If you build it, they won

When Intria-HP of Toronto, a joint outsourcing venture between Hewlett-Packard Co. and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was formed, its executives had a daunting task ahead of them: Transform an IT department that had been a cost centre into a revenue centre selling IT services to banks.

To aid in the transformation, the executives turned to professional services automation (PSA) software, which automates work assignments, billing and invoicing, time sheets and similar kinds of labour. The software is designed for organizations that provide professional services, such as global IT shops, financial services organizations or consulting firms.

In theory, the tool seemed ideal for Intria-HP’s overhaul. The reports PSA software creates can help a company closely track what work IT employees and consultants are doing, see what resources are free at any given time, and assist managers in determining whether their workers are ready to take on new assignments. The idea is to allow managers to more effectively use their existing workforce.

But Intria-HP soon found that theory clashed with practice. The system just wasn’t working, says Bent Fink-Jensen, director of process and knowledge management. And it wasn’t working for a very simple reason – people weren’t using it. Rather than learn and adapt to a system in which they saw few benefits, people simply reverted to the old ways of doing things and so the promised benefits of the software, which cost $550 per licence, weren’t forthcoming.

While PSA software holds out the promise of increasing the effectiveness of businesses that provide professional services, employees often balk at using it, and the investment may be wasted.

“You can’t just drop this technology on your workforce and have people magically use it,” says Dave Hofferberth, research director responsible for the PSA practice of the Aberdeen Group Inc., an IT resource and consulting group based in Boston. “Executives so far have loved this. But if it’s an executive mandate, you’ll typically get resistance.”

To forestall such resistance, CIOs must do some homework before they even invest in this kind of software. To begin with, they should have a thorough understanding of their company’s corporate culture and how the company assigns work.

Organizations also have to understand how employees report their progress on assignments, note time on each project and bill for their work. If such business processes are not in place and clearly spelled out before the software is in place, it isn’t going to work. All the technology in the world cannot compensate for a disorganized work environment, as Fink-Jensen discovered.

Culture Shock

Since Intria-HP began life as the product of a merger between a hardware company and a bank, it had no in-house store of knowledge to turn to in setting up the right kind of processes for a consultancy. “We weren’t set up to have a handle on getting [consulting] work into the organization and knowing who the work was assigned to,” Fink-Jensen says. “So we had difficulty in knowing what commitments we could make and what we couldn’t make.”

To solve the problem, the company turned to Account4 PSA software, now known as Lawson Professional Services Automation. They began to roll out the software in August 2000, and by January 2001 they had 900 users. But it didn’t take long for the problems to start piling up.

“Under the old way of doing things when we were owned by the bank, there were a lot of back doors for getting work done,” says Fink-Jensen. “And those back doors stayed open so people in IT were doing work when requested, but without reporting it [in the software].” And without people reporting their work into the software, he says, there was no way for managers to use it to manage and control projects.

There is another downside: The use of the software could lead to less face-to-face interaction with colleagues, Hofferberth says. Even so, he believes that the increased efficiency, faster invoicing turnaround and sophisticated reporting features of the software are well worth the effort. And he notes that people who work in IT departments “tend to like more structure than do artists or public relations people” and are often happy with the greater structure it imposes.

At Intria-HP, the problem of employee resistance was exacerbated by the fact that the software itself was somewhat difficult to use. So when people did report their work via the software, they often put in the wrong work codes. Those codes are of vital importance because if improper codes are put in, there’s no way to track work properly or create usable reports.

Managers were also equally confused about how to use the software, and so they weren’t able to generate the workflow reports they needed.

Fink-Jensen attributes the problems to three causes: the difficulty of learning the software, not providing enough training and not having adequate understanding of the ways in which work flows through an organization before implementing the software.

The company currently has 900 people using the software, and by taking more time to carefully document how work assignments are handled, Fink-Jensen says the problems have been straightened out. The software is now proving valuable to the business, he says, primarily because it allows the company to bill for more hours and lets managers utilize their workforce more efficiently. But it took a year to get it straight, Fink-Jensen says, and warns other CIOs to spend more time on training than they think they will need.