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Dear Workforce We Are Overwhelmed With the Task of Workforce Planning. What Does It Mean and How Should We Begin

September 7, 2011

Dear Planning-Challenged:

Now is an opportune time to begin workforce planning as the volatile state of the economy will force your organization to contemplate a strategic response to a variety of economic situations. Workforce planning can dramatically "smooth out the pains" associated with volatility and ensure that the organization's talent capability and capacity are always aligned to drive performance. There are six steps to take when setting up a new function:

Define workforce planning. There is little consistency when it comes to defining what is, and what is not, workforce planning. To make sure your view and that of your leaders align, you must first define precisely what workforce planning will consist of in your organization. I suggest you start with this definition:

"Workforce planning is an integrated and forward-looking process that is designed to predict what will likely happen in talent management and provide action plans that will cause managers to act in a prescribed way. The end result will be a manager's increased ability to avoid or mitigate people problems, take advantage of talent opportunities and to improve the ‘talent pipeline,' so that the organization will have the needed ‘people capabilities' to meet its business goals and build a competitive advantage over other firms."

Set specific goals. These specific goals should be based on what you're trying to accomplish. Typical workforce planning goals include developing the capability to rapidly reduce labor costs, to proactively move talent internally, to retain key talent, to increase employee productivity and, finally, to be able to explode out of the box when an opportunity presents itself. For each goal, you need a metric to periodically assess whether your HR systems are moving the workforce in the right direction.

Adopt a forecast. The foundation of every planning activity is a forecast. Rather than creating your own from scratch, it's best to "piggyback" on existing internal forecasts. The goal is to predict business changes that will drive a change in the capability, deployment or size of the workforce. Good starting points are the strategic business plan, sales forecasts, budget forecasts and production plans.

Identify "first action" firms. Nearly everything in life is preceded by something else. Do some historical research to identify benchmark firms in your industry that have typically "acted first" with regard to foreseeable workforce issues. By identifying "first action" or precursor firms and tracking their moves, you can develop an "early warning system" that will provide you enough time to prepare action plans and "if, then" scenarios.

Garner cooperation. Because workforce planning is an integrated process, you need to gain cooperation and "buy-in" from those that run existing HR programs (i.e., recruiting, retention, development, succession planning). Involve them early in the process and demonstrate how their participation will increase their business exposure and impact. It's also important that you build a business case (in conjunction with the CFO's office) to demonstrate to line managers that acting according to the workforce plan will dramatically improve their chances of meeting their business objectives.

Select your workforce planning programs. It's important to make a modest start because you will undoubtedly be expected to produce some immediate tangible results within six months. To accomplish that, prioritize business units and jobs and focus on high-impact areas. If your forecast includes a dramatic decrease in revenues, concentrate on establishing a contingent workforce plan (hiring easier-to-release contract workers) and a labor-cost-reduction plan (work redeployment, job sharing, hiring freezes, furloughs, buyouts or layoffs). If future growth is projected, then you should focus on employment branding, retention, scalable recruiting and leadership development/succession programs.

Don't be afraid: Boiled down to its basics, workforce planning is just a tool for "looking around corners" and "alerting" managers about upcoming talent management issues and opportunities so that they have enough time to react.

SOURCE: Dr. John Sullivan, San Francisco State University, March 2, 2009

LEARN MORE: Workforce planning also encompasses filling key vacancies throughout your organization with a systematic succession strategy.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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