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How to Keep Strategic Workforce Planning 'In the Room'

Only 21% of professionals say their leaders use workforce planning in business decision-making. Really? For a function that has the potential to deliver powerful insights that directly speak to organizational capability to execute the strategies that leaders so carefully craft, that's a pretty dismal statistic. Only 21%.

It isn't that workforce planners aren't trying, or that they aren't getting information to organizational decision makers. In fact, a new study from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) confirms that workforce planning initiatives - like those at i4cp member company Luminant - are underway in more than three-quarters of surveyed business leaders' organizations. That's up from 70% in a 2009 i4cp survey. Further, i4cp's 2011 Strategic Workforce Planning Survey reveals that workforce planning teams are succeeding in getting top-level attention for the insights they uncover. A third of respondents in 2011 say that their CEOs review workforce planning results, while eighteen percent of boards see the output.

Top leaders review workforce planning dataBut ... the thing about getting leaders' attention is that it's only half of the success equation. Years ago, the PR firm I led handled promotions for a multi-published author and, one year, her chief goal was upping her presence with her two publishers. "Your job is to get me in the room," she told her agent and me. "My job is to keep us there." In other words, "get me the attention of the publishing power brokers, and I'll deliver books (results) that engage readers and make money (positively affect business objectives)." Ideal illustration of a pathway to higher performance.

The i4cp survey results demonstrate that workforce planning is getting into the room. Problem is, in many organizations the function doesn't yet have the chops to sit down and stay in the room. And the survey reveals at least one likely reason: despite the greater proportion of companies engaged in workforce planning, most of that planning is still operational or tactical; that is, fairly short-term and largely focused on transactional measures such as headcount, scheduling, staffing plans and training schedules.

Most workforce planning is operational or tacticalStrategic workforce planning - which looks out three-to-five years and encompasses business planning, needs assessment, and creation of competitive advantage - lags far behind. Just 22% of respondents characterize their workforce planning as strategic. That low percentage is a big part of what's keeping workforce planning from staying in the room.

But how can leaders use planning's output to affect strategic matters when they aren't receiving strategic information?

Right audience, wrong message
In essence, workforce planning results are getting to the right audience, but may well be conveying the wrong message. As long as workforce planning initiatives remain focused on short-term concerns that reflect transactional information, then workforce planning leaders will (figuratively) languish on rickety folding chairs at battered card tables next to frustrated HR leaders who are, themselves, still wrestling with the transactional demon. And you can bet that card table won't be anywhere near the room where senior executives join forces around a big, wood-grained, highly polished strategy development table.

So a major challenge for workforce planners is refining and maturing their initiatives. Capturing, analyzing, and reporting the kind of information needed to make solid contributions to strategic decision-making is a key for staying in the room. And the time to take action is now, while workforce planning outputs are getting the attention of organizations' strategic decision-makers. In fact, it's urgent now because if those top executives don't get the information they need to shape strategies and achieve better execution, they'll soon stop paying attention to what workforce planning is doing and reporting. And in the long term, the business will pay the price.

One solution: Improvement
The good news is that the survey and subsequent interviews with planning leaders in i4cp member companies reveal an especially encouraging aspect of workforce planning: To meet some of the challenges (such as right audience, wrong message) that impede their progress, savvy planners are applying time-honored principles traditionally associated with manufacturing - continuous improvement. They're working to make each step of the planning process better, and they're doing it on the fly.

An HR director in the energy industry describes ongoing improvement this way: "Strategic workforce planning is very new at our organization (in place for approximately one year)," she says. "Each future iteration will increase understanding throughout the organization that strategic workforce planning is an embedded part of the annual and multi-year business planning process, and not just an HR initiative."

A most impressive example of dedication to continuous improvement is provided by Texas-based energy company Luminant. HR programs manager Shannon Vallina, who is spearheading workforce planning activities, says that past efforts at workforce planning weren't achieving hoped-for success. "As is the case in many energy-industry companies, there was concern about impending retirements and filling succession pipelines, but we couldn't get traction with our planning efforts. People felt frustrated about dedicating resources to an initiative that wasn't producing results." Large portions of the existing programming were scrapped, she explains. "We started fresh. We're trying to be more organized with this new era of workforce planning and we're working to make sure that we're approaching it in a thoughtful way. Now our people seem to be happy with the progress."

Sounds like just the sort of strategy that will help get workforce planning in the room ... and keep it there.

New strategic workforce planning resources now available
Read about other challenges affecting workforce planning and the strategies planning professionals are using to address them in i4cp's latest research report: Strategic Workforce Planning: Practitioner Insights.

i4cp's Strategic Workforce Planning Exchange - a research working group of more than a dozen companies - including FedEx Ground, Aerojet, GE and Luminant - brings together organizations that are establishing and building workforce planning initiatives. In 2012, the group will explore challenges in executing strategic workforce planning and integrating it into the business units outside of HR. New Exchange members are now being accepted. Learn more now or contact us to get started.

Carol Morrison is a senior i4cp research analyst and the author of this Playbook. She has authored white papers, playbooks, reports, analyses and other publications on a variety of topics related to human capital, leadership and talent management. Feature articles by Carol can be found in Talent Management Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, HR Executive and in other leading print and online media.