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.

The 2014 Professional Services Maturity Benchmark

Review 2013 to prepare for 2014
by Dave Hofferberth, Service Performance Insight

We are preparing to begin our seventh annual Professional Services Maturity Benchmark survey. Much has changed in seven years, as the economy went from boom times to bust almost overnight. In the past two years, we have seen the professional services market regain momentum to traditional 10 percent-plus annual growth. While on the surface this growth gives many PS executives optimism about the economy’s future, it comes with a few caveats.

Dealing with lackluster results

2013Review.gifWhile the professional services market has grown more than 10 percent annually for the past two years, many professional services organizations still experience lackluster results. Professional services growth tends to be a leading indicator of the health of the overall economy because PS experts help organizations navigate change and growth while improving efficiency.

Although a long time coming, the North American market is finally stabilizing and recovering while the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions continue to traverse its sovereign debt crisis and China’s turbulent growth slows. Uneven market expansion combined with increased pricing and regulatory pressures have upped the ante regarding PSO efficiency and effectiveness.

Facing the talent cliff

Second, the professional services market is at an interesting juncture in terms of talent. The looming “talent cliff,” in particular. Research shows that professional services organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to find, hire and retain highly qualified staff with the skills necessary to succeed in a demanding market. In the U.S. and other developed countries, workers with requisite science, technology, engineering and math education and skills are becoming increasingly scarce. Furthermore, older workers with these skills are retiring at a never-seen-before pace.

With immigration being a sensitive topic for politicians and business leaders alike, many PSOs are going offshore to less developed regions to find personnel with adequate skills. Regardless, for the professional services market to grow, it will need to incorporate a more active role in the development and retention of its talent. In the upcoming survey, we will closely explore this topic, as it can affect the future of the overall economy.

The combination of a talent shortage and return to double-digit revenue growth have driven both billable utilization and the percentage of employees who are billable to higher levels than the past six years have seen. While these results show PS executives are more focused on eliminating overhead and non-billable staff time, there is a point at which voluntary employee attrition due to burnout and demand for higher compensation and benefits will begin to hurt these organizations.

Packaging services

Another perennial area of concern and attention are all of the activities associated with the marketing, packaging and selling of services. Independent and embedded PSOs constantly look for rainmakers who combine industry and domain knowledge with the ability to grow business relationships and a book of business. These rare individuals are not made overnight. Drive and innate business acumen must be cultivated over years, if not decades, to produce consulting leaders who can effectively develop new business.

While the ability to find and retain qualified consultants is still of primary concern, all PS executives must constantly keep their eye on sales. Their focus is to create services that clearly demonstrate value to their clients, and to do it repeatedly. This evolution has given rise to the demand for packaged services, which our research began to discuss a few years ago. The alignment between marketing, sales and services has never been more important.

Conducting business planning

Another area of concern is professional services business planning. Typically, at this time of year, PS executives begin their focus on next year’s goal setting. While the organizational charter might not change from year to year, each year brings new challenges and opportunities in the professional services industry. Clients combine our annual benchmark with their own assessments of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. The net result is the creation of a strategic and tactical plan for growth and improvement.

A look at the Professional Services Maturity Model

The core tenet of the PS Maturity Model is that service- and project-oriented organizations achieve success through the optimization of five Service Performance Pillars:

  1. Leadership. Based on vision, strategy and culture, this looks at how executives create a vision and supporting strategy and lead the organization to achieve.
  2. Client relationships. This area is based on how the organization markets and sells services while focused on growth and client retention.
  3. Human capital alignment. This area looks at how the organization hires, develops, manages and retains its workforce.
  4. Services execution. This area considers how the organization delivers services efficiency and quality at the forefront.
  5. Finance and operations. This area is based on how the firm manages itself from a financial perspective, as well as on its reliance on information technology to support all operations.

Within each of the pillars are guidelines and key performance maturity measurements. These guidelines cut across the five service dimensions, or pillars, to illustrate the benefits of business process maturity. This study measures the correlation between process maturity, key performance measurements and service performance excellence.

The Professional Services Maturity Model is specifically targeted toward billable PSOs that either exclusively sell and execute professional services or complement the sale of products with services.

The difference between maturity levels

The model has five levels of maturity. It begins with level one, where the organization operates in a heroic manner. And it goes up to level five, where the organization operates in a structured and repeatable mode of continuous improvement, eliminating much of the uncertainty and waste that negatively impacts other firms. Level five performance is very difficult to attain, as it should be. However, it’s generally worth the effort as highlighted in organizational profitability.

Organizations that operate at levels one and two average approximately 6.7 percent net profit, whereas those operating at levels four and five average almost 30 percent. The difference is significant. Higher levels of profitability naturally allow the firm to hire and retain the highest-quality employees, command the highest billable rates, and have money left to invest in growth, which in professional services is critically important to long-term survival.

Maturity is determined through alignment and focus both within and across functions. For example, although financial measurements are of primary importance, they are equally weighted and correlated with leadership and sales and quality measurements to ensure organizations improve across all dimensions, not just in terms of financial performance. However, if the organization is profit-motivated, as most are, increasing maturity levels do show up in significant bottom-line profit.

The formula for sustainable success

Six years of results and insights gained have confirmed the original hypothesis that services organizations must develop a balanced and holistic approach to improving all aspects of their business as they mature. The emphasis on individual service pillar performance shifts as organizations mature. Excellence in only one particular service performance pillar does not create overall organizational success. Rather, it’s the appropriate balance and alignment within and across performance pillars that ultimately leads to sustainable success.

More than 1,500 firms have participated in the PS Maturity Model Benchmark since its first year. These organizations are global and come in all sizes and shapes. However, the consistency that exists among all of them is their focus on delivering project-based services, and generally all are for-profit or part of a profit-driven product organization.

Many of the firms, especially in the consulting sector, are heavily focused on growth and organizational profitability. But many of the embedded services organizations, such as those responsible for implementing hardware and software sold by the parent company, are more focused on areas such as sales, client retention and expansion. In other words, their mission is not necessarily to drive margin.

Pick up a copy of the survey

For many organizations, completing the annual benchmark is a rite of passage. These organizations’ executives understand the value they gain from its insight. It helps them better prepare their organizations for the challenges that lie ahead. Please take the time to download a copy of the benchmark survey so you can better understand the value this research could bring your organization.

Warning: Talent Cliff Ahead – Part 2

The looming technology workforce shortage
by Carey Bettencourt, Jeanne Urich and Dave Hofferberth, Service Performance Insight

talent hookIn the first of a two-part article on the talent cliff, we presented some of the major talent management issues that professional services executives face. Here, we share insights and preventive actions to consider in avoiding the talent cliff.

As most professional services executives already know, they cannot depend on the U.S. federal government or the education system to bail them out. Washington tends to be short on ideas but long on programs. Generally, the solutions come from businesses working together to increase the pool of talented workers. Therefore, it is imperative that PS executives, and especially their younger workers, stay well connected to the university system in order to recruit talented people.

The new world of work depends on a multilingual, global, technically skilled, project-based workforce. Today’s professional services leaders must squarely confront the realities of attracting and retaining a new generation of consultants against the backdrop of technical labor shortages as skilled baby boomers retire. Globalization has significantly impacted workforce strategies, with many services providers providing hybrid on- and off-site resources through regional and global competency centers.

Engage the changing workforce

Changing workforce dynamics drive PS executives to create a different type of workforce that requires technical and client management competencies with equal parts of flexibility, autonomy and accountability. This change means that one of the most important challenges for leaders is competing for top talent in a level, global, Web-enabled playing field of “digital natives” who value collaboration and cool, new technologies more than security and remuneration.

Today’s human capital alignment challenges include:

  • Attracting, retaining and motivating top talent.
  • Managing through a technical labor shortage.

According to a Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, the top drivers of employee attraction, retention and engagement are competitive base pay, an organization’s reputation as a great place to work and a senior management team that is sincerely interested in employee well-being. Surveys continually show that creating a high-performance employee culture involves leadership, effective teamwork, access to high-quality training and career development plans rather than compensation alone. Table 1 shows the most effective retention strategies by generation.

One of the more interesting aspects of our research is the importance of an integrated human capital strategy. Finding, hiring, motivating and retaining key employees are just the beginning. We found that human capital alignment metrics contain the highest number of performance indicators with extremely strong correlation to success — meaning how employees perform once onboard dictates ultimate success or failure.

Our research shows major growth in the use of flexible scheduling options — 40 percent more organizations now have telecommuting programs than a year ago. And more than half of all companies now offer flex time so that employees can adjust work hours to minimize commutes and accommodate required travel and child care. Remote services delivery has rapidly become standard for professional services organizations, with 40 percent or more of all PS work now delivered virtually from an off-site location.

Table 1 April 2013

Implement innovative talent strategies

To fill the workforce void, more and more PS organizations are developing innovative new talent strategies: close partnerships with local universities; new hire internships; job-sharing programs; flexible work, study and child care options; onboarding programs; and on-the-job training and mentoring combined with extensive onshore assignments for offshore employees.

Increasingly the reputation of the firm as a great place to work is just as important as client referrals. What this all boils down to is that talent is fast becoming the No. 1 make-it-or-break-it element in professional services growth … or even survival.

To meet these demands, top PS organizations are:

  • Focusing on programs to hire and train entry-level talent with skills in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Investing in internships and college hiring to groom the next generation of consultants.
  • Cross-training current employees who have strong analytic abilities.
  • Sponsoring training and work visas for international workers with strong backgrounds and skills in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Offering flexible work arrangements: work from home, job sharing, remote services delivery and child care options.
  • Building a culture of excellence. Leading-edge technologies, clients and projects plus a culture that supports collaboration and innovation attract the best and brightest.
  • Paying for performance that links compensation to knowledge and skills growth along with contributions to the practice — not just revenue generation alone.
  • Investing in employee engagement because communication, training and recognition are essential to keep a talented workforce engaged.

Mitigate employee attrition

Table 2 April 2013PS leaders should also closely monitor voluntary attrition. In an industry as highly
specialized as professional services, workers who leave take a great deal of expertise, experience and enthusiasm with them. Our six years of benchmarking have shown that as the attrition rate rises, so do a number of issues negatively impacting organizational performance and profitability.

Table 2 highlights some of these issues. PS organizations with higher levels of attrition tend to be less successful at growing their client bases and struggle to deliver projects on time and within budget. All this translates into slower growth and profitability for the PS organization. At a time when global growth is important, and larger organizations are acquiring smaller ones, it is imperative that PS organizations grow and remain profitable. Without profitable growth their long-term prospects are severely reduced.

STEM-ing the talent cliff

The talent cliff is looming. For professional services organizations, the talent management strategies implemented will be the most critical factor in determining long-term success. Organizations that effectively manage the talent cliff will be positioned for growth and prosperity. But those organizations that fail to understand and manage this burgeoning issue will face increasing business risk and diminishing success.

And one final note for those of you who are parents with children in high school — encourage them to major in science, math, engineering or technology!

 

 

Warning: Talent Cliff Ahead – Part 1

The looming technology workforce shortage
by Carey Bettencourt, Jeanne Urich and Dave Hofferberth, Service Performance Insight

tal cliffThis article is the first of a two-part series on the pending “talent cliff,” an important topic to professional services leaders. We discuss why this critical situation exists and provide some related insights from the newly published 2013 PS Maturity Benchmark for professional services.

By now, most professional services executives realize it is increasingly difficult to find, hire and retain an exceptional consulting workforce in a tight global race for talent. The bad news is that it will only get worse in developed countries as workforce demographics change, the educational system continues in disarray and immigration policies remain rigid.

To understand the growing human capital challenges, one must look at the trifecta of external forces that are creating the talent cliff.

It’s the baby boomers!

This year, the average baby boomer (people born between 1946 and 1964, as defined by the United States Census Bureau) will be 58 years old. The graph in Figure 1 shows the impact that aging baby boomers are having on the U.S. workforce. In 2000, the number of older workers was 49.2 million. In 2012, this number increased to 63.1 million. While the number of workers older than 45 has exploded, the number of U.S. workers age 25 to 44 has fallen by 6.8 million. Every day, 10,000 U.S. baby boomers retire, meaning 3.65 million experienced workers exit the workforce every year.

Figure 1. Growth of U.S. workers aged 45 or older

USWHistorically, retirement begins to accelerate when people are in their late 50s. Analysts project that by 2018, there may be more than 5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. And the number of unfilled jobs requiring STEM skills is projected to be more than 200,000. Unfilled jobs coupled with the loss of baby boomer knowledge, skills and experience could severely impact workforce productivity and the U.S. economy. Furthermore, the shortage of qualified replacement workers makes filling those jobs more difficult.

It’s the schools!

One of the most important and hotly debated topics is the state of the U.S. educational system. Regardless of political perspective, the facts are sobering. On the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment exam, the U.S. ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading among 34 OECD member countries. When the 37 partner countries (including China, Singapore and Taiwan) are incorporated into the list, the U.S. dropped to 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading. Clearly U.S. K-12 schools lag behind those in other developed countries.

Further, an insufficient number of students who go to college are pursuing STEM disciplines to meet market demands for these skills. Microsoft recently published a report underscoring this labor shortage by citing that the company has 3,400 unfilled research, development and engineering positions in the U.S. And this workforce deficit is not just a U.S. issue, as recent headlines declare a worldwide labor shortage of critical IT skills.

Multiple think tanks and nonprofit organizations have published extensively on this topic. While their proposed solutions for education system reform may differ, they all appear to agree on the future STEM-skilled workforce shortage.

It’s the immigration policies!

Immigration has been a powerful economic engine for the U.S. More than 40 percent of the U.S. Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. The current immigration policy doesn’t provide the requisite number of visas needed to allow companies to recruit internationally to fill open jobs, specifically those requiring technology skills. Moreover, the worldwide shortage for these skills means U.S. companies hiring for domestic positions are competing against firms in other countries. The immigration policy in many other countries is strategically aligned to the urgent need to globally source these highly skilled workers.

Ironically, many of these foreign workers may have been educated in American colleges and universities. Right now, no targeted immigration program exists to keep foreign students in the U.S. after they earn advanced degrees.

The challenge for 2013

In professional services with IT, software as a service, hardware, networking services and management consultancies depending on individuals with strong technology backgrounds, the talent cliff becomes the most important issue facing the market.

As evidenced in our 2013 PS Maturity Benchmark, talent management is the most important challenge according to 234 companies that completed the survey in the 4th quarter of 2012. The No. 1 challenge in 2011 of “supporting rapid growth and expansion” has been surpassed in 2012 by “talent management,” as outlined in Table 1.

YOY TMTwo years ago, PS executives were mainly concerned with sales, given the prior three years of the economic downturn. Last year, with improved sales and record year-over-year revenue growth of 13.5 percent, the focus turned to service execution. That meant efficiently delivering more projects, which led to higher revenue growth. In 2012, because of the success of the previous two years, the foremost challenge shifted to talent management. The ability to find, hire and engage a high-quality consulting workforce has become the primary concern.

The second-most critical challenge found in this benchmark is improving quality and consistency. Higher-quality services require high-caliber consultants, and generally required skills are based on problem-solving abilities, typically found in individuals with a STEM background.

Populations in the U.S. and other developed nations continue to grow. Educational systems continue to graduate students, and thousands of people immigrate to the U.S. and other developed countries every day. Unfortunately, the balance of supply and demand for individuals with the skills necessary to succeed in technical disciplines is lacking, and without a major commitment from federal, state and local agencies, developed countries, especially the U.S., will suffer over the long-term.

Stay tuned …

This article provides context for the looming talent shortage. Next time, we’ll present some of the innovative methods that PS executives should consider to effectively lead their firms away from the talent cliff.