Workforce planning: when nothing is sure, everything is possible*

Around the world organisations are beginning to take a new look at understanding their future workforce. Whether they have been impacted by COVID-19, are reacting to a new economic situation or are simply accelerating planned digital transformation, they are looking to HR to help understand their new workforce reality.

Much has been written about the future of work and how the human workforce will change skills more regularly and work later into life. With a greater understanding of the vulnerability of the human workforce and the need to respond to a shrinking global economy, identifying the future shape of the workforce is now a C-suite priority.

Throughout the pandemic we have all had to become more comfortable with uncertainty; now it is time to embrace uncertainty to understand the future workforce. In recent years workforce planning has been used to define workforce demand and in limited cases supply; this one dimensional approach created a tactical plan but did not drive organisational innovation or agility.

Fig 1.0 – Workforce Planning to Workforce Shaping

HR needs to help leaders become comfortable in identifying the future workforce through scenarios and assumptions. This means accepting that there are some unknowns or variabilities in workforce plans. In much the same way that organisations may forecast performance or sales, they should use scenarios to predict the future workforce shape.

In becoming comfortable with uncertainty HR must further embrace data, and not just people data. To move from workforce planning to workforce shaping requires organisations to use a great amount of data, including:

  • Business performance;
  • Economic and sector;
  • Demographic;
  • Whole of workforce;
  • Technology; and
  • Organisational.

Focusing on the technology data; we know that the future of work is about how humans work together with continually advancing machines. With technology affecting tasks within jobs and not whole jobs, work, processes and organisations will need to be reinvented in order to integrate and optimise the roles performed by machines, humans with machines and humans independently.

This process should be continuous, workforce shaping is not an annual occurrence. It is simple but effective, enabled by the latest data and algorithms to analyse various scenarios and drive insight based workforce and organisation decisions. Those decisions which form a workforce strategy will cover role redesign, operating model and an understanding of how the organisation will develop or access the capabilities required in the future workforce shape.

Whilst the process is simple, it is recognised that any workforce strategy defined as a result of the scenario analysis could be complex in nature. In the current context, any insight driven, whole of workforce strategy could impact:

  • Future of learning – how do the required skills of the organisation change with, for example, the adoption of technology and how are these developed using gamification, social learning and virtual reality?
  • Enterprise operating model – new workforce, new organisational model, organisations need to understand how the operating model changes in the future to embrace technology and remote work?
  • Digital transformation – embracing the latest technologies and understanding how it impacts the capabilities and distribution of the workforce?
  • Cultural change – how is this protected or enhanced by the changing nature of the workforce?
  • Sources of talent – how does an organisation best engage with the gig economy and be comfortable with a more transient workforce? How does it compete for talent in new markets and attract a different future workforce?
  • Leadership of change – how does ‘inspirational’ as opposed to ‘positional’ leadership impact the organisation to be able to deliver the required change?

Anticipated complexity of outcome is no reason not to complete the analysis but by its very nature, workforce shaping progresses workforce planning from ramping up and down workforce numbers to ultimately shaping the organisation and how it operates. If it doesn’t, what is the point in using valuable resources to complete it?

As organisations embrace a new approach to defining their future workforce they are considering these questions:

  1. Workforce shaping – is the organisation ready for a fundamental shift in workforce planning and prepared to accept uncertainty and the use of scenarios in establishing the future workforce?
  2. Workforce disruption – is the organisation prepared for how macro-economic disruptors on the workforce will impact many aspects of how the organisation is structured, its digital approach and culture?

* Margaret Drabble



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