Stop dithering, start planning!

Blog posts

20 Sep 2019

Wendy Hirsh

Wendy Hirsh, Principal Associate

Workforce planning seems to have the power to turn grown-up, highly skilled, HR professionals to jelly. They know full well it is important. Without some form of workforce planning, organisations drift along with incremental change in staffing levels or lurch from one big cut back, to a few years of poorly controlled staff increases and then to the next big cut back. This is a good way to grow healthy eucalyptus forests, but is a stupid and damaging way to treat people.

Planning is not just about numbers, it is also very much about skills. Without some sensible analysis, development budgets get spent on what people fancy doing or what consultants have made fashionable, not what the business needs to improve. Job vacancies are filled with the kinds of people you had before, not those you will need from now on. Knee jerk changes in pay and reward are often driven by very thin evidence on attraction and retention patterns and their causes - pay comparison data is only a very small part of the picture we need to understand. And all of this without even considering what happens if we lose significant numbers of our European colleagues, or if we are trying to implement significant technological change, or develop our next generation of leaders or adjust to our ageing workforce.

So, given all the arguments in favour of planning, just what is it that causes so many HR leaders to endlessly prevaricate about starting some sensible planning activity? I have been listening to people “just about to start planning” for much of my working life. These are a few of the reasons I most often hear as to why it is not yet the right time to start. To each I add some very short ideas, some of which will be taken up in more detail in further blogs.

Several of the themes below are also discussed in the recent CIPD workforce planning podcast on how to get started.

1: “The business is looking again at its whole planning process”

Many organisations in the UK in a range of sectors do not have a very clear medium term planning process, beyond the annual haggle over budgets. Workforce planning is ideally linked to clear business planning and strategy, but sometimes you just have to get on and do something sensible to address obvious upcoming resourcing issues. Worrying about writing The Plan can make one feel quite nervous about what should be in such a plan, what format it should take and so on. So, just sidestep the whole Plan thing for a bit and start using evidence to address upcoming issues.

If you start with issues, you can start with a dialogue with line managers at different levels about what is changing and what is bugging them. See, for example the business-workforce dialogue model which allows you to explore a range of questions on different aspects of workforce planning in meetings or workshops.

2: “We are just about to invest in a more comprehensive HR information system”

Forgive my hollow laughter. For all the talk of metrics and analytics, modern and very expensive HR management information systems are designed primarily for administration, not for generating insight or trends. Start by agreeing some very simple coding of the kinds of jobs people are doing (as opposed to where they report in organisational terms) and hack together simple information on the size and shape of the workforce, basic flows and what all this costs. Don’t forget to look at temporary and part-time staff just as clearly as permanent and full time staff. If your wonderful information system won’t let you ask questions, download an anonymous extract of the data fields you want onto a very simple data manipulation package and do some tabulating there. Don’t worry about precision; just aim for better and more relevant data than you currently have.

For more insights into what data to use, CIPD members can download the guide to workforce planning practice or you can use the practical IES workforce planning guide.

3: “Everything is simply too uncertain right now. We’ll plan as soon as things have settled down a bit”

Some HR people are under the illusion that workforce planning is an exact, bean counting kind of a thing. Nothing could be further from its essence. Its theories and approaches were created in the early-to-mid 20th century in wartime and later in the oil crises and turbulence of the 1970s. At its centre lies the idea of risk. Where might your ability to resource the workforce present a risk to the business? Which risks are worth investigating so you make better decisions about what to do today to manage those risks better? IES has seen some excellent contingency planning over the past couple of years, some of it reported in our study with CIPD of workforce planning for Brexit. If you wait for things to settle down, you’ll be waiting a very, very long time.

4: “We don’t have technical HR planning expertise in our function”

In a small firm this is quite understandable. In a medium or large organisation, with a professional HR function, you do need to ask yourself who you expect to do workforce planning. You also need to make sure they have the skills and the data support to do a professional job. If your HR business partners are going to lead on planning, they can’t just tack it onto their jobs as a hobby. They need serious understanding of the subject as well as the business. You also need some mechanism to come together over medium term workforce strategy, or you just end up with fragmented, baronial, bids for resources and localised actions. This will not be enough to address the most serious business risks or, for example, major technological change.

IES sees workforce planning as a cornerstone of effective people management. The sooner you start, the sooner your organisation and workforce will benefit.

If you would like to talk about your workforce planning needs then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Ed Griffin our Director of HR Consultancy & Research

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