Feature – Time is money

This, of course, is the grossest kind of slander, and not the kind of thing any reputable consultant would dream of. But even that rarest of rare things, a consultancy practice prepared to countenance such goings on, would acknowledge the value of a decent system for measuring effectively what their workers do with their day.

Once upon a time, this information would consist of paper time sheets filled in by junior and middle managers, and a skim through the desk diary by the partner in charge of the job. In today’s consultancy world, this does not cut the mustard.

For some time a number of “time and billing” software solutions have been available, which allow a consultant to automate in a fairly basic way the management of his or her week, and to ensure that there is maximum detail available to head office when it’s time to bang out an invoice.

This type of solution is not adequate for all eventualities however. For a consultancy in today’s market, so many jobs happen across multiple locations, involving different teams. A standalone software package on a laptop is never going to be able to cope with all this.

And after all, measuring consultants’ time is not just about effective billing, or managing appointments, it’s also about getting the most out of every week in a world where every hour is sacred. This demands complex integration and analysis capabilities from available technology solutions.

For those interested, a myriad of next generation automated time keeping, billing and just plain labour-saving solutions exists on the market. But which one? Unlike, say, an accounting or word processing system, they are anything but similar.

Deepak Sareen Associates (DSA) is a distributor for a number of good next generation time and billing products, such as Sage Timeslips. Around since 1983, DSA has a well informed view of the market, and would be a good port of call for anyone wishing to make initial queries.

Some of the newer time management and billing solutions come under the acronym PSA. This stands for professional services automation, which, according to a report from analysts the Aberdeen Group, is “a suite of integrated applications designed for services-based organisations to allow their personnel to become more productive and profitable by increasing their efficiency through increased utilisation and productive time, improved planning and integrated knowledge management”.

It says the key business functions addressed by PSA software are project planning, tracking and control; human resource scheduling; employee productivity; project collaboration within the organisation and with partners and customers; time capture, management of corporate travel and entertainment expenses; billing, business intelligence and knowledge management.

Anyone who thinks this sounds a little bit like ERP with knobs on might have a point. But Robin Griffiths, CEO of Force 12, a pioneer in the PSA space, urges them to think again. He says: “Consider the experienced consultant in the field, stretched due to limited resources, and with maybe 10 projects on the go at once. He’s having to work on the AKA principle – arse kick avoidance. He’s not disorganised as such, he just lacks the tools to be at his most efficient. A PSA solution is going to start to solve a few of these problems.”

Griffiths says all projects start off looking OK, because the planning stage happens at leisure. Tracking the job, he says, is the real issue. “A good PSA solution can help the consultant focus on what he really needs to do, as well as balance appointments and keep an eye on other commitments.”

Capturing information is the key. “Without PSA, this gets left to the end of the month,” says Griffiths. “Then what happens is a botched Friday afternoon job, when you’ve forgotten most of what you need. With PSA, this is part of your daily routine.”

He says the use extends to the back office too, and not just for generating invoices. “Because the information is a constant flow, the consultancy’s cash flow improves. This can have an important impact on overall performance.

Also, when a customer makes a query, perhaps along the lines of ‘I’m a bit worried about this job, I think it’s falling behind schedule’, the person who takes the call doesn’t have to bluster, they’ve got the info at their fingertips, and can see who is where. Things do go wrong, that’s life, but knowing that it has immediately, and how, is very useful.”

Griffiths says Force 12’s own eP Series solution, launched last November, takes the PSA idea to a new level. “It uses distributed components and is one of the first applications to adhere to Microsoft’s new .Net standard.”

The Internet, unsurprisingly, is the vehicle for many new PSA solutions. PSA vendor Novient, for example, has recently launched Novient eServices and Novient iServerNet. The former has modules called Resource Management, Time and Expense Tracking, Project Management and Performance Management, all fully web-enabled.

If you thought that the process of billing customers was an unlikely job for web-enabling, then obviously you’ve never heard of e-billing. But allowing clients online access to billing information? Surely not.

A pioneer in the field is Wishstream, whose sales director Miles Quitmann says: “By transferring large volumes of recurring statements to the web, you enhance customer service as well as save yourself money on admin. It also helps to draw people back to your website. And you don’t need to install any software, as we manage the whole thing for you, although you stay in control.”

Wishstream’s adding of a CRM dimension to billing through its eStreamBill product puts it up against others, like BT and the Post Office who also realise potential of e-billing and are creating their own solutions.

Where time equals money, any technology that takes dead time out of the consultant’s schedule has to be welcome. This no doubt explains the take up of group conferencing technology.

Audio conferencing, the oldest form of the technology, is a well-recognised communications and time management tool, now experiencing around 40% growth per annum.Demand has been fuelled by various factors. In the UK alone, audio conferencing is up by 124% and video conferencing by 50% since the present rail crisis, according to research from conferencing specialist Genesys. Another powerful factor, it says, is the need to consult with worldwide teams. Conferencing is forecast to be an $11bn global market by 2005 up from $3bn in 2000, it says.

Darren Thomas, marketing director at Genesys, comments: “Conferencing in its various forms is big business now. It’s growing now that there’s more and more you can do with the technology.” He says acceptance of things like video conferencing has been slower in Europe than the US. “But now in the UK, thanks to the cost and unreliability of the railways, it’s all taking off. We are looking hard at the culture of the US now.”

Thomas also makes an important point about solutions like those his company is pushing. “These days, each conference has its own account code, so you can charge each one back to the client.” And for those for whom video conferencing is still just a little pricy, Thomas says web conferencing can provide a similarly sophisticated solution for the price of an audio conference.

Time saving communications technology is already a part of our lives whether we realise it or not. Consider the impact of e-mail, for instance.

A recent survey, commissioned by office software vendor Regus, reveals that in London 11% of office workers send a staggering 91 to 100 business related e-mails every day. And some 27% of people in the capital are sending between 11 and 30 business e-mails a day.

Time, obviously, is finite. So will there come a point at which a consultant’s hours simply cannot be managed more efficiently? Ought there to be more spontaneity built into a consultant’s day than new technology appears to allow? Are we becoming slaves to our ability to automate not only business processes but our very existence. It’s not really the place of this feature to do more than raise the issues. But in the meantime, let’s at least make sure time is well used, and clients efficiently and fairly charged. Now where’s that desk diary?

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