Blazing a digital path in professional services

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright November 18, 2013

Allianz Arena
Today's mobile, collaborative computing platforms and a highly educated, self-directed workforce allow a radical rethinking of traditional enterprise structures. In an intriguing presentation earlier this month at Microsoft Convergence EMEA in Barcelona, the CEO of a specialist professional services firm outlined his company's organically inspired approach.

Founded ten years ago, hhpberlin is a German leader in fire safety engineering for large-scale public construction projects, ranging from shopping centres and corporate headquarters to the Allianz Arena football stadium in Munich and Terminal 1 at Frankfurt Airport. All its 149 employees are engineers — a highly motivated, individualistic and mobile workforce, increasingly diverse in nationality and often working in distributed project teams.

Trust is essential to get the most out of this workforce, said CEO Stefan Truthaen in his presentation. Therefore the IT infrastructure supports an organizational structure that is designed to maximize the potential contribution of each engineer.

"What can we support so that every engineer performs at their best?' Do more with less' is not compatible."

"IT is not cost driven, it's more like a resource. IT is to support people, not to replace people."

The company's organizational structure is modelled on organic principles oriented for growth, he explained. Employees are grouped into small teams of five to eight people according to location or specific skills in fire safety engineering, ideally with a balance of different personal characteristics in each team. The teams are like cells in an organism that subdivide as they grow, said Truthaen:

"When this cell is growing, the cell splits and more and more cells are forming the company."

Not your classic CRM

There are no salespeople in the firm. Instead, engineers take the lead in responding to opportunities. Rather than prospecting for sales or contracts, the approach is more a matter of scoping resources and capability, making a proposal and then scaling up after winning the offer. Therefore hhpberlin's use of the Dynamics CRM system is not a classic prospect and account regime, said Truthaen.

"We have no customer relationship management ... it's more a tool that supports our project and resource management."

When a team member receives a phone call from a customer, there is no concept of a key account holder managing the relationship. The priority is to locate people within the company with expertise in the relevant geography, competence or specialism to respond to the opportunity:

"If we don't have the people, we can say right away we can't do it. If we do, we have a template to put together the team with the right skills."

The proposal is assembled in a similarly distributed way. Each expert concentrates on the detail of their own specialism rather than the whole offer. Truthaen said this allows for more flexibility and accuracy in planning and execution of the detail. The overall proposal, contract or invoice are just 'clips' that assemble the details.

The firm adopted Dynamics CRM in 2007 as part of a bid to reduce the complexity of its back-end systems. It was already operating Microsoft Office with Sharepoint and had built its own tools to manage contacts, invoicing and time management. It uses the Azure Biztalk service to connect the cloud-based CRM platform with locally hosted resources such as Exchange and Sharepoint.

A third-party add-on from German ISV proRM provides project and resource management on the CRM platform. With an Outlook client and a smartphone app for mobile access, this allows team members to track skills availability during a project.

"IT solves this problem to control the people resources and allocate the right people to the right projects ... The resource manager needs this tool to find people with the right competence that are available."

The mobile app also allows more rapid time tracking. For example, when an engineer arrives at a job, he or she may need to change the estimated time to complete the work, based on their own experience and assessment of the task. Using the mobile app, the resource manager is immediately updated with the new information.

This combination of tools has given hhpberlin the platform it needs to focus on its business objectives, said Truthaen:

"Engineers need a tool to support decisioneers to make the right decisions — to support an organization that works as a complex environment ...

"Without this technology we had no chance to control our organization. Without CRM we had no chance to build these new branches we needed and address these new opportunities."

Eliminating paper

The firm is now starting to move to more digital processes with its customers, eliminating paper formats. Truthaen said it found it had been spending €2000 per month on sending documents to customers — unnecessarily. For example, it would send the proposal as an email attachment and then courier a paper version. But that hard copy did not necessarily go to the right person — there are usually three decision makers involved on the customer side, and the person who first receives the document is not typically the one who must sign it.

It made more sense to send a link to a single copy of the document which each decision maker can either view or print out for signature as appropriate. It's also useful to give customers the ability to make changes, added Truthaen: "A good idea is to build a tool that allows people to make some manipulations." Then if a detail such as an invoice address needs to be updated, it can be done without having to resend a new version of the document:

"You get two days more of cashflow because you get the right address from the people because you're talking to them."

The same approach is adopted with invoices. Rather than being sent as an attachment, the customer receives a link. That opens a document in a responsive design that adapts the contents to the device they're viewing it on. Instead of making the customer open a PDF on their smart phone and scroll through looking for the price, the responsive design displays the key information first.

No one has yet complained about the switch away from delivering paper documents and attachments, said Truthaen:

"It's in a transition process — step by step there's an evolution in the relationship between the customer and hhpberlin."

The experience of hhpberlin demonstrates the scope for innnovation in corporate organization and business processes when using today's collaborative technologies. The company is managing rapid growth while maximizing the impact of its highly skilled staff. At the same time, by breaking away from traditional paper-based processes, it is finding new ways to enhance its relationships with customers.

Disclosure: Microsoft funded most of the author's T&E to attend Convergence EMEA 2013 in Barcelona.

Photo credit: Allianz Arena by NeilsMe © iStockphoto