communication Through PSA May 2014
Note3 Aberdeen Group, Improve Project Profitability with Professional Services Automation July 2015
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