Many workforce planning efforts are aimed at a fairly short time window, and could more accurately be called 12 month hiring plans. Strategic workforce planning promises to deliver greater value by using a longer time horizon and a talent supply chain approach. The problem, however, is that even then it could still be too narrowly focused on the low hanging fruit of simply filling roles. In order for HR to really raise its game, workforce planning has to be more focused on addressing holistically the systemic talent challenges that could impede business performance.

Workforce planning traditionally has meant annual forecasts for how many people are needed in a role, with the forecasts happening less than six months before the end of the fiscal year as part of the budget-setting process. Strategic workforce planning focuses further out on how the business’ needs will evolve over two or more years, to anticipate and solve talent gaps that are too hard to address in six months or less. For example, strategic workforce planning often includes identifying roles staffed with a large number of older people who are on the verge of retirement, and making plans in advance to ensure a stable talent pipeline of candidates to succeed them. Another common example is identifying key areas where the business plans to grow and calculating how to meet the talent demands and avoid shortages.

That type of analytics is essential to avoid big gaps in the number of people needed to do the work. However, it only focuses on who does the work, not how it gets done. Most of the people-related issues that arise from the work design cannot be easily addressed through adjusting headcount. The “how” is essential for truly strategic workforce planning because it opens the door to reconsidering the barriers to strategy execution that are rooted in how roles and responsibilities are designed, and the competency and recruiting profiles used to evaluate how talent contributes to organisational success.

There is a great opportunity for HR leaders and their teams to play an important role positioning their organisations for success through this work. Note, it requires a different orientation than thinking about the problem as workforce planning, one which looks beyond the job to the system of work in which the job is embedded. This includes taking into consideration business objectives such as capacity utilisation, cost minimisation and more. For people working with HR analytics, the issue is not much different from the business coming to you and asking for help on how to optimise productivity and employee engagement. The challenge is learning how to do so by looking at the bigger picture of the system of work, and incorporating perspectives such as job design and organisation design which go beyond the data typically available for use with Workforce planning.

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