As agencies, consultancies and people based operations prepare for growth in 2014 I never cease to be amazed by the versatility of the professional services sector. The creativity and inventiveness of companies whose primary resource lies in its people has fended off years of recession to face what is hopefully a new age of prosperity. But, of course, a successful professional services firm is not just down to the consultants and individuals on the front line who regularly push the boundaries. It's also down to management who create an environment that allows that creativity to flourish.
However, despite the good news, many professional services firms are squeezed on margin, fight hard to earn their money and can find acquiring new clients challenging - even when times are 'good'. When faced with these real business issues, it makes sense to ensure that processes are fully optimised so that money is not wasted on leaky internal processes.
Assembly line attitude
Creativity should of course remain at the forefront of people-centred businesses, but it's vital that managers not become complacent over the 'nuts and bolts' of their organisations. For instance, if you were to look at manufacturing or production-based industries, you'd see that benchmarking has been ingrained into how they optimise their processes for years. 'Assembly line' businesses were quick to embrace enterprise resource planning (ERP) technology to optimise their internal processes and ensure they were creating maximum value from minimal effort. The result is that today it's unthinkable for manufacturers to operate without a unified business system - the factory would simply not compete.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the professional services sector. The industry is made up of 'those who do' and 'those who don't' make use of the technological resources that are available to them. As a result, I'm afraid to say, they tend to lag behind their manufacturing counterparts. And it's clear to see why. In the manufacturing industry, many processes are automated and simply happen without any human intervention. The same cannot be said be of the professional services industry where all processes are characterised by human intervention and evaluation.
As someone who works closely with companies throughout the professional services sector, I can't help but think it could be time the service-based industries to change. In my view, firms need to take industry benchmarks seriously, to understand what can be done in terms of process optimisation - and to install the tools and systems that will help them define accurate, achievable objectives that will allow them to compete with the best.
To me, there are some key stages to reaching process optimisation nirvana. The starting point is relatively straightforward and that lies in having order in internal data. Or, in other words, it is imperative that you have the ability to be able to mine and analyse data consistently across projects, across teams, across departments - even across different geographies through a reliable, centralised system that will deliver you a picture of your firm's situation in 'real time'. This will provide you with the insight you need to analyse how you are operating today and compare your success with your strongest competitors.
I accept that this could mean sifting through vast amounts of data that has been collected over years. But it's worth it. For once you have mined and ordered this information, you will be in a position to make changes - informed changes - about how your business operates. After all, without sight of this information, any decision you make would be at best a guess. Having order and discipline means you are well-placed to make clear decisions that are drawn from the heart of your organisation.
Cause and effect
It is only once you have made sense of your business and the way it operates that you are ready to take it to the next level. And that means stirring things up a bit. Or in other words, you have to provoke things to get a reaction. If you are using a centralised business system, then it will quickly show you how even the smallest adjustment to the way you do things can ripple through your firm, creating more productive outcomes. After all, if you simply keep doing what you have always done then you will just get the same result. Think of it this like this: it's about standing up to those people whose response to why something is done the way it is, is 'it's always been like that.'
Such comments aren't just an obstacle to change. They are a drag on progress and lead to organisations getting stuck firmly in a rut. The only way to avoid this threat is to be radical; to be prepared to cause disruption; to upset the applecart; to give everything a shake-up. Then - and only then - will you be in with a chance of making improvements to your firm that will help you achieve tangible improvements.
To ensure that you don't slip back into the old way of doing things, the final part of embedding process optimisation is to continue the good work and remain outward looking. After all, to be competitive in this increasingly global market, you need to benchmark yourself against the very best and ensure you are comparable and within reach of your organisational goals.
So, I'll nail my colours to the wall. It's time for the professional services sector to play catch-up with manufacturing firms by adopting technology to benchmark their processes. The manufacturing sector has done much to embed best practices, and now it's the turn of professional services to take the helm and drive margin improvements through process optimisation.