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Is There a Meaningful Distinction Between Workforce Planning and Succession Planning?

What is the difference between workforce planning and succession planning? &#8212;<i>Perplexed Recruitment Specialist, government, Hamilton, Ontario</i>

May 1, 2012

Dear Perplexed:

The goal of workforce planning and succession planning is the same: putting the right people—across the organization—in the right jobs, doing the right things at the right time. However, the difference between workforce and succession planning is distinct. Workforce planning is typically budget-driven and focused on staff-level jobs, hiring forecasts and internal resource projections.

Workforce planning also focuses on:

  • Understanding trends that will impact clients, customers, products, services, funders, regulators and investors.
  • Developing individual- and team-work plans that align with department goals or organization-wide strategies.
  • Understanding how changes will impact job requirements, internal activities and costs.
  • Understanding labor-market demographics, workforce readiness, training needs and talent resources.
  • Hiring, recruitment-plans processes, orientation and onboarding plans.

Succession planning is a systematic approach to professional development with the express purpose of ensuring that selected (typically senior) staff is trained, experienced and ready to assume future leadership positions. Succession planning also focuses on individual and team transition needs and effectively guides implementation.

Succession planning includes aspects of workforce planning but also requires:

  • Identifying anticipated vacancies and backup resources for management and leadership.
  • Redefining management profiles to include competencies, success criteria and behavior traits.
  • Accurate assessment of the readiness of senior staff and middle managers to assume greater responsibilities: an efficient process for assessing skills, competencies, interests and motivations, organization-wide, for investments in emerging leaders.
  • Assessment of organizational culture and the leaders within: cultural competencies for diversity and inclusion management.
  • Developing individualized training, professional development and mentoring opportunities to reduce gaps in skills and experience: identifying required support to ensure succession plans are workable while in current job.
  • Focus on individual and team transition to ensure a successful transition and performance in the new or expanded roles.

Although many organizations do annual workforce and "headcount" budget planning, fewer than 1 in 10 large organizations proactively integrate management development and succession plans with strategic business objectives, according to a survey of 1,098 senior managers and executives by the American Management Association.

For organizations that do, the results can be transformative. Increasingly, more boards of directors, investors and funders are now demanding documented succession plans for top management of public corporations and nonprofit organizations. Succession planning is a critical component of workforce planning. And it is a trend that experts consider to be a best practice and sound investment for any organization intent on sustainability, beyond the limits of a selected few people.

SOURCE: Patricia Duarte, Decision Insight Inc., Boston

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