The Struggle to Align Human Capital in Professional Services

Successful professional services executives know employees are the most critical asset. Finding great employees, hiring them and helping them grow, work and stay engaged largely affects the organization’s long-term success.

employeesIt has become increasingly difficult to find new employees with the requisite science, technology, engineering and math skills the technology consulting industry needs. The problems this situation has created have become more apparent in the last year. For instance, professional services industry growth shows signs of slowing since its five-year peak two years ago, as firms struggle to find the right people to sustain momentum. In a market accustomed to annual revenue growth rates higher than 15 percent, slowing growth puts additional pressure on the organization. The industry feels the impact, but it shows up most in dramatically lower net profit.

Table 1. The Effects of Attrition on Delivering Work on Time
Table 1
In the past year, annual attrition has also increased, placing more pressure on the professional services organization’s ability to grow and prosper. Table 1 highlights some of the critical issues facing professional services organizations due to increased attrition. As attrition rises in professional services, the ability to deliver work on-time and on-budget declines.

Mergers and acquisitions are taking place at a near-record pace. Why? They have become one of the best avenues for expansion while also augmenting the skills and talent of the workforce. However, unless the acquirer can find a way to keep talented employees, M&A does not necessarily guarantee future growth and success. Mismatched skills and nervous employees tend to leave the newly combined organization.

Billable utilization declines
The 2014 PS Maturity Benchmark shows that billable utilization has dropped for the first time in five years. This decrease, while not significant, mirrors some of the issues associated with lower profit margins. Professional services organizations should strive for at least 75 percent billable utilization.

Table 2 highlights the correlation between billable utilization and other key performance indicators. It reveals that organizations increase billable utilization to achieve higher revenue per billable consultant. While this correlation might seem obvious, it provides professional services executives with a clearer understanding of just how important focusing on billable utilization is for the firm. The table also shows how billable utilization impacts the professional services organization’s ability to meet both revenue and margin targets, which fuel future growth.

Table 2. Connection Between Billable Utilization and Other KPIs
Table 2Source: Service Performance Insight, June 2014

What should PS executives do?
To optimize human capital, PS executives must focus on several key areas:

1. Focus on employee acquisition and retention. Understanding the organization’s strategic and tactical goals enables the entire organization to focus on hiring the right type of individuals with the right skills to drive the organization forward. Once on board, retention is critical. PS executives must balance utilization and revenue targets with training and career development to ensure employees stay and prosper with the firm. As the economy has grown in the past three years, professional services attrition has risen with it, making it one of the most critical issues facing PS executives. Watch for burnout. Due to senior-level employees spending more time on client interaction and business development, younger consultants are required to deliver much higher billable utilization than their more experienced peers. They can burn out easily if they work too many hours. You don’t want to better prepare them to work at their next company. Your goal is to keep them employed at yours.

2. Balance revenue versus cost for each employee. Having good people is one thing, having people with the necessary skills that are offset by their ability to generate revenue is another. Individuals with high price tags need to bill at high rates. Individual productivity and margin are important to understand to ensure each consultant generates sufficient profit to help the firm grow and prosper.

3. Provide the right tools and infrastructure. Employees who have access to specialized tools and training are less apt to move on. They see an investment in tools as an investment in them and their productivity. Employees’ ability to gain expertise in the tool not only makes them more valuable to the PSO, but also provides them with a higher degree of self-confidence.

4. Training is worth the cost. Younger employees are happier if their organization invests in the training necessary to make them more valuable. Organizations that don’t invest in training often show much higher attrition rates. Training doesn’t have to occur during working hours. It could be on nights and weekends, which won’t affect potential billable hours. Consultants are continuous learners, they are motivated by knowledge and skill development.

Looking ahead
In the next decade, the professional services market must do a top-to-bottom analysis of how it builds and maintains a high-caliber workforce. Changes in the educational system and lifestyle preferences of younger employees will determine how PSOs go to market. Devoting more attention to recruitment, training and retention processes goes a long way to determining the success of the organization.

Times have changed, the employees coming out of college just a decade or two ago are different than those of today. Understanding and meeting the needs of the new workforce, how they are developed and how they are motivated will be a big factor in the overall success and prosperity of the Professional Service industry.