Revisiting the spirit, wisdom and relevance of workforce planning pioneers

Blog posts

13 Dec 2018

Wendy Hirsh

Dr Wendy Hirsh, Principal Associate, Institute for Employment Studies

Continuing the #ies50 celebration of our first fifty years, I’ve been investigating what workforce planners were up to in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. As the Institute of Manpower Studies (IMS) at that time, manpower planning (now workforce planning) and labour market analysis were at the heart of all our work, both nationally and with employing organisations.

Today’s HR professionals might well assume that manpower planning in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an unimaginative discipline: focussed on bean counting and with little to teach us in our own age of change and uncertainty. But looking back at what was really happening then shows a completely different – and much more exciting – picture.

Manpower planning developed rapidly at that time in response to oil crises, sharp recessions and huge structural changes, especially in industries like coal, steel, chemicals and engineering. Malcolm Bennison, who had worked at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) through these ups and downs, knew that workforce planning must face up to such uncertainties. His later distillation of these ideas in The Manpower Planning Handbook, co-authored with Jonathan Casson, is astonishing for its breadth of vision, clarity and sheer practicality. Its central message, so relevant today, is that workforce planning is about examining both business and labour market risks and how to adjust resourcing plans as change unfolds.

By the by, IMS invented a fabulous three factor method of job classification. This added the concept of job role to the more obvious dimensions of grade level (or job size) and function (now often called job family). Roles were broadly differentiated into ‘doers’, ‘managers’, ‘developers/ improvers’ and ‘supporters’. Want to know how many experienced finance people you have actually doing professional work? Easy.

Other workforce planning pioneers of the 1970s were statisticians, like Andrew Forbes at IMS and Professor David Bartholomew at the University of Kent and later at LSE. They developed powerful and flexible computerised workforce forecasting models, used in large organisations, including banks and the civil service. Bartholomew infused manpower planning theory and practice with his deep statistical understanding of the variability of human behaviour and economic activity. A decade later, I was privileged to be part of the national committee he chaired to set the national number of medical school places. Our analysis included the impact of people living longer, the increasing proportion of women doctors and the complexities of doctor migration. If only today’s NHS planning was as rigorous and as independent of political pressure.

Workforce analytics was well understood in the 1970s and a key part of the IMS agenda. We helped companies understand how to improve productivity and how labour turnover varied with both workforce demographics and across economic cycles.

Through the early 1980s big companies, both in Europe and the US, continued to develop workforce planning methods. Shell developed scenario planning, still influential today, and airlines and retailers became expert at short timeframe resourcing.

If I had asked my younger self – maybe thirty years ago – where I thought workforce planning would be by 2018, I would have certainly thought that clear and comprehensive workforce analytics and scenario-based forecasts would have been available in all medium to large organisations at the press of a button.

Peter Reilly, myself and colleagues at IES had the opportunity to look again at workforce theory and practice for the CIPD last year, resulting in its guide to Workforce planning practice and guidance on Preparing for Brexit though workforce planning. We did find some relevant and effective practices, especially in relatively short-term planning, for example in social care and hospitality sectors, and in medium planning for graduate and apprentice intakes. Brexit uncertainty has also led to contingency planning of a seriousness we have not seen in a long time. But IES finds organisations mostly still saying that they will strengthen workforce planning ‘when things are easier’ or when their ‘HR information system is fully implemented’, or when they have completed their latest re-organisation of the HR function.

Overall, I am surprised and disappointed how very few of the HR professionals we work with have flexible workforce reporting and analytical tools at their fingertips, let alone any kind of workforce projection or modelling capability. The relative lack of progress is, I believe, partly because the most widely-used management information systems are weak and inflexible on workforce data coding and analysis. Also, most HR professionals lack confidence in data handling and interpreting data and have almost no understanding of workforce planning or analytics techniques.

So, here is some advice on workforce planning for HR professionals and leaders today, imagining what our former pioneering colleagues would offer to this #ies50 reflection:

  • There is never a perfect time to plan, nor a perfect workforce plan, so it’s best to do the kind of ongoing workforce planning relevant to your business on appropriate timeframes, not just to meet the demands of annual budget rounds.

  • HR needs to stick close to business and financial planning, and decisions about work design and productivity. This is not about who is at the top table, nor just effective business partnering, but also building strong lateral relationships with other functions.

  • All forecasts should explore a range of business demand and supply assumptions, keeping workforce risk management centre stage.

  • Insist on coding types of work more intelligently within job families so you can slice your demand, cost and workforce analytics by what people are doing, not what their post is called or where they sit on an organisation chart.

  • Recognise workforce planning as a serious area of expertise, not something you can learn or deliver in a day or two. HR directors, business leadership teams and HR business partners require professional support in workforce planning and analytics just as much as in pay, employee relations and L&D.

It’s heartening to see workforce planning as one of the people practices in the core knowledge component of the recently refreshed CIPD’s HR Profession Map. Let’s hope this re-positions workforce planning as central to effective people management, not an optional extra.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.