Reframing Traditional Workforce Planning

Recruiting needs to ensure that an organization has the talent it needs to meet business needs in the foreseeable future. Ideally, recruiting should position its organization to have the people, talent, skills and flexibility to respond to needs that are often unforeseen and unpredictable. It is only natural that as the economy gets better and turnover rises, managers will begin to think about how they can meet their needs for talent. Executives will start asking recruiters how many employees, and often which ones, may end up leaving, what the talent availability is for certain skills, and how quickly people can be replaced. Rarely do recruiters have adequate answers to these questions, and even more rarely do they have the ability to respond as quickly as they should to rising turnover, changing skill sets, and evolving business needs. But turning to traditional workforce planning as a solution to this dilemma is a big mistake, for four reasons:

  1. Workforce planning assumes that talent needs are predictable. It assumes that the skills needed two or three years ago are the same ones that are needed today and tomorrow. It also assumes that the education, experience, and motivation of potential candidates will be similar to that of candidates from two or three years ago.
  2. Predictions of turnover can be imprecise. While predictions of turnover, based on past experience, can be useful, they almost never predict the loss of the key talent that the organization depends on for innovation, customer service, or product leadership. The best tools can predict average turnover by category of employee, but this is only marginally of value.
  3. Workforce planning sometimes makes faulty assumptions. Succession planning assumes that employees will stay for several years with a single employer and wait for an opportunity of greater or at least different responsibility.
  4. Workforce plans are often not flexible enough. Traditional workforce planning does not position the organization to respond quickly as its business changes.

In my opinion, it is necessary for recruiters to begin a process of reframing the discussion. They need to engage managers in conversations around how to create and sustain a flexible and adaptive talent strategy for a constantly changing environment. This means that HR and recruiters will have to come to terms with the realities of the emerging workforce, which is made up of fewer available candidates who are less attracted to the business world. The comfortable, stable business world of the 20th century, with its abundant workforce, is gone, and with it the traditional workforce planning tools and concepts. This new workforce of younger people is unlikely to stay with any single employer for very long. Turnover of younger workers is high. Loyalty is diminishing; the average tenure of an American worker is less than four years. Even at the executive level, from the CEO on down, tenure is shrinking; it’s common for executives to change industries and even careers in mid-stream. It is not realistic to think that simply by creating great places to work or by paying great salaries most of these young people will stay. Corporate needs are also subject to rapid change. As competition intensifies, corporate strategy can change quickly, bringing with it the need for different sets of competencies. Even public pressure can bring about the need for rapid response. Microsoft, for example, has had to increase the number of employees devoted to security testing and the prevention of hacking almost overnight. This often means that those earmarked for promotion by traditional linear thinking are no longer as important. It may also mean there will be a need to rapidly ramp up recruiting efforts for an entirely different set of people from those usually recruited. Over the past five years, scores of organizations have had to change direction and re-mix employee skill sets in ways they could rarely have predicted. So what can you do instead? What can replace traditional workforce planning? Here are some ways that recruiters can help their organizations become more nimble and better able to meet emerging talent demands. None of these are easy to sell to traditional thinking management, but good arguments can be made to begin a process of rethinking and experimenting with these ideas:

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  • Reframe conversations with hiring managers and executives. Start talking about strategic staffing as opposed to workforce planning. Explain how strategic staffing is about providing management with a flexible workforce that can be used in a variety of ways and quickly trained to meet a variety of potential needs. It is vitally important to start talking and thinking in new ways. By changing your language, you can influence how people think about an issue. Using the language of workforce planning and succession planning frames a discussion around traditional concepts. Start using a different language to describe what it is you do.
  • Identify which positions and skills are critical to the organization’s success. Work on developing retention and development programs to keep people with key skills loyal and motivated. Identifying which positions are most important is a tough thing to get managers to do. We all tend to think that everyone is equally valuable, but we all know that some of us are more important to the success of our organizations than others. Rather than focus on broad, general retention efforts designed to keep everyone happy and employed, focus your retention efforts on the few who exhibit the flexibility and broad competencies that can be applied in a myriad of ways.
  • Forget about succession planning. Focus instead on hiring and developing people with broad-based skills. Work with hiring managers to identify potential business opportunities and situations. Some organizations are using the art of scenario planning to explore potential future operational or business situations that might occur. Then they begin putting together talent pools of people who could be tapped should one of these scenarios begin to happen. Rather than spend time rating everyone’s potential to be promoted or current loyalty and appreciation of the current business strategy, focus on cross-training and the development of broad skill sets.
  • Reward divergence. Find ways to reward the renegades who find what’s wrong with current practice and strategy, and show where and how the organization may be vulnerable to a competitor or a new product or service. Loyalty may be a virtue in the sense that it shows respect for past thinking, but it is not a trait that necessarily leads to success in today’s fast-paced and highly volatile business environment.

Strategic workforce planning and capability development will become a critical competency for recruiters to have over the next few years. Simply by getting managers to start talking and thinking about planning in more flexible ways is a great beginning.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


2 Comments on “Reframing Traditional Workforce Planning

  1. Thank you for the timely article. I am in the process of preparing the 2005 staffing plan to discuss with the CEO.

    Although I had in previous years gone through the exercise of identifying ‘key’ employees, I had not yet done so for this go-round.

    Please keep up the good work!

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