One of the biggest and most consistent challenges at professional services firms is resource planning. Creating and maintaining optimal schedules in a business with thousands of people is no mean feat. To the uninitiated, it may seem like a straightforward problem to solve:
- Source some project management or scheduling software;
- Use your existing skills and team knowledge to allocate tasks to people;
- Support your teams as they deliver the plan.
It’s not exactly a five-minute job, but in a day or two you’ll have what you need. Probably. (You tell yourself.)
Sure, you’ll need to make some occasional adjustments to the resource plan to accommodate unforeseen changes, such as staff absences, last-minute client projects, and so on, but you can deal will that ad-hoc. It won’t cause serious disruption. (You tell yourself.)
Unfortunately, as the initiated know, it doesn’t run quite so smoothly in the real world, and those last-minute changes have knock-on effects that cause serious disruption. Before long you’re in reactive mode, firefighting to keep everything running smoothly.
The three steps outlined above do work for some teams, but generally smaller ones or those working on fewer projects. For those teams there are many wonderful project management tools out there capable of meeting their requirements. However, if your company is operating at a large or enterprise-scale, you need much more.
The scale of the challenge
At this level, you have thousands of professionals to coordinate across hundreds of projects. And because of the size of your operation, variability is inevitable; you’re managing a dynamic operation where hundreds (or thousands) of daily changes would not be out of the ordinary.
In this environment, here’s what a resourcing team will probably need to consider:
- Hundreds of unique skills (consider all the skill categories and the various competency grades within each)
- Hundreds of rules around restrictions and confidentiality, which can change regularly
- Unexpected absences, such as sickness, training courses, last-minute holidays, etc.
- Losing large cohorts of staff to professional qualifications training at the same time
- Various client-specific SLAs and project-based deadlines
- Personal preferences of your people, in line with their PDPs, career aspirations, etc.
- Director’s and manager’s preferences, based on past experience and intuition
- Client preferences (because they have favourites, too!)
- P&L targets and maintaining target recovery rates
- Overrunning costs and loss-limitations
- Sustainable and economic resource utilisation (burnout prevention and value for money)
(That’s a strong list of considerations, but let us know if we’ve missed anything!)
Fortunately, your awesome resourcing team is on hand to handle this; they have the knowledge and skills to figure out who should do what and when. Hooray!
But wait, once they’ve spent their collective thousands of hours producing a schedule, what happens when something changes? You know, when your best auditor is suddenly absent for some reason, or the senior partner wants her on a different engagement?
Sure, you can horse-trade with colleagues, tweak the schedule, and squeeze things into place, but within a couple of weeks your schedule will be less recognisable, and far from optimal. Again.
It’s time for change
Enterprise-level scheduling in professional services is extremely complex.
This complexity means that it is virtually impossible to create an optimal schedule in the first place, never mind keep it that way in a changing environment. And that’s not a criticism of the hard-working resourcing team, it’s just a limitation in the way brains are wired.
Furthermore, scheduling at this level is a never-ending task, which means it can become mundane and demotivating.
But technology LOVES handling these challenges!
By introducing intelligent software that takes the heavy-lifting out of resource planning, and by eliminating the firefighting synonymous with last-minute changes, resourcing teams can focus on being proactive and inputting to the strategic direction of the firm.
What could that look like? Examples we’ve seen:
- Spending time with client-facing colleagues to understand their skills and preferences helps firms allocate the best person to every engagement, which has a direct impact on service levels, team morale, and client longevity.
- When scheduling is quick and easy, modelling various scenarios becomes a reality. For example, want to understand the impact of taking on a new client? Add it to the workstack and see how everything else will be affected. (Pretty valuable to understand those potential costs when pricing a job, right?)
- Enabling resourcing teams to review, analyse and challenge engagement budgets ensures that the firm is deploying its people appropriately, both operationally and economically.
Of course, there are numerous advantages to being more strategic and proactive. For every one you can think of now there are probably 2x or 3x more, but they’re hidden away in your subconscious because business as usual is hogging your headspace!
Automation is the answer! (Well, mostly.)
Q: What happened to the number of bank tellers over the 45 years since the US introduced automated teller machines (ATMs)?
A: It doubled! From around ¼ million in 1972 to more than ½ million today. And 100,000 of those were added since 2000!
This is an engaging statistic from economist David Autor’s TED talk. In it he addresses a paradox we don’t hear much about: despite a century of creating machines to do our work for us, the proportion of adults in the US with a job has consistently gone up for the past 125 years. So, why hasn’t human labour become redundant and our skills obsolete? For further reading on the subject, check out Boston University professor James L. Bessen’s innovation research paper.
At Airts we don’t believe in automating jobs, we believe in progression. Our philosophy is to automate what should be automated, and provide powerful tools to help people do a better job where their input adds most value. To quote Bessen: “Critically, automating a task is not the same as completely automating an occupation.”
That’s why we created Braid
Braid has reinvented resource planning by introducing unprecedented levels of automated scheduling, with no loss of manual control. In real-world scenarios, this is hugely advantageous:
Focus on objectives, not rules
Just tell Braid your strategic objective, such as “keep all work within team A” or “prioritise deadlines over everything else” and it will figure out the schedule for you. Traditional automated scheduling tools usually fail to deliver on expectations because they rely on vast and complex rule-sets to be defined and maintained. This admin burden often results in people reverting to manual methods. Braid is different, thanks to its ability to understand real-world objectives.
Continuous optimisation for everyone
Embrace last-minute changes! If people become unavailable, Braid can reallocate work in seconds, adjusting the schedule to accommodate those changes without sacrificing the optimised plan. This is thanks to its ability to calculate 40,000 scheduling options per second!
You’re in control
If you decide to manually adjust anything in the schedule, Braid works with you. Your decisions always take precedence and Braid makes sure that everything else fits neatly around them. You remain in control, with the option to introduce as much automation as you need.
Motivate your people
The additional flexibility of not having to firefight when schedules change can be great for staff. There’s a lot of a high quality content out there guiding leaders on how to motivate and encourage individuals to achieve their best. Personally, I’m a big fan of Dan Pink’s work, and particularly enjoyed his still highly relevant 2009 TED talk, during which he presents evidence that people are motivated by mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Here at Airts, we like to think that by eliminating mundane and repetitive tasks, and increasing flexibility for teams, Braid gets people another step towards achieving these crucial things.
Take the three-question test!
Ask yourself the following:
1. Scale: Are you scheduling lots of people and/or projects?
2. Complexity: Are there many variables to consider?
3. Dynamic: Do things change frequently?
Did you answer yes to any two of those questions?