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Building SWP capability in your people - Henley Business School Finland

Building SWP capability in your people

In my previous articles, I have discussed approaches to, and positioning of, strategic workforce planning (SWP). Of the three main barriers to driving business value through SWP, these are the first two. The third factor is the capability of those directly involved in SWP. This is what we will be discussing here.

How skilled are those working with SWP? How do we select them? What are the necessary skills and behaviours? How do we develop understanding and confidence? How do we embed, validate and recycle these skills within the organisation? Hopefully, I can offer some useful learnings and tips based upon more than a decade of SWP upskilling across many organisations, sectors and geographies.

What are the kind of capabilities we need?

If you have read my previous articles, then you will know that one of my principal viewpoints is that we have been talking “SWP” but often DOING “headcount forecasting”. The former is more about deducing broad people and organisational questions, risks and opportunities from future context and strategy; the latter more about a narrow and budget-driven view of capability, featuring spreadsheets full of numbers based largely on an extrapolation of the current organisation. If you sign up to this provocation, then it stands to reason that the skills and behaviours needed for one will not necessarily support the other.

So, if we want to drive real value from SWP, what are the attributes that we should be looking for and developing in the individuals in whom we place our trust to be directly involved? Over the years I see these attributes falling into three cumulative layers.

Building SWP capability in your people - Henley Business School Finland
SWP layers

Knowledge โ€“ business acumen, external reference, nature of current organisation.

Approach skills โ€“ consulting and facilitation skills, tools, stakeholder and cultural savvy

Personal โ€“ system thinking, comfort with ambiguity, pragmatism

One of the most common missteps that I see organisations make with respect to SWP is to involve individuals based on their job title rather than their suitability. Just because you are a Head of Resourcing or HR Business Partner does not necessarily imply that the skills you have will make you great at SWP. Organisations demonstrating success in SWP generally think hard about who is best involved based on more than their role. This may mean that people outside of HR are directly involved.


When we think about those tasked with driving insights through SWP, we should consider the degree to which they meet the needs shown in the pyramid. Knowledge is perhaps the easiest need to address since the majority will understand the essentials of how the organisation creates value or can pick it up relatively easily. They do not need to be experts but knowing this to a suitable degree helps generate powerful questions and connections. Knowledge beyond the walls of the organisation can sometimes be patchy, however. Being able to bring to bear inputs and insights from the external operating context, before and during SWP discussions, is essential in breaking through the ‘not invented here’ mentality that can sometimes exist in organisations. Equally, an internal window into what is currently working or not working is vital. This latter area is often where we have the tendency to be over-numeric and over-detailed, inducing paralysis through information overload. The critical value here is being able to develop insights rather than simply information.

Approach skills

Approach skills is a catch-all for those skills and behaviours which make an individual effective at guiding a group toward outcomes and understanding, eliciting their knowledge through smart questions and helping to organise and manage the various inputs and discussions toward the end goal of identifying key insights. 

Facilitation skills is a generic phrase, but I really want to stress that SWP requires people to bring their absolute A-Game, or else a discussion can crash and burn. SWP insights are frequently gathered in workshop settings with diverse and often senior leadership groups. The facilitation challenges are considerable. Not only will high levels of adaptability and reactivity be required to explore different routes and unexpected turns, but there is usually the additional challenge of working with a group who may find what we are trying to do very hard themselves. How do you engage operational leaders with thinking longer term? How do you work with data-driven mindsets to consider possible scenarios and qualitative information? How do you help them connect apparently disparate inputs to develop a powerful insight? How do you manage conflict and disagreement to an acceptable outcome?

Being able to be savvy about the way in which discussions are positioned and undertaken is critical to success. This means thinking about both individuals and wider culture, and developing approaches which sit at the inflexion point, i.e. stretching the group to develop insights which they might otherwise not, whilst at the same time avoiding the risk of organ rejection.

Understanding the different tools and approaches which support SWP is also key. Having a consistent and easy to understand means of having the conversation, of the steps involved and of the tools and frameworks which can help guide people to insights, and how to use them effectively and adaptively.

Also key to the approach is the ability to apply a consultative style. How do you ask the right questions in the right way? How do you get people to work at the right level of detail and not disappear down rabbit holes? How do you put that powerful question on the table? Again, experience shows that trying to pin leaders down on numbers (“how many JAVA programmers will you need in Belgium in 2030?”) most commonly yields a response of “I don’t know” or “it depends”. Why? Because they don’t know, and it depends! Yet ask the question in a different way, and you will be surprised at the information that can be gathered. “How do you see the nature of your organisation changing over the next 5 years?” or “how do you see the key skills needed changing over that time?” or “which geographies feel like they might be impacted by these needs first?”

Personal attributes

I have left the top of the pyramid until last because I feel it is the key differentiator. SWP demands the ability to deduce insights from a collection of macro level inputs, to work with an uncertain future and varying scenarios, to spot patterns and connections between things. If you, as the individual tasked with supporting the business in this respect, find these things hard, then you will struggle to help others and will likely fail to be able to hold the conversation in the right space, yielding sub-optimal value from time invested. 

The critical personal attributes to my mind are those of comfort with ambiguity, system thinking and pragmatism. Perhaps the most common cause of failure in SWP approaches is the desire to move to granularity and precision (or the appearance of such) too quickly. This can result in missing big picture insights and moving past higher-level dilemmas and differences in interpretation which need to be talked through by leaders (strategy often moves too quickly through leadership levels). As an individual supporting an organisation with SWP, it is vital that you are comfortable with the qualitative over the quantitative, the scenario over the certainty, the question over the answer. In the real world, SWP discussions tend to throw up three kinds of insights:

  1. tangible needs which may already be ‘known’ or may come as no surprise
  2. semi-tangible needs, where we know the ‘kind of’ need, but probably need to do some more thinking or further data gathering and analysis to know if we need to consider it as a key risk or opportunity
  3. more questions, which need to be considered. These are often key to understanding the context for shorter term needs or relate to longer term shifts in philosophy or direction. Frequently, these may relate to interpretation of strategy. Remember, a strategy will contain holes, dilemmas and competing needs; otherwise, we would call it a plan! These are often the most important insights, but the tendency is to focus only the tangible, action-oriented stuff. 

Being comfortable with this level of detail and ambiguity is essential, especially since the audience may also be uncomfortable with it.

System thinking here is just an abbreviation for the ability to see big picture insights, themes and connections between things. It is less about the ability to find answers, but the ability to know the right question to ask and to help people deduce and identify important thematic insights which would otherwise be missed. 

Why do I list pragmatism as a key personal attribute? Well, what we have learned about attempts to implement SWP is that a degree of flexibility and practicality are essential. Try not to be over-prescriptive in the approach, or over-ambitious in the application, since failure often results. Understanding that it may be more effective to pilot in one particular area of the organisation, or to focus on a specific strategic initiative, may allow you to move forwards as opposed to stalling. It is important to accept that something is better than nothing and that putting a thin coat of paint around the whole room with a big roller is usually more productive than starting in one corner with a fine brush. If you struggle to think like this, then this may not be the work that best matches your strengths.

Building the right capability 

So, what we have outlined here is that we need to

  1. Develop a foundation of the right knowledge about our business, the internal and external context and SWP practice itself.
  2. Build capability around the ‘how’ in terms of the application โ€“ tools, approaches and tactics.
  3. Select or develop capability at a personal level which may not exist right now in everyone who might be a candidate to be involved in SWP.
  4. Ensure that this capability is embedded in the organisation and self-sustaining in terms of how we maintain sufficient capability going forwards.

How can this be done?

To address the knowledge dimension, much of which may exist already, gaps may need to be closed in terms of internal data capability and interaction with external market data.

Capability around approach and application can be dealt with via programmatic upskilling and mentoring. For example, for many years I have offered a short programme aimed at SWP practitioners, to take them through a journey from how to think about SWP, helpful tools and approaches, to actually practicing using different muscles to deduce insights using a pre-prepared case study, and ultimately preparing and running a business SWP workshop. I have probably run around 70 of these over the years and there is clear evidence that they provide a great kick-start, but also that more practice and support in-organisation is ideally needed to build expertise and confidence.

The personal attribute element is typically dealt with in two ways โ€“ firstly, by looking at the ideal criteria in the selection of those put forward for upskilling and secondly through an informal assessment of how people progress through that upskilling and/or in subsequent practice. Several organisations with whom I have worked have created an informal ‘accreditation process’ whereby individuals are ‘signed off’ in respect of being seen as ready to run a SWP workshop on their own, or with another person to assist and mentor. This means that there will likely be fewer people who emerge as competent and confident practitioners, than who were initially proposed for it. This should be taken into account in terms of numbers put forward for upskilling.

Building sustainable organisational capability in SWP means developing an in-house cadre of subject matter experts who can own the business process and continual improvement, as well as upskill others. Developing a pool of practitioners aligned to potential demand is also important. The better implementations allow flexible allocation of this pool in order to support demand in different parts of the organisation and to mentor others.

In conclusion

Creating business value through SWP means recognising that there is likely a capability gap to be bridged in terms of data, process and individuals. To under-estimate this would be to fail to learn from a long history of unsuccessful attempts at embedding SWP. This capability, however, is not unrealistic to develop in relatively short timescales, providing that we are focusing on the right things.

A blend of selecting the right people to start with (based on attributes rather than simply role title), programmatic upskilling in approach, post-programme practice and support and a wider means of maintaining the quality and quantity of this capability is what is needed to create the right conditions for success. Not everyone will grow to be good at this, and we need to plan for this.

Nick is a highly experienced HR practitioner, and has led organisational development, resourcing, talent & leadership, performance and L&D functions in a number of major businesses. He has leveraged his eclectic sector and functional career to build an industry reputation as someone who challenges both HR and the wider business to think differently and as a creator of innovative thinking in the organisational arena.

Nick was a Visiting Professor and Co-Director of Henleyโ€™s Centre for HR Excellence from 2010 โ€“ 2016. In recent years, he has worked with clients around the world both as a Senior Partner for Korn Ferryโ€™s People Advisory business and as owner of his own consulting firm.

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