Resource management is integral to the smooth, profitable running of any professional services firm. The importance of planning a consultancy's resources, i.e. getting the right consultants on the right project on time and to budget, cannot be underestimated. However, balancing the demand of clients with the needs of consultants is difficult to achieve.

Neil Davidson, Maconomy UK Ltd, looks at the issues that resource managers face when trying to find a balance between demand for services with the availability of resources; taking into account issues such as staff retention and client satisfaction - it's a real juggling act.

Recent research by the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) on behalf of Maconomy revealed that 66 per cent of consultancy firms surveyed considered resource management to be the one of the most important business processes. The ability to know whether to hire or fire in the near future and how to get the most out of your existing talent is fundamental for consulting firms.

Clearly, having an integrated business planning system in place is the most effective foundation for making intelligent decisions enabling resource mangers to 'act on facts.' However, 55 per cent of resource managers surveyed said they were only able to plan ahead for three months due to a lack of adequate information available.

Furthermore, 58 per cent do not use a software solution for resource management and the majority of those that do, use home grown, stand-alone excel based solutions. This shows the difficulty that resource managers face when trying to effectively manage resources.

The problem with a stand alone solution is that it is not possible to get a high level overview of capacity and resources or to predict the impact winning new business will have on resources or perhaps more importantly, profitability.

Giving clients what they want

Resource management can play a key part in client satisfaction. When clients get what they want and are satisfied it can only benefit the business. The key factor in achieving this is managing client expectations. Making sure that a consultant is kept on one particular project is an important step.

With new business, or faltering projects it can be tempting for a resource manager to move successful consultants around, but this should be discouraged unless really necessary - the relationship between client and consultant is very important so consistency should not be underestimated.

A resource manager cannot work in isolation, a number of different people need to be involved in collating the facts required to manage resources effectively. Senior consultants, project leaders and operations (such as human resource) need to contribute to the information that the resource manager receives. It is the feeding in of information from those key individuals in the business that can give the resource manager a truly rounded picture of the company's capacity.

Another element of resource management is making sure your best people are working on the right project at the right time - this can be particularly challenging during a skills shortage where experienced consultants can be hard to come by and those that are on the market can demand high salaries.

Only with accurate information on the skill levels and experience of all consultants across the business can a resource manager ensure that a consultant's time is managed effectively ensuring he or she is providing the biggest return to the business.

Retaining knowledge and skills

Good consultants are difficult to find and can be just as difficult to retain. Therefore, resource managers need to make sure that they keep their consultants just as happy as their clients. The industry has experienced a skills shortage over recent years and this has put extra pressure on consultancy firms to look at their internal culture in order to retain staff.

Resource managers have to manage each consultant individually to understand what they are looking for in the role and what will bring the best out of them - the value of job satisfaction must not be underestimated.

Having the confidence to give consultants more autonomy and greater flexibility in how they manage their clients can be very empowering. But this freedom needs to be balanced with a regular review procedure with a senior line manager so that the consultants are allowed to discuss both personal and business issues freely.

Resource managers always need to be looking where their future workforce is coming from, so offering development and skills opportunities for junior staff is just as important.

Because it can be difficult to retain good consultants it is also important to make sure the knowledge and skills that they have are kept within the company and shared. Therefore good consultants need to be given the opportunity to manage team development and lead projects with more personal control.

This style of management will naturally provide a culture where their experience can be passed on to junior members of the project team. Rotating consultants within the company and exposing staff to different projects and new opportunities can also be a great way of keeping the culture of the business fresh and energetic.

Meeting the needs of business development

It can be too easy for a resource manager to concentrate on simply making sure that a company is fully utilised. However, putting staff development ahead of new business can be a risky strategy, they should work in tandem.

Many resource managers find that allocating the responsibility for business development to senior consultants is a good way to balance delivery and development. Those senior members have the experience and knowledge to give weight to any pitch, while the junior consultants can focus on delivery and gaining valuable experience.

Some large firms will have a dedicated budget put aside for business development purposes, or even a devoted sales team. However, for smaller firms it can be hard to afford the luxury of allowing consultants time to focus on new business.

Whichever way a resource manager decides to approach this, the underlying factor is that they must have access to as much information on the current and future developments as possible. This is especially important during a period of economic uncertainty because the allocation of a company's resources can be crucial to its profitability - when clients tighten their belts so must you.

Visibility across the entire organisation

Today's professional services firms are under increasing pressure on a number of fronts; they have to keep their customers happy, develop and retain the talent they have within their company and manage the flow of new business to ensure the consultancy delivers continuous results.

Most resource managers would probably say that the delicate balance of ensuring the demand for services can be met with suitably experienced consultants is one of the biggest challenges they have.

The problem is that most professional services firms do not have an adequate system in place which allows them to look at the future capacity of the business in tandem with other business processes. This means that they cannot effectively plan ahead for future projects.

Consultants are under more pressure than ever before to deliver quality services at a competitive price. Having to juggle client demands, the availability of suitable consultants, fee and salary changes over a short and long term period, is a real challenge. But the reason why resource planning is such an important cog in the wheel is that if effectively utilised it gives the company the best foundation for intelligent decisions.

Only when business and capacity planning, sales forecasting, project management, recruitment and billing are integrated under one system can resource managers hope to get the visibility into the organisation required for successful resource management. Ultimately, access to consistent and accurate real time data on projects and consultants can mean the difference between success and failure.

In today's market, those firms who take a professional approach to resource management and capacity planning with formalised systems have the opportunity to gain a distinct advantage over their competitors.