The quest to make professional services better - assessing Mavenlink’s solution

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer June 25, 2021
Summary:
Finally, one of the most difficult and elusive problems to solve in professional services is getting a big dose of tech. Mavenlink is applying operations research tech to optimize the staffing of a service firm’s entire professional staff.

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Operations Research (OR) problems are these gnarly challenges that often require the development of a complex algorithm to optimize. Airlines use these to plan routes and the daily placement of aircraft. Logistics operators use these to identify the best place to store products in a warehouse and/or the best way to pick orders.  Retailers use them to identify the staffing needs of specific checkout lanes. The tool of choice for decades has been a multi-variable polynomial equation for many OR applications.

Many of the newer advanced technologies that are appearing in application software today are machine learning (ML) or algorithm-based products. Developing the logic for these has gotten easier over time but it isn’t for the faint of heart.

It appears that it is now time for OR to deal with one of the thorniest problems in professional services: optimizing the entire staffing pool for optimal employer and client results.

OR to optimize all projects, not just one

Mavenlink recently demonstrated its advanced resource optimization functionality that is part of its PSA (Professional Services Automation) suite of products. It’s something to see.

While a Resource Management (RM) module is often found in PSA solutions, it’s mostly used by a sales person or project manager to pick team members for a given project. As such, it might help optimize financial, timetable or costs for a single project. Mavenlink’s advanced tool can look at all of the current and potential projects a services firm has and identify a number of potential staffing solutions.

Like a great OR solution, it looks at multiple variables, can lock some people to a specific initiative, etc. It can present a number of potential solutions for executives and/or project managers to ponder. What it does is help planners, resource managers and others identify ways to help service organizations:

  • Delight clients/customers
  • Meet financial goals/targets
  • Maximize chargeability/utilization for everyone
  • Ensure critical resources are appropriately shared

Resource managers can identify and tune specific sensitivities to model different what-if staffing outcomes. Users have the ability to determine which variables to look at / optimize for resulting in an extensive number of potential staffing scenarios.

Mavenlink describes the optimization as:

Mavenlink Optimizer is a powerful resource optimization toolset that leverages operations management science, advanced algorithms, and analytics to overcome previously intractable resource management and planning challenges. Organizations can determine optimal staffing combinations for large portfolios of projects requiring diverse skill sets, across multiple geographics, for varying time periods. Using the same capabilities, services leaders can implement sophisticated scenario planning to evaluate how to best balance supply and demand, resourcing strategies, and the implications for project delivery, revenue realization, and profit margins.

What Mavenlink has discovered is that services organizations often need a number of resource managers to optimize the chargeability of small groups of people. It seems that human beings have a tough time trying to balance so many variables (e.g., a person’s skills, the different roles each project needs, what assignments are needed for the staff person to advance their career, the amount of travel needed for some projects, the economics/profitability of a given project, etc.) across the services complement.  And, it also turns out that a columnar spreadsheet is not up to the task either.

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The state of the art in PSA has been a tool that lets a resource manager take a look at a pool of people and then rule each of them in/out of consideration based on the work schedule that has been loaded into the PSA. While this can be helpful, it has issues, too. For example, these work schedules in the PSA system may only reflect a person’s scheduled work for the immediate phase of a project and the resource manager might not know that this services person will be committed to this client for this and the next seven phases of work.

There are other problems, too. For example:

  • different services sales professionals and resource managers may try to optimize a given project at the expense of other projects/clients
  • several resource managers may want the same person on their job but one person can’t be full-time on multiple projects. It’s not humanly possible.
  • sales professionals, project leaders, etc. may want to keep staffing the same few people they know instead of considering other talented people for their projects
  • etc.

Utilizing outside resources correctly

There’s another key component to this solution:

Mavenlink has introduced a comprehensive vision for perfecting resource management within professional services, called Dynamic Resource Optimization (DRO). The processes and technology enabling DRO are focused on optimizing project staffing across project portfolios of any size and scale, while leveraging any combination of internal and external resource pools. By leveraging DRO, professional services organizations can more easily scale, deliver superior client outcomes, and realize greater revenue and profits.

The part of that statement that mentioned ‘internal and external resource pools’ is definitely worth a closer look. Mavenlink’s strategy (and a core competency of the firm) is to help companies tap into the skills of freelancers, subcontractors and others to supplement one’s own team. This capability is easy to state but hard to accomplish as few firms have visibility into the staff availability of third parties.

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Helping services organizations scale responsibly

This presents another OR opportunity as services organizations will want to see possible staffing scenarios based on the use (or not) of different third parties on a project and how these staffing decisions impact project profitability. The tool should also show how these external resources also affect the profitability of other projects the firm is undertaking, too. This insight is critical as demand for services can be lumpy and it does not scale well. Having access to third-party talent can help but only if resource managers can see it and understand it.

According to Mavenlink:

Mavenlink Private Networks addresses critical resource gaps and constraints that can hamper project performance, impact client satisfaction, and constrain growth and margins by extending the application of Mavenlink’s resource optimization capabilities to a vast pool of external talent, while considering the full breadth of resource characteristics that define best fit.

People-based firms generally can’t scale without adding more headcount. It’s one reason Wall Street only values a services firm at small premium to gross revenues while software firms with similar revenues may be valued 6-20X more. Software is infinitely scalable while people scale linearly.

It’s not prudent for many services organizations to turn down work just because they can’t hire and train enough people in the short-term to handle this new demand. Smart firms will tap into these external networks if the network contains quality talent with appropriate skills. What those firms need is access to a specialized marketplace and to have it integrated with their resource management toolset.

My take

I’ve known some of the principals at Mavenlink for quite some time. Some of them worked with me when we all worked for Accenture years ago. Their knowledge of how services firms work, the challenges these firms face, etc. is deeply embedded within them. When we talk, we understand, intuitively and natively, the challenges services firms can face (e.g., how to staff a global, multi-disciplinary project overnight). I mention this as many PSA firms are run by technologists not executives who spent their careers building and developing great client relationships, staff and services businesses.

That intensity of service firm knowledge is abundantly apparent at Mavenlink. In a recent conversation I had with Mavenlink’s CEO Ray Grainger, he and I discussed where this OR/ML should go next. He mentioned how services firms need tools to optimize the ‘talent supply chain’. He’s correct on that. I postulated that new tools could help resource managers staff people on the current and next several jobs based on helping the services professional be placed on projects that will ‘stretch’ the person’s skills sets and training. Resource management shouldn’t just be about filling immediate project staffing needs but it should also create the opportunity to further develop the talent within the firm.

Ray and I also discussed how OR tools could look at how RM solutions would change should the tool look at ‘adjacent skills’ of certain potential team members. For example, a project manager that has led numerous financial accounting software implementations of Oracle’s EBS software might still be a great project manager on an Oracle Cloud Fusion financials implementation if he/she is are paired with some detailed subject matter experts on the latter product line.

I studied OR when I got my MBA (back in the Mesozoic era). I absolutely got the value behind it and how businesses would utilize it to great economic benefit. Surprisingly, much of my career focused on very pedestrian accounting and business event problems and the software that automated the processes associated with these. OR tools were a rare sighting in most clients.

It’s time for that to change and there’s no excuse for service firms not to embrace OR now!