Strategic workforce planning is a necessity, not a ‘nice to have’

Increased automation and AI is rapidly replacing many roles.

With automation likely to see many jobs displaced in the near future, employers need to prepare now to find areas where workers’ existing and emerging skills will be needed, says Kate Parker.

Organisations in almost every sector are dealing with economic uncertainty and digital transformation. For most, the complexion of the workforce is changing; employers are calling out for staff to fill critical roles – many related to digital capabilities – while other roles emerge, evolve and expire.

Key to navigating this state of flux is strategic workforce planning (SWP): the process of defining and optimising the workforce to align with the delivery of a current or future business strategy.

SWP is about getting the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time, and for the right cost. Yet for SWP to be effective, it needs to be placed at the heart of an organisation’s talent plan – giving it lip service will make for a feeble attempt and a bad investment.

People implications

Employers that want to keep up with the pace of change by restructuring or delivering digital transformation must also recognise the implications on people strategy and employment.

Artificial intelligence and automation are prime examples. Take logistics giant FedEx; where the previously pivotal role of consumer-facing courier is set to be taken over by autonomous delivery devices. This is a seismic shift away from FedEx’s current employment needs to those with robotics and computing skills.

It is clear that while traditional roles are changing, new job opportunities are emerging; by 2030, 8-9% of employees are predicted to work in categories that do not exist today.

It is also important to remember that embracing change does not always lead to job losses and the affected staff can instead move into other areas their skills are needed. Marks & Spencer is a great example of this – phone automation has led to telephone switchboard staff being redeployed into stores to deliver face-to-face customer services. Smart businesses that invest in understanding who, where, when, why and how they can adapt will be able to use human capital more effectively.

SWP helps firms be proactive

By operating to longer timescales than operational workforce planning, which typically looks at the next 18 months, SWP goes further to help businesses prepare and respond to challenges. By exploring predictions, possibilities and internal and external factors that will impact a business in 3-5 years and beyond, SWP can help firms be proactive in their employment strategies and get ahead of the competition.

Nowhere is this more prominent than in large corporates, which may struggle to keep up with the agility of their SME competition but have the funds and resources available to dedicate to SWP. While small firms may be able to change tack almost overnight, big organisations are hampered by red tape and scale when delivering change. SWP can provide insight and understanding in advance, helping to support responsive action, improve talent pipelines, and assign the right resource for future growth.

An example of this is the NHS, which recently announced its 10-year plan. As a hugely complex organisation known for being held back by its size and outdated systems, it has identified its future employment needs and set out plans to tackle challenges and remain sustainable.

Making SWP work

For SWP to be effective it requires investment, people power and full support from the board. Typically overseen by finance, HR and operations, SWP should involve between three and five people, who can drive forward and communicate the process to the board and wider business.

Starting small can help pave the way for SWP adoption and initial pilot projects can prove SWP’s worth to decision-makers. In the case of M&S, redeployment of staff to more personal roles, while technology takes their place, is proving to be successful and could be applied to other business functions.

When it comes to strategic workforce planning, initial groundwork is key. If businesses commit time, energy and resource from the outset and help demystify the process for the entire team, SWP can become much more than an HR buzzword. Organisations that assign SWP the importance it deserves will reap the rewards going forward.

Kate Parker

About Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a recruitment specialist and head of Berwick Talent Solutions. She is a certified strategic workforce planner under the Human Capital Institute Model.
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