Career advice, insights & tips for HR professionals
Constructing the blueprint for strategic workforce planning 21/08/2012
Strategic Workforce Planning (SWP) is a process which on paper we should be able to accomplish, but which still eludes us. There’s a lot of energy around this topic, so what is getting in the way?
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- Setting the scene – where HR is going wrong
- SWP – what’s holding HR back?
- Take responsibility
- The future
Setting the scene – where HR is going wrong
At Ochre House we’ve found there is perhaps a need to clarify what Strategic Workforce Planning (SWP) is, and what it involves. Current descriptions use timescales as the defining factor, for example:
- Strategic Workforce Planning is positioned in the 3-5 year plan
- Resources Planning focuses on a 12 month period
- Demand Planning looked 3-6 months ahead.
Although understanding the timescales for each of these planning stages is beneficial, this does not help HR define what SWP is – an issue which is clear when you consider the low level of organisations implementing it.
What is apparent, though, is the number of challenges which must be overcome before successful strategic workforce planning can be implemented.
SWP – what’s holding HR back?
Having a clear definition of what SWP is and what it involves is a major challenge to HR, and a lack of best practice examples makes it difficult to move beyond this. With little clarity, many organisations are mixing SWP plans with resource plans, jumping to solutions and tactics before sitting back and considering what they want to achieve and why.
Integrating this across the whole organisation presents another challenge. Many businesses are driven by numbers, a fact which has mired HR in its attempt to gain its place in the boardroom. Strategic workforce planning does not give you nice, neat numbers and if it does it is highly likely they will be wrong. The challenge then is getting the organisation to move beyond the focus on delivery and outcomes, to talking about the business and skills requirements through insights, trends and scenario planning.
To do this though, we need to first look at the language we use. It has been recognised for some time that one of HR’s barriers to the boardroom has been language – and this is very much the case with SWP. In most instances we’re still missing the tools to have the strategic or commercial discussions with the rest of the business.
There needs to be a connection and clarity between those involved in the operational processes and those in the business strategy. In order to connect the two, both sides need to understand HR and business language to be able to have these conversations.
This is further reflected when you consider what strategic workforce planning is actually looking to achieve. We tend to use the term ‘talent’ in our SWP discussions, but when you boil down to the specific detail, it is in fact capability which is being defined. In business terms, capability is viewed as a more strategic approach than the less tangible skills planning. So with the right language it can be easier to get the board on side.
SWP is something new for many HR departments and is likely to involve capabilities outside our comfort zone. The skills required for successful strategic workforce planning are often at a higher level than those actually doing it, but a clear ‘owner’ is yet to be identified.
This is a recurring theme both in HR and business networks. In reality it is defined by who holds the headcount – whether this is finance, HR or management – as this feeds directly into the planning process. What is clear though is a need for someone to take ownership, drive the conversations and involve all relevant departments across the business in order to tackle the current disconnect. And while we may not feel SWP is an HR process, as we look to play more of a business role, perhaps it provides the opportunity to develop our ‘boardroom voice.’
It is clear that SWP is both a challenge and an opportunity for HR. Contrary to current belief, it is not about HR managing the process alone or a system being put in place. Instead the immediate need is for someone to bring the conversation to the table and get the right people involved. As we look to get the HR voice in the boardroom, this is perhaps something we should facilitate.
It is important to remember that HR doesn’t have all the answers nor are they expected to. Instead HR professionals have the questions to drive strategic workforce planning in the business. It’s having the confidence to go in and ask these questions which is perhaps missing.
Sue Brooks, managing director, Ochre House
Sue Brooks is managing director at talent management and RPO specialists, Ochre House.