The Illusion of Workforce Planning: Traditional Models Don’t Work Anymore

As the economy improves and fears of mass turnover grow, HR and recruiting departments are focused on workforce planning. Those who remember the unplanned and chaotic days from 1998 to 2001 never want to be caught off-guard again, as they were then, with few prospects, high turnover, and angry management. Retailers are forecasting how many store managers they will need; manufacturing is looking at future engineering growth; and everyone is concentrating on finding the management talent they will need. PowerPoint slide decks team with formulas and numbers forecasting a certain amount of turnover and a certain level of recruiting focused on replacements, as well as on growth. The programs I have seen are logical, combine all the elements of what is generally considered good planning, and produce very comprehensive reports, plans, and guidelines. The most thorough of these processes offer tools to conduct competency analysis, assess gaps, prescribe development, conduct performance management and manage succession. Consultants are offering a variety of tools and programs, and much of what is offered is excellent. I wish these had been around 20 years ago when I was in corporate HR and when they would have been more useful than they are today. Planning was only partially successful in the 20th century but now has become illusionary. Skills defined as critical one day (webmaster, for example in 1999) are commonly available today, while those skills ignored (creative thinking) are highly sought after today. Performance management looks at yesterday and, at best, tells you where someone was, but not where they are today. Succession plans can consume weeks of management time only to be discarded as needs change and people move on. At the beginning of each year and often each quarter, HR managers and recruiters pour over anticipated hiring numbers that inevitably change significantly only days or weeks later. Hiring managers are not certain what they will need or when they will need it, and unannounced mergers and acquisitions invalidate months of work. One of the characteristics of modern economies is the focus they put on quantitative prediction and forecasting. But we are deluding ourselves and our management team with what we can accomplish with these tools and process that rely on linear thought processes that rarely include the unpredictable. They are rooted in 20th-century concepts based on a fairly predictable and stable labor market and about how candidates regard work. They generally fail to take into consideration the generational differences we saw in the 1998-2000 period and are starting to see again. They also place too little significance on the changing workplace, the looming retirement of baby boomers, and the predicted skills shortages we will all face very soon. The bottom line is very clear: it will be impossible to “plan” the workforce of the future in any meaningful way for more than perhaps three to six months out. Instead, organizations will have to replace these standard predictive models with adaptive techniques that are based on the ability to anticipate changes in talent needs and markets, to develop employee readiness, to respond rapidly to needs, and to encourage and champion a new approach to thinking about positions and jobs. The focus needs to be on the process of recruiting and ensuring that you have in place the tools and capabilities to meet any demand, not on achieving specific short-term numbers. The four requirements for effectively meeting future needs are briefly outlined below and I will expand these into a white paper to be released soon. If you are interested in discussing these concepts or in contributing your experiences, I would like to hear from you. Send me an email at 1. Anticipation In order to anticipate the challenges you will face and to educate and guide hiring management, you must gain a thorough knowledge of both your supply chain and your current employees’ capabilities and skills. This means that you will need to do research into who is in your local talent market and who is in an extended, global market. Anticipation will be a major factor in how successful you can be. You will need antennae that scan the internal organization for signs of change, indications of growth, downsizing, outsourcing, mergers or acquisitions. These antennae will have to also constantly connect to the external talent market so that you have a sense of which skills and capabilities are readily available and which are more difficult to find. This will require the use of competitive intelligence tools and techniques so that you will know who works for the competition of for other desirable employers and how likely they might be to move to your organization. You will need to use candidate relationship management tools to build and maintain a very wide range of relationships with diverse candidates that you can tap as needed to meet needs that arise. If you do not have good relationships and rapid response capabilities, the best candidates will have already been snatched up by whomever does. Even the traffic patterns on your recruiting website will provide valuable information about who is interested in your organization, as well as an opportunity for you to find out why. Changes in patterns may indicate changes in the marketplace that you can explore and learn from. 2. Employee readiness, not succession planning Having a wide range of employees ready for any needs that arise is a far better goal than the traditional succession planning that we normally do. While we cannot predict that a particular position will even be replaced once the incumbent is gone, we can make sure that we have the skills found in that position distributed widely in employees at all levels. That way when needs arise we can pick the level and mix of skills that now makes sense. Internal talent is far more valuable than external. Those who already work for you have intimate knowledge of the organizations and how work gets done, which usually means they are more productive. They are motivated and culturally aligned if they have been with you for a while and, given the right training or development opportunities, can move into other positions with less loss of productivity. But this requires that the recruiting function be part of the talent team and ensure that anyone who has skills gets placed inside. This may well require internal formal development programs ó perhaps sponsored by the recruiting department ó as well as “formal” informal development activities such as coaching and job rotations. 3. Rapid response Once a need is identified, you will need to fill that need very quickly. Candidate quality and speed to present candidates are the two most cited desirable traits in a recruiting function. As the markets get tighter, your ability to use CRM to pre-source and qualify candidates will become a significant success factor. How globally you can reach will also become important to any organization with a global presence. If there are significant hiring needs, you may need rapid response teams that can attack a talent need aggressively using the data you have collected through your market research and CRM. Slow and traditional recruiting methods will not work, as more aggressive recruiters will already have landed the best candidates. 4. New look at jobs The concept of a job or of a position that contains a more or less static set of skills and competencies is not going to hold up much longer. While most organizations need broad categories of work performed ó mechanical engineering, database administration, and customer service representation for example ó the skills and the duties performed can be remarkably different organization to organization, even within the organization and vary over time. One of the attractions of outsourcing is the ability to change needs quickly without layoffs or massive hiring ó you just leave that to the outsourcing firm. However, by taking another look at job descriptions and titles, and by building in flexibility around the skills required to get a piece of work done, more internal staff can be used and a broader slice of external candidates can qualify. By keeping jobs narrowly defined, we limit not only our ability to hire quickly but also the potential for creativity and change. Traditional workforce planning seems comfortable and is highly acceptable. The only thing wrong with it is that it doesn’t work. It is time for new approaches ó perhaps driven by the recruiting folks who are on the frontline of the coming new talent wars.

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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


1 Comment on “The Illusion of Workforce Planning: Traditional Models Don’t Work Anymore

  1. Kevin-

    Workforce planning is a subset of strategic planning which itself is a subset of scenario planning. Each level requires substantially more information than the one below, broader perspectives on business (local, regional, global), and in-depth knowledge of social, technology, and political issues.

    For instance, outsourcing and offshoring are part of the business fabric but I would suspect that the great staffing leaders look towards the local economies of outsourcing/offshoring providers to gain insight into when the bubble will burst over there.

    The alternative is to continue to be reactive while sitting at the children’s table rather than the adult’s table.

    I’ve said it before, recruiting, in theory, is the most challenging position in any organization.

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