Innovations in technology in recent years have fundamentally affected the way companies of all types and sizes do business today, particularly professional services organizations. The traditional definition of professional services organizations has expanded to include a number of industries that can benefit by integrating information technology solutions into their business model to gain a competitive advantage. To determine how this can be accomplished, this study examines how professional services organizations can benefit through this integration of information technology solutions in ways that contribute to their agility and project delivery performance. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the study’s conclusion.
Utilizing Agile Practices to Improve Project Delivery in Professional Services Organizations
Today, professional services organizations transcend traditional definitions to include a much wider array of enterprises. While these enterprises compete in divergent business sectors, they share a common need to use agile practices to improve their project delivery function in order to gain client trust and establish the long-term relationships that provide a competitive advantage. To determine current approaches, this study evaluates the research opportunities in the use of agile practices to improve project delivery in professional services organizations. A description of the evolution of this aspect of the delivery process, the current, or , thinking about how it should be done, what open issues might be subjected to further research, and why these issues should be investigated is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Significance of new developments in the end-to-end information technology delivery process and justification for the assessment.
Innovations in information technology (IT) have affected businesses of all types and sizes in recent years, and professional services organizations are no exception. Professional services organizations typically include well-known examples such as law and architectural firms, banking, accounting and healthcare practices and so forth, but the definition has expanded in recent years to include other entities as well. In this regard, Zardkoohi, Bierman, Panina and Chakrabarty (2011) note how definitions of professional services have changed in recent years and add, “The problem of defining an industry is that while a given definition may in one context neatly correspond to the existing organizational structure and ownership, changes in the context can render the definition irrelevant over time” (p. 180). To help overcome this problem, Frolovicheva (2006) offers the following definitions of professional services:
1. Deed, act, or performance;
2. An activity or series of activities. .. provided as solution to customer problems;
3. All economic activity whose output is not physical product or construction;
4. Intangible and perishable… created and used simultaneously;
5. A time-perishable, intangible experience performed for a customer acting in the role of co-producer;
6. A change in condition or state of an economic entity (or thing) caused by another;
7. Characterized by its nature (type of action and recipient), relationship with customer (type of delivery and relationship), decisions (customization and judgment), economics (demand and capacity), mode of delivery (customer location and nature of physical or virtual space); and,
8. Deeds, processes, performances;
The common theme that runs through all of the alternative definitions of “professional services” is that they involve a quid pro quo arrangement of pay for performance “in the sense that this phrase captures the fact that it is the activities of the provider for the client that are the essence of a service, as opposed to the exchange of an artifact or product being the essential element” (Frolovicheva, 2006, p. 39). In fact, today, professional services organizations include such diverse industries as information technology consulting, insurance brokers, telecommunications providers and facilities management (Frolovicheva, 2006). Likewise, Weitzul (1999) reports that in contrast to the traditional definitions of professional services organizations, the concept has been extended to include virtually any type of firm that provides professional consultation services, including actuarial services, advertising, architectural design, human resources, communications, construction, engineering, financial planning, public relations and so forth.
Another commonality among professional services organizations concerns the mutual responsibilities of the firm and its clientele in achieving a mutually satisfactory outcome. In this regard, Frolovicheva provides the example of a physician prescribing a diet and exercise regimen for a patient. Although the healthcare practitioner has provided professional services, the onus is on the patient to conform to the physician’s guidance in order to attain the benefits desired from the consultation process. This mutuality of responsibilities is an important factor when considering how IT solutions must operate to provide professional services organizations with end-to-end functionality; it also emphasizes the need for real-time information that can be used to monitor the progress on ongoing initiatives based on client feedback. In this regard, Frolovicheva points out that, “In business services, if the client does not install the new IT systems and train the necessary people in the reengineered process the client firm will not receive the benefit of the service” (2006, p. 40). Consequently, professional services organizations must ensure that their clients are following their guidance and this type of oversight can be facilitated through appropriate IT solutions, depending on the industry context involved (Froloveicheva, 2006).
This aspect of services provision also contributes to creating the trust that is an essential element in successful relationships between professional services organizations and their clientele. Virtually all professional services organizations seek to establish long-term relationships with their clientele in their capacity as consultants in a process that eventually results in trusted advisor status (Vosburgh, 2007). The following characteristics of personal credibility are essential for professional services organizations in achieving this status:
1. Effective interpersonal relationships and skills (emotional intelligence);
2. Understanding the issues and delivering the results;
3. Great communication skills: up, down, across, inside, and outside; and,
4. A reputation for meeting commitments (say what you mean and do what you say) (Vosburgh, 2007, p. 11).
Consequently, professional services organizations are primarily focused on selling services, based on a mutual understanding concerning the issues that are involved and the potential solutions that are available on which all parties can agree (Vosburgh, 2007). According to Vosburgh, professional services organizations succeed or fail based on their ability to forge long-term relationships with their clientele rather than trying to make a quick profit on a single exchange. In order to achieve long-term relationships, professional services organizations must gain the trust of their clientele by remaining responsive to their needs and consistently providing high-quality consultation services over time. In fact, the issue of trust is a key to success in professional services organizations. In this regard, Druskat, Sala and Mount (2006) emphasize that, “In professional services organizations, we know that those who are good at sales gain the trust of their clients and deliver high-quality service” (p. 130).
Besides the foregoing characteristics that are essential in forging such a long-term relationship, professional services organizations must ensure that they:
1. Deliver viable solutions;
2. Provide sound and timely advice to their clientele concerning what is actually possible; and,
3. Remain agile in an ever-changing environment (Vosburgh, 2007).
These are challenging goals by any measure, but they represent the essence of what is takes to remain competitive in a rapidly changing environment that demands real-time awareness of what customers want and need. Since definitions of professional services organizations have expanded to include a wider array of firms in recent years, the information technology (IT) solutions that are required for this purpose may differ in substantive ways, but there are some commonalities involved in this area as well than can provide important insights concerning how the end-to-end IT delivery process is contributing to their agility and these issues are discussed further below.
The most cogent sources of information on the current thinking and new developments in an end-to-end IT delivery process.
While industry sources provide a timely source of information concerning what IT solutions are available for professional services organizations, these sources will likely be biased in favor on their own products and services to the exclusion of potentially superior ones. Consequently, the most cogent, balanced and objectives sources of information concerning the most current thinking and new developments in an end-to-end IT delivery process will also include peer-reviewed and scholarly sources as well as popular media such as trade magazines and consumer reports. Unfortunately, by the time many analyses reach the press in these venues, many of the IT applications described therein have become obsolete or have diminished usefulness. Therefore, this study consulted all of these types of sources in compiling this analysis.
Evaluation of sources of information on the current thinking and new developments in an end-to-end IT delivery process and arguments to support the evaluation.
It is axiomatic that in order to evaluate something, it must first be measured in some fashion. With respect to sources of information concerning innovations in end-to-end IT delivery processes, this measurement requires a subjective weighting of the resources that are involved. A review of recent publications shows that some are more relevant and useful than others, of course, with the best adopting an objective approach to their presentations. One such exemplary resource is Epicor’s recent guide, “Managing Today’s Professional Services Organization: How to Improve Efficiency and Increase Profits” (2011). Although the guide contains some self-serving information concerning Epicor’s own IT product line, the bulk of the guide is devoted to timely and informative insights concerning how IT can facilitate project delivery in professional services organizations. For instance, according to Epicor’s guide:
Ultimately, a successful operational model demands higher-order tools such as resource, opportunity and knowledge management to achieve operational best practices. The reality facing most organizations, from small, specialized firms to the largest, most sophisticated multinational consulting agencies, is the same — each faces significant challenges related to accurately and efficiently capturing time and expense, managing work-in-progress, generating and approving invoices, and reporting on project and client status. (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011, p. 1)
Given the wide array of enterprises that now fall under the umbrella term, “professional services organizations,” the foregoing observation highlights the need for a broad-based IT solution that can be used by these enterprises to streamline their project delivery and provide them with a competitive advantage and professional services automation applications provide this capability (Kaganer, Pawlowski & Wiley-Patton, 2010). Innovative toolsets have been developed in recent years, though, that can facilitate this process and help professional services organization achieve the nimbleness they need to forge long-term relationships that are characterized by trust. For instance, Epicor’s guide reports that professional services automation (PSA) applications provide a wide array of valuable tools for professional services organizations, including opportunity management, engagement structuring, and resource and knowledge management. Augmenting professional services automation is a valuable end-to-end IT solution for professional services organizations known as enterprise service automation. In this regard, Epicor reports that:
Today’s service-centric organizations are looking for a more mission-critical, end-to-end solution for their needs; a solution that can handle the fundamentals right through project accounting and finance as well as the new market mandates in support of greater business transparency. Enter enterprise service automation, which represents a new class of solution — what every services organization needs to achieve true competitive differentiation. (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011, p. 5)
Enterprise services automation applications are becoming increasingly popular among professional service organizations, including banks and mortgage companies, and have been shown to provide significant returns on investment (Bielski, 2002). One of the major vendors of enterprise services automation applications is PeopleSoft, which also offers customer relationship management, supply chain management, human resources management, financial management, and enterprise performance management applications for professional services organizations (Ashby & Miles, 2002).
Notwithstanding the diverse nature of the types of enterprise that currently fall under the classification of professional services organizations, there are some key performance indicators involved that can help determine what type of IT solution is best suited for their needs. In this regard, Epicor reports that some of the key performance indicators for professional services organizations include: (a) employee utilization, (b) net realized rates, (c) revenue growth and (d) practice profitability. To achieve the agility needed to gain a competitive advantage, then, professional services organizations must be able to manage their internal and external customers in efficient ways (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011). An important point highlighted by the analysis of IT solutions presented by Epicor was the fact that enterprise performance management applications can help professional services organizations generate more revenues by automating many of the administrative processes that are required for service delivery (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011).
Beyond additional revenues, gaining agility in the project delivery function is also facilitated with the use of enterprise performance management applications by reducing project delivery times, thereby improving client satisfaction and contributing to the long-term relationships that are essential to success (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011). By developing more streamlined administrative practices, professional services organizations can achieve a competitive advantage in a number of ways, including improved resource allocation, project budgeting, sales tracking, capacity planning and consolidated portfolio and performance reporting (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011). The introduction of enterprise performance management applications has been largely in response to increasing competition in a globalized marketplace, making the need for specialized IT applications for professional services organizations an essential ingredient for success. These applications provide a number of valuable service-related tasks including the applications set forth in Table 1 below:
Applications of enterprise service automation in professional services organizations
1. Contact, Lead and Opportunity Development
2. Engagement and Bid Structuring
3. Resource Management
4. Strategic Workforce Planning and Sourcing
5. Human Resources
1. Billing and Cash Flow
2. Cost and Revenue Recognition
1. Delivery Management
2. Time and Expense, Materials, Approvals
3. Project Management
4. Project Planning and Budgeting
5. Practice and Scope Management
1. Efficiency and Profitability Analysis
2. Project Portfolio Management
Source: Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011, p. 5
As an extension of enterprise resource planning solutions, implementing and administering enterprise performance management applications is not a one-shot affair, but rather requires ongoing fine-tuning to ensure they remain effective and provide the desired outcomes. In this regard, Epicor concludes that, “Professional services organizations following industry best practices have come to rely on enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions coupled with continuous improvement initiatives like Lean and Six Sigma” (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011, p. 5). This trend has been supported by the introduction of industry-specific software applications that can streamline the delivery of professional consultation services from start to finish (Managing today’s professional services organization, 2011). Although ESA and ERP applications can provide professional services organizations with the end-to-end solutions they need to facilitate project delivery, any such IT application demands accurate and timely information in order to be effective (The need for good information, 2009).
Other useful resources that were found to be of high quality include a recent analysis by Copeland (2010). This authority reports that in order to help improve the quality of the information they need to make their enterprise performance management tools efficient, many professional services organizations have turned to customer relationship management (CRM) applications to collect and process the timely information they need to remain agile in an increasingly dynamic and competitive marketplace (Copeland, 2010). In this regard, Copeland advises that, “Customer relationship management is the process of managing and leveraging customer relationships. To maximize the effectiveness of CRM as a marketing tool, companies must methodically and tenaciously commit to organizing and optimizing their data” (2010, p. 58).
Indeed, an enormous variety of CRM applications have been designed for companies of all types and sizes in recent years, including professional services organizations, that can help reduce project delivery timeframes and improve the quality of the support services that are involved. Vendors such as Microsoft CRM, Salesforce.com, SalesLogix, Act, and CtoldMine have all developed databases that can be used to aggregate customer data for organization-wide sharing purposes (Copeland, 2010). According to Copeland, adoption rates of CRM applications have varied among professional services organizations, with certified public accountants (CPAs) being somewhat reluctant to integrate these systems into their overall IT solutions with just 15% of so of such firms adopting this IT solution compared to 65% of broader financial services providers. This reluctance is attributable in part to the fact that the integration of CRM applications may take CPAs out of their comfort zone by requiring significant new learning as well as questions concerning return on investments in these IT solutions (Copeland, 2010). Despite this varied adoption rate, professional services organizations of all types can benefit from customer relationship management applications. For instance, Copeland emphasizes that, “CRM provides one location for all a firm’s customer information, with more full-featured systems tracking customer details and demographics, identifying areas of future service potential and providing billing information, invoicing tools, and a history of services performed to date” (2010, p. 59).
Generally speaking, CRM applications are that can provide professional services organizations with a number of values features depending on their specialized requirements, but some of the more common applications include tracking follow-up and action item lists, generating direct mailing lists, as well as providing various marketing campaign tools that can be used to target the needs of a company’s current clientele as well as prospective clients (Copeland, 2010). According to Copeland (2010), CPAs should take note that the return on investment for CRM applications in general is impressive, providing up to a 1,000% return on investment in terms of increased productivity and overall business process improvements.
Other IT solutions being used by professional services organizations are even more cost-effective and are easily integrated into legacy systems. For instance, Copeland cites the example of social networking as being a potentially valuable resource for professional services organizations. In this regard, Copeland reports that, “Joining a Linkedln accounting and financial professionals group, for example, instantaneously provides a professional online peer group of over 20,000 individuals” (2010, p. 60). Copeland is quick to caution, though, that social networking venues must be used judiciously because they are rife with users who are either simply seeking employment opportunities or are otherwise using these venues for their own self-interest, making them of limited value for professional services organizations seeking business development. To overcome this constraint, Copeland recommends that professional services organizations join focused groups in these venues. According to Copeland, “The Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA) determined that social networking allows accountants to access other professionals at a much more accelerated pace, with blogs being the most successful social media tools, followed equally by Twitter, Facebook, and Iinkedln” (2010, p. 60).
Another useful resource in this area was provided by O’Connor (2003) who cites the broad-based nature of the enterprises in which professional services organizations are involved at present, making a review of what types of end-to-end IT products and services are available a prerequisite for selecting that IT solution that is best suited. For instance, mortgage companies, can use FNIS’s RealEC Technologies, described by O’Connor as “a fully integrated electronic settlement service vendor-management solution,” to improve their project delivery function (p. 26). Moreover, this IT solution has been shown to provide faster portfolio review, decisions concerning loan applications for consumers as well as more rapid access to documentation in such areas as flood insurance and radon inspections (O’Connor, 2003). Likewise, Intuit’s Quicken represents an end-to-end IT solution for mortgage companies (O’Connor, 2003). Taken together, IT vendors have recognized the needs of professional services organizations and have developed some powerful solutions to help them accomplish their organizational goals in recent years, and the implications of these trends are discussed further below.
Evaluation of the implications of a development in an end-to-end IT delivery process for individuals and organizations and justification for the evaluation.
Clearly, all IT solutions are not going to provide the same “bang for the buck,” and professional services organizations searching for the optimal solution must ensure that the applications they select for integration into their existing infrastructure are the best available for the purposes. One such application is offered by Elite Business Intelligence; this solution developed by Thomson Elite is specifically designed for professional services organizations in general and law firms in particular and provides near-real-time productivity metrics and analytics using a single integrated business intelligence platform (West, 2006). The implications of such an application, particularly in a law firm setting, involve the ability to improve organization-wide data-sharing practices which might be lacking otherwise. For example, Sternberg and Horvath emphasize that, “Indeed, in many professional services organizations such as law firms, the incentive is for individuals to not share what they know and thus further protect their economic value to the organization” (p. 18).
Other vendors such as IBM have introduced IT packages that have proven to be highly effective for professional services organizations. According to Liao (2007), IBM and Lenovo has forged a strategic alliance that is intended to deliver superior services over the long-term by applying IBM’s end-to-end IT solutions for a wide range of sales and services. Likewise, professional services organizations such as banks can use Spectrum’s warehouse software that aggregates payment instructions and other banking data and enables internal processing, interbank transfers, and other cost-saving measures. According to Orr (2001), Spectrum operates by generating electronic billing information from billing service providers and aggregating the data which can then be used by the sponsoring bank to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
Additional information can be accessed by the bank’s customer by using the hyperlinks provided on their Web site, or they can opt to communication directly with Spectrum at the Chase data center located in Houston, Texas (Orr, 2001). The time-saving qualities of this application are significant and can help these professional services organizations achieve the agility they need to gain a competitive advantage (Orr, 2001).
Other financial services organizations can also benefit from some of the current IT offerings that are available. For instance, according to O’Connor, professional services organizations competing in the mortgage industry have struggled to identify superior information technology solutions. This authority reports that, “Participants in this highly competitive sector live and die by their ability to connect with clients — and each other — and to process huge amounts of data. IT promises speed, greater efficiency and the elimination of costly duplication in data entry” (2003, p. 27). This authority, though, suggests that financial services companies should carefully weigh the benefits and costs involved in integrating IT solutions before making the decision concerning which approach best satisfies their needs (O’Connor, 2003). In this regard, O’Connor (2003) notes that in some cases, developing a strategic partnership with an IT provider may represent a superior alternative for professional services organizations. A good example of this approach is the use of Intuit’s Quicken Loans end-to-end IT solution. Although Quicken experienced a somewhat rocky beginning at the turn of the 21st century, online mortgage services have consistently gained market share and current projections indicate these trends will continue well into the future (O’Connor, 2003). As O’Connor points out, “People are feeling more and more comfortable about the online experience from end to end” (2003, p. 27). These examples indicate that professional services organizations can benefit from IT solutions in a number of ways that can facilitate their service delivery, but there is still a need for a set of best industry practices in their implementation and administration and these issues are discussed further below.
Opportunities for further research about a specific aspect of the end-to-end IT delivery process and the potential strategic business value of the research.
The research showed that irrespective of what types of services are involved, professional services organizations require IT solutions that provide them with the real-time information they need to make informed decisions and improve their ability to deliver services to existing clients and market their services to prospective clientele. The number and sophistication of such IT solutions continues to grow, making the selection of the optimal solution all the more difficult. In order to realize the most return on their IT investments, then, professional services organizations must take into account what their goals for such solutions are and then tailor their choice of vendor and application accordingly (Vosburgh, 2007).
In some cases, a hybrid approach that combines the best of what is available for industry-specific applications might be most appropriate for many professional services organizations. For instance, Piazza (2002) notes that there has also been an increasing use of application service providers (ASPs) by professional services organizations in recent years. In this regard, Piazza (2002) reports that, “the application service provider (ASP) model, which gives companies a hybrid option — keep the function in house but outsource the up-front equipment and long-term maintenance expenses. The Internet makes this feasible” (2002, p. 82).
Application service providers represent a viable alternative for some professional services organizations because they allow these companies to pick and choose which services they need on a contractual basis without the corresponding need for in-house training, maintenance and administration. According to Piazza (2002), ASPs provide access to IT solutions without the need for professional services organizations to purchase them outright. These attributes make ASPs a particularly useful alternative for smaller professional services organizations that may lack the resources, including the in-house expertise, needed to take advantage of the benefits that can accrue to integrating IT solutions into their business model.
This trend represents a real opportunity to conduct further research concerning what types of professional services organizations are opting for this IT alternative and what types of services they are selecting for their IT solutions. Another area that represents an opportunity for further analysis includes identifying a set of best industry practices that can be used by professional services organizations when selecting and integrating whichever IT solutions they select. At present, there is a paucity of such guidance available and in many professional services settings, O’Connor emphasizes that, “There is no received wisdom as to how things ought to be done” (2003, p. 27).
The research showed that until fairly recently, professional services organizations were traditionally defined as being law firms, advertising, architectural design, banks, healthcare providers and so forth, but in recent years, this definition has been expanded to include a myriad of other enterprises including IT consulting firms, facilities management, insurance brokers and telecommunications services. Based on the broad-based nature of the services that currently fall under the umbrella grouping of professional services, the research also showed that there was a need for specialized information technology solutions that can help these professional services firms improve their project delivery and overall performance in order to gain a competitive advantage. In response to this need, a number of information technology solutions have been developed in recent years, including enterprise resource management and planning applications that can be tailored to satisfy the specific needs of professional services organizations regardless of the type of services that are involved, and these solutions were also shown to be able to help practitioners devote more of their time to billable activities rather than being mired down in unprofitable administrative chores that are more appropriately accomplished by automation. Finally, the research showed that it is important to carefully weigh the advice provided by various sources concerning which information technology solution is best suited for a particular setting, making the need to develop a balanced analysis using a wide range of sources important as well.
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