Date: 02/07/19 | Duration: 00:25:18

Many organisations still shy away from workforce planning because this important combined business practice and HR-led strategy appears to be too complicated a task.

This podcast encourages all businesses to start small and build on the data and analysis that will inform the practices and develop the key skills required for talent acquisition and management, succession planning and change. We bring together subject experts Dr Wendy Hirsh FCIPD, researcher and consultant for the Institute for Employment Studies, Ally Weeks MCIPD, HR content consultant at the CIPD, and Olly Britnell, Global Head of Analytics and HR Strategy at Experian, in the discussion.

Philippa Lamb: It’s been about a decade since workforce planning was a really popular business practice. In these uncertain times it’s important to set business direction beyond a year, which may explain why we’re now seeing a resurgence of interest in it. To shed some light on this I'm joined by two expert guests and I’ll let them introduce themselves.

Wendy Hirsh: Yes, my name’s Wendy Hirsh. I'm an independent researcher and consultant. I also do a lot of work with the Institute for Employment Studies in Sussex and oddly I started out as workforce planner – there aren’t so many around – so I'm a mathematician who’s migrated into workforce planning and then into proper people. So I'm a bit of a workforce planning geek.

PL: Perfect, you’re in the right place then. Ally.

Ally Weeks: Yes, I'm Ally Weeks and I've worked for the CIPD for the last eight years. However prior to that I have worked most of my working life in HR practice and currently my role is as HR content consultant.

PL: Now I was on the CIPD site the other day and I was looking at the workforce planning factsheet which I think you wrote Ally didn’t you?

AW: I did yes.

PL: And I saw a phrase on there which really struck me. It said that workforce planning can be the most effective activity an organisation can engage in. That's a big claim.

AW: Yes, it is and I think it’s really come into its own recently, especially with Brexit on the horizon. There was a few of us got together at CIPD when Brexit was announced and we were all discussing how we can actually support our HR practitioners with how they can actually get through this time and plan for the future and that's when I just hit on the idea to get back to basics and let’s look at reviewing our workforce practices and actually starting to use workforce practice methodology to help us through this difficult time. Also many organisations are going through so much change. There's a lot of automation and AI. What better time really to see this resurgence in workforce planning? 

PL: Absolutely but researching this ourselves, Wendy, it was a big thing ten years ago, it’s kind of fallen away. Why was that? 

WH: Well it was actually a very big thing in the 1960s and 70s. It was a mature discipline, getting on for 50 years ago and much further back, the Chinese early empires built a section of the wall a week, they were supreme workforce planners, I think it has tended always to fall away when employers have not found it so hard to get staff and it always tends to come back when labour is tight and when people are worried about skill shortages and have to think further ahead. Also, as Ally has hinted, it comes back when people are nervous about change and at the moment you have both of those, you have a nervousness about change, not just Brexit but much more widely, and you also have quite severe skill shortages in an economy that oddly, considering the pickle we’re in, has very high levels of employment and very low levels of unemployment, so employers can't bank on just going out and finding the people they need so easily they need to think a bit further ahead. 

PL: It feels like a big task for organisations that haven’t really formally got their arms around it, what puts people off? 

AW: I think that some organisations will see this as a barrier. They just hear the term workforce planning and fine, and look at it and think gosh that's far too complicated, and where on earth do I start? But what we really want to get, the aim of this podcast and the message to get across, is to start small. 

WH: I think two particular things can put people off. One is they think they have to do a deep dive into data before they do anything else and they don’t know what data to deep dive into and they probably don’t have that data to hand. They also worry that they’ve got to then have a workforce plan and the idea of a thing called a workforce plan also puts people off and that idea works in some organisations and not in others, it’s perfectly possible to do really useful workforce planning without having a document called a workforce plan. And then if I can just add a third issue, I think they feel that managers want them to do it and give it to them rather than seeing it as a way of working with business managers, which I see it as being. 

PL: That brings me to the question of if you’re setting up a taskforce in your organisation to do this, who should be sitting on that because it’s not just HR is it? 

AW: Exactly. You’re exactly right. This is a business plan, it should not sit solely within the HR department. 

PL: I've seen references to soft and hard workforce planning, discuss. 

WH: Well, as a mathematician I find it a bit odd that when we measure attitudes we suddenly call it quantitative data, in fact we’re looking at different sorts of information and different sorts of decision, we’re looking at information about what’s there now, much of that data is probably what you call hard or factual data. We’re also looking at what may happen in future. We’re also, and it’s something HR has rather lost I think, need to be looking at recent trends and most of the information systems we have are not very good at giving us trends. But also increasingly linking that with attitudinal data which may be called soft. I'm not sure I find the terms hard and soft all that useful, but I think as with anything you think about where has this information come from; how much do I trust it what does it tell me; is it useful? 

PL: So quality of your data? 

WH: Quality but not necessarily ultra-precision. I think another barrier for people is they think if they can't measure everything to the fifth decimal point, as a mathematician I just ask is this a big number, is it a small number, is it getting bigger, is it getting smaller? If people used that thinking more often they wouldn’t be so concerned about umpteenth accuracies. It’s an uncertain business and we want to know which way something’s moving. 

PL: Shall we move on to stages, where do we start with this? 

WH: There are some key building blocks in workforce planning. Workforce planning is about the workforce, it’s about resourcing and therefore it’s both about the work you need done, which we would often call demand or need, and the supply, the other side of the equation, of the people who are going to do it. You can't do workforce planning if you don’t look at both of those. HR tends as a function to look much more at the supply of people than the requirement for people, but with our great concern at the moment about productivity and about technological change, those are issues where you really have to redefine the people you need, not just the people you can get. 

PL: Plus, we are projecting into the future, so it’s a complex and necessarily not a factual business is it? You are imagining what you will need. 

WH: Yes, and you’re using judgements and there are different ways of using judgement. Having good data on what’s there now is a good start point. Also, you’re then looking at where is it going to be easy to find people and where is it going to be difficult. And you can find people internally from the people you've already got in post, or creating successes internally. You also have to be aware of who you can get externally. And that means understanding your labour market, again a well-developed science but not one discussed perhaps quite enough by HR which goes out one job at a time to recruit. That's not the same as understanding the labour market you’re in. 

PL: As you say, you’re not necessarily working towards a hard and fast plan, you’re more working towards a set of what, aspirations? But they’ll change over time. This is contingency planning; it’s going to be agile, it’s going to evolve, it’s going to change. What sort of timeframe should people be looking at realistically? 

WH: I think that's a really interesting question and when you look at good workforce planning as, for example, we have been doing with our recent work for CIPD at IES, what we found was good workforce planning on several different timescales. So we found some examples of excellent, extremely short-term workforce planning, for example in the residential care sector where you have to have the right number of people on the staff each hour of each day. And as the numbers of people in the residential home go up and down you need to be looking at that. They need to be safe, they need to be well cared for, but you don’t want to be paying for a lot of people who aren’t needed. 

PL: So what sort of timeframe were they working here? 

WH: Well, they’re working on every 24 hours and they’re modifying their staffing each week in terms of not just the number of residents in a home but how ill they are. 

PL: So it’s like bed allocation in hospitals. 

WH: Very much like the systems nurses developed many years ago, now not used so well in hospitals, to make sure they had enough people. So that's an example of very short-term planning. So would our many transport systems require very short-term planning. Commonly people are looking at a year at the sort of annual budget cycle - that's relevant, but it’s a very narrow definition of what workforce planning is, just getting the headcount right for the year isn’t really very thoughtful workforce planning but important. And then I think how far ahead you look depends on the business you're in, so when I've worked with sectors like pharmaceuticals, I know Ally’s worked in that sector also, the product cycles are very long, people are looking what five to ten years ahead, sometimes longer? 

AW: Yes, I guess sometimes we had to bring things to market very, very quickly otherwise competitors would come in and there was very expensive amount of research and development. So workforce planning was an integral part of HR and business planning. 

PL: And presumably you don’t need to opt for one timeframe do you, you can plan across various timespans. 

WH: Not at all, and I think if nothing else that conversation with line managers about on what timeframes should we be having a dialogue about the workforce, and make it plural, may be a very useful way of doing it, because it’s not the case that we only want to be looking very long-term. But neither is it the case that this rather unfortunate habit of seeing workforce planning as just a budget setting exercise, that's not been particularly helpful, I think. 

PL: And different questions for different timescales presumably? 

WH: And possibly for different bits of the workforce within the same organisation. 

PL: Would it be fair to say this whole field is getting a bit more complex than perhaps it was, thinking about different ways of employing people, thinking about tech, demographics, all those things, they all play in. 

WH: They do all play in, I don't know that it’s getting more difficult, I think we’re making it more fussy. 

PL: Why do you say that? 

WH: Because if you look over the last 50 years or more we’ve had huge recessions, we’ve had whole industries disappear, and when I had my first experience of workforce planning there were huge upheavals in the manufacturing industry, as big if not bigger than we’re seeing now. We were losing whole industries and we were also automating very quickly indeed. So I think it’s always been an uncertain business and it’s just a question of getting your head round which uncertainties are important at your particular time, and in your particular organisation. 

PL: So are there lessons to be drawn from the blue collar sectors then if they’ve been grappling with these difficulties for longer? 

WH: I think manufacturing, given it’s had such a very tough time, some of the organisations I look to who've been the most thoughtful about workforce planning have been in manufacturing, particularly for example in their redesign of work in thinking about multi-skilling, ways of building more flexibility into their workforce, not necessarily contractual flexibility but functional flexibility, the ability of people to do more than one thing. And I think we’ve got so dominated in recent years by what I would call contractual flexibility, outsourcing and gig working and all of those things, we’ve rather side-lined other ways of getting flexibility into the workforce. 

PL: That’s an interesting point. Just to wrap this it seems to me the whole concept rests on fully understanding your organisation doesn’t it? That must be your starting point. 

AW: Yes, I absolutely agree there. We’re looking at the whole workforce, across functions, across global sites and getting to know the workforce as a whole, so that you can then become more agile and more flexible as change comes around. 

PL: Because this is very much about the trajectory of the business as well isn’t it, in the sense that your business is not a static entity? 

WH: No and it’s affected both by internal decisions and factors and by external. 

PL: Yes, we talked about Brexit obviously a big one. 

WH: Again that mental habit in workforce planning of always thinking both internally and externally. And I would start by talking to managers. I think there's this pressure on HR to start doing a lot of analysis. I think if you sit down with someone who's responsible for a unit or a division or an area or a particular group of people and say, ‘What’s it like now? How easy is it to resource this area of work? And what changes are coming up?’ So doing it collaboratively that way with the managers initially, not seeing it as an HR thing, related to Ally’s point about it being a business process, then I think you know what data you need to go and look at. I always let the issue or the problem guide me in searching for data, otherwise you go and flap about with data not knowing really what you’re looking at. 

PL: So it’s important to look at the whole workforce, and the analysis and review that Ally and Wendy were talking about will play into talent and succession planning and a focus on the key skills you'll want and where you'll need dedicated action plans. That process is going to involve many functions right across the business of course, including finance and planning, and Wendy’s point about talking to line managers before you bury yourself in data was echoed by our final guest. Olly Britnell is Global Head of Analytics and HR strategy at Experian, that's an organisation employing 17,000 people and it’s all about gathering and analysing data but he thinks the key to workforce planning is getting out and about right across the business and talking to colleagues about what they do and what they need. And when he joined Experian five years ago workforce planning was front and centre. 

Olly Britnell: Workforce planning was then flavour of the month but interestingly then subsided and went away. 

PL: Why do you think that was? 

OB: I think the business commitment wasn’t there, so for me, workforce planning needs to have business commitment, it can't be an HR initiative. It has to be driven from senior business leaders around their commitment to it and having probably a slightly longer-term vision rather than a tactical short-term vision. 

PL: How long are we talking about? 

OB: Three, five years is probably the typical I would say for true strategic workforce planning, anything less than that I would class more as resource planning. 

PL: So before we get on to how it actually works at Experian do you want to give us an idea of how it would ideally look everywhere? 

OB: For me it very much starts with that business commitment in terms of business leaders articulating what’s the vision for the organisation and recognising clearly that people are going to play a big component of that, even in an organisation such as Experian where technology plays a huge part in terms of what we do. The pace of change of technology at the moment is so quick that actually the skills we need to execute on that strategy are evolving at a similarly fast pace. So we need to be thinking much more longer term in terms of what does that look like. Also thinking more broader in terms of things like what does the workforce mix look like, so the flexibility of the workforce again is a common theme, and the gig economy in terms of contingent workers versus perm etc. And I guess finally, from a location strategy perspective, is probably the third component that I’ll talk around in terms of being clear where do we want to move and grow our workforce as obviously there's a clearly a cost element to that in terms of offshoring and the like, but equally where are the skills that we need actually exist. 

PL: So when you put it in those terms it’s a big project, it’s a very broad project. How do you do it on the ground? 

OB: The reality is yeah the scale to do it truly globally I've yet to see properly executed. So the way certainly we’ve gone about it is a more piloted approach. So we've focused on actually a small number of key job families within the organisation that we believe are going to be critical. So it’s probably only focusing on maybe a quarter or a third of our actual total workforce, but we’ve identified that those as the key ones for us to truly accelerate our growth and focus on where we want to be. 

PL: So taking your pilot model of doing a chunk of your workforce, or for a small organisation it may be the whole thing, what are the steps? 

OB: One of the first hurdles that typically falls down is no one believes the data to start with, going ‘Well do we even have that many number of people in these critical job families to start with’. So getting credible with the data I would say is certainly the first step. 

PL: Is that really a problem? 

OB: There are a lot of organisations who can still barely count their headcount. I think linked very closely to that is the definition side, quite a dry subject but a critical one I think in terms of when we’re talking around future skills and capabilities, are we truly clear on what we mean by that? Product development, that can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. 

PL: That's really interesting. So you need housekeeping, you need definitions across the board? 

OB: Yeah definitions in terms of the skills and capabilities and again the trick is from a current state to future state as well. So what’s needed today isn’t necessarily what’s needed in the future. So having that definition of today versus tomorrow clear, what are the differences and again going back to business commitment of getting them to really sign up to them and commit to saying, well yes these are the skills that we do truly need. 

PL: But how do you identify those? I mean that's quickly said but it’s complex isn’t it? 

OB: It is yeah, lots of workshops, lots of discussions, and playing it through. So we run workshops with our senior leaders and team leaders around that topic basically of saying, ‘Right product development what do you mean? What does it look like? What does a good one today look like versus what do we think it needs to look like moving forward?’ And go through those kind of questions. So for me there's a lot of information gathering to start with to get your baseline view of what’s actually required. And then you start to move on in terms of data capture clearly, in terms of right now we’ve got a clear view of what we’re talking about how many are we actually going to need moving forward? 

PL: Is this really feasible for smaller organisations that don’t have the sort of resources you have to call on? 

OB: I’d argue it’s potentially easier to get your hands around. 

PL: Less complex. 

OB: Less complex. I think where Experian - from a workforce size perspective - isn’t huge, 17,000 is obviously a big number but it’s not as big as other global organisations. But we’re very matrixed as a business and getting those definition up front is a tricky exercise. Whereas I think if there's a smaller, simplified model of an organisation, potentially it is easier to get your hands around it. 

PL: And putting your organisation under the microscope in that way must have other business wins as well because you really do get an accurate picture of who you've got, what they’re doing and what you think they’ll be doing in the future, don’t you? That's useful in all sorts of ways presumably? 

OB: Definitely yeah. Off the exercise we’ve done relatively recently I guess it’s provoked some great discussions at the very most senior level within the organisation, simply by being able to articulate this is what we anticipate the organisation to grow in five years with this mix of workforce in these locations. People have taken a bit of a step back and gone, whoa okay that is going to be quite a big challenge. We’re talking about growing product developers by 25% and 50% growth in India, for example. Those are big numbers. So it’s kicked off a huge amount of work in terms of hiring strategy and making sure we’ve got really clear plans around how are we actually going to tackle this from a hiring perspective. Equally from a retention perspective, we’re utilising analytics in a detailed way. We’ve got predictive tools that look at retaining talent. And then from a learning and development perspective as well of saying how can we grow some of this talent internally. 

PL: So this is by no means a job just for data gathering analytics people or indeed just for core HR. If you’re putting together a project team to think about this work who would you have on it? 

OB: You've got to have the business leaders involved as part of this exercise; Finance have got to join the party as well clearly because there's a cost implication around the changes that are taking place; the HR folk and business partners need to be driving the activity and asking the right questions around it as well. 

PL: So in terms of wins what are you seeing? 

OB: A far clearer strategy at an organisational level, in terms of what’s important in terms of skills and capabilities over a three- to five-year timeframe. And then for the HR function I think it’s given talent and talent acquisition, our recruiting teams and learning teams, something to really hang their strategy around. So because we’ve got some real numbers, we’ve got something really tangible that they can say from a hiring perspective, ‘Well, in Costa Mesa in the US we need to hire 242 product developers over the next five years’. That's a challenge that they can really get their hands around and say, ‘Well how are we going to really execute on that?’ So I think it’s helped us really frame our HR strategy in a more strategic way. 

PL: Well that's good news. Where’s this going? 

OB: Where’s it going? Who knows, it’ll probably die a death in 18 months I reckon. 

PL: Let’s hope not. 

OB: And the cycle will start all over again. But no, for me I think, organisations are recognising more broadly, or certainly with HR the use of data to drive decisions, it’s not going away, it’s not a fad, it’s been talked about a lot for the last five, ten years as the next big thing. Luckily it’s probably not now being talked about as the next big thing because it is now starting to embed and I think most organisations recognise that they need to have a handle on their people, HR data, in a more strategic way. It isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must have. CEOs, FDs are demanding better insight on their people data because they recognise the skills capabilities that are needed are probably not in existence currently and therefore how are we going to bridge some of those gaps? 

PL: Okay. So if you’re keen to know where to start with workforce planning, here’s Ally’s advice. AW: We have a Brexit hub and also as part of that, CIPD in conjunction with IES produce a workforce planning guide for Brexit and actually a workforce planning practice guide, which is purely about the process of workforce planning in very simplistic terms. PL: So a great place to start. AW: Yes. PL: My thanks to Ally Weeks, Dr Wendy Hirsh and Olly Britnell. See you next time. Subscribe to the podcast on your usual podcast app and it will land on your phone on the first Tuesday of every month. Next time we’ll be tackling executive pay when we’ll be talking less about how much and more about what’s next, and how you can inject fairness into your remuneration strategy. Thanks for listening.

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