Professional services firms are growing up. Driven by the expectations of clients, and the effects of increased competition, many have already transformed their businesses through the adoption of automated time recording, billing and project tracking applications.

But another wave of automation is coming as they adopt process improvement frameworks such as Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) to further refine their operations.

While automation can never replace the need for “mindfulness” in the human beings delivering services, the desire for repeatability and predictability in service delivery leads naturally to the packaging up of proven blocks of work. One way to formulate and manage these blocks is blueprinting, where you develop sets of tasks, deliverables and roles that can be combined together to encapsulate a particular service offering.

First, though, it’s necessary to gauge where you are today in your development towards becoming a high-achieving services organisation, and what processes you need to focus on to move up the maturity ladder.

Reaching maturity

A maturity model defines a set of levels by which an organisation can judge its maturity, and the key process areas it must address at each level. There are a number of different maturity models – SPI Research, for example, defines five levels in its maturity model based on Project Management Institute guidelines. However, one of the best established models is CMMI.

CMMI has its origins in software development but has more recently been generalised to apply to processes across a whole range of sectors, including services (CMMI for Services). According to the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University, which devised and now maintains CMMI, “CMMs contain the essential elements of effective processes”.

CMMI defines five levels of maturity – initial, managed, defined, quantitatively managed and optimizing. Organisations can identify, based on the characteristics and metrics of each level, where they are, where they want to be and how to get there.

  • Initial. The initial level is the starting point and processes here are typically undocumented and maintained in an ad hoc and reactive manner. This leads to acts of individual heroism to ensure processes are executed, rather than reflecting an organizational push for discipline and improvement
  • Managed. The level that many professional services firms will be at today, with some repeatable processes and some attempt at process management. However, there is little rigorous or consistent process management. Key process areas to master to move up to this level include requirements management, process and product quality assurance, service delivery, work planning and work monitoring and control.
  • Defined. A goal for most PSOs is to move up to this level where processes are defined, documented and improved over time. Regular audits will define where the organisation currently stands, and where performance needs to improve. There are many processes to master at this level including capacity management, decision analysis, incident resolution, process definition, training, risk management, service continuity, service system development, transition and strategic management.
  • Quantitatively managed. Here management leverages organisational understanding of process capability to identify ways to adjust and adapt the process to particular projects without significant losses of quality or deviations from specifications. At this point, the focus moves to analyses that leverage a quantitative and statistical understanding of process performance in the day-to-day work of teams and work groups.
  • Optimising. Management of the process here leverages quantitative management towards achieving continuous improvement, with a focus on identifying technologies and innovations as well as incremental improvements that lead to superior performance. The final level focuses on processes for causal analysis and organizational performance management.

Maturity models not only help demonstrate to the outside world what stage the organisation is at in its development, they also act as tools to drive process improvement, focusing attention internally on the process areas that will help them move on.

According to SPI Research, those that adopt methodologies are more likely to experience success. Its 2011 Professional Services Maturity Benchmark survey shows that 48% of the several hundred organisations contributing their data already have a standardised service methodology.

Those with a methodology on more than 60% of their projects have experienced a 267% higher revenue growth than those with less than 60% standardisation, up from 3% to 11%, and they have 13% higher revenue per billable employee and a 13% higher billable utilization.

Equally SPI Research surveys show that more mature service organisations will experience better operational efficiency, with higher margins on projects and better management of resources. And all of this will ultimately filter down to the bottom line, with a gross project margin rising from around 30% at level 1 to around 50% at level 5.

Blueprinting holds the key

Having accepted that you want to move up the maturity ladder and found the process areas to focus on, the organisation then shifts its attention to the repeatability and governance of processes, including the documentation that you gather and make available to project managers and staff and the way you improve processes and oversee delivery over time.

At a basic level, packaging service offerings into repeatable chunks of work makes repeatability and governance far easier. But if moving towards greater packaging or productising of services is the output of a more mature service organisation, then blueprinting is the input.

Blueprinting holds the key to more effective service design and governance, helping organisations define, plan, execute and govern service offerings while still leaving enough flexibility for the organisation to adapt to new trends of changes in the business environment. The analogy is sometimes given of an aircraft in flight – you don’t want to be too fixed on a particular course, but rather have the ability to make small adjustments or, if early warning indicators show a disaster looming, to change course altogether.

A blueprint is a new kind of professional services automation tool, linking together existing project, resource, time and document management systems, with analytics and a support desk to provide a platform for continuous improvement. As such it represents a significant enhancement over the linear templates that current systems provide, which are essentially lists of tasks the organisation goes through, a checklist for the organisation and its client to ensure that nothing has been missed.

In contrast with this static, one-dimensional list, the blueprint is a more sophisticated, dynamic roadmap of the service offering and how it is delivered with guidance, documentation, deliverables, required authorisations and historical records. It gives managers critical data on how the service was delivered in the previous engagement and how it should be delivered in the next, providing a repository of knowledge and best practice of the organisation.

Project managers can take the blueprint and use it as a basis for their running of the project, from assigning resources to using reports to monitor its progress. And they can feed in changes to continually refine and improve their offering.

The more mature a services organisation, the more likely you are to see process improvement initiatives and thorough project and programme management and governance. And blueprinting is a key tool in helping you reach this level of maturity.