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SWP: The 5 mistakes to avoid - Henley Business School Finland

SWP: another HR process or just part of how good businesses plan?

In this article, I want to focus on the fundamental question of positioning strategic workforce planning (SWP). Getting this wrong can make the difference between generating engagement and support for SWP from business, and seeing it fall flat on its face. For those who have perhaps had a crack at doing it in the past and seen their efforts wilt over time, the cause may well be related to this single issue.

In my decade-long immersion in SWP, I see efforts most often characterised as some kind of ‘initiative’ run out of HR, involving considerable effort persuading the wider business to take part and involving a series of process steps demonstrating what the business leadership teams must do, how and by when. Unsurprisingly, this is frequently met with resistance or a failure to gain longer term traction for some or all of the following reasons:

  1. When positioned as an add-on initiative, the perception created is immediately one of additional work over and above what a business unit is already faced with. This prompts push-back both in terms of bandwidth and in terms of business value or priority.
  2. When positioned as an apparently separate initiative coming out of HR, it is immediately (whether fairly or not) associated in the minds of business leaders with less popular HR processes such as performance management; which may already have created a poor brand in leaders’ heads.
  3. The strategy and business planning process may already be well-underway. Leaders often therefore perceive an apparently separate SWP process as a distraction from ‘getting on with stuff’ or with the risk of ‘having to start over’.
  4. The often somewhat thin (or frequently missing!) connection with Finance or Business Planning functions serves to position the SWP process as secondary to the main rhythm of business planning, or a ‘nice to have’.
  5. The strong HR focus leads business to feel that the purpose of the initiative is mainly to help HR plan THEIR stuff.

What’s the problem? Well, the fundamental problem is that the purpose of SWP is actually way simpler than we make out. What we badge as SWP (and that is part of the problem) is in reality simply the third dimension of how good organisations should be running Integrated Business Planning.

So, why isn’t this the case? For one reason or another, possibly connected with wider historical challenges around the role of HR in strategy, most approaches to strategy development have fallen into the habit of being 2-dimensional. By this I mean that they focus almost exclusively on:

  1. The ‘demand’ or ‘customer’ dimension – what are the opportunities, risks or needs associated with the market, our customers and our competitors; and how do these translate to future product and service capability? The outcomes of discussions in these areas get fed into R&D, Marketing, Sales and Commercial functions to develop action plans that execute this dimension of strategy.
  2. The ‘supply’ or ‘fulfilment’ dimension – what are the strategic implications on manufacturing capability, on cost, on supply chain? How do we fulfil these needs in order to deliver against demand? The outcomes of discussions in these areas gets fed into Supply, Operations and Finance functions to develop plans.

Unfortunately, that is often where we pause in terms of the strategy development discussion, and the first real interaction with the world of people and organisation happens after these two dimensions have been discussed and often fixed. HR (the experts in this space) then become receivers of this with the job of making sure that it happens in terms of buying, building, retaining the people needed and enacting any structural or behavioural needs.

This scenario reinforces HR as a receiver of strategy rather than a co-creator and coming late to the party also means that there is less time to fix any big gaps in capability needed. Sometimes, it can’t be fixed in time, or cost-effectively, giving the appearance that HR has failed to deliver. Sometimes, we come up against practical considerations (legalities, skills shortages etc) which could have been avoided had HR been able to make its expertise heard earlier.

You see the fact is that a ‘3-dimensional strategy’ i.e. one which includes ‘demand’, ‘fulfilment’ and ‘enablement (people & organisation)’ at the same level and at the same time, is a better strategy than one which does not. It identifies co-dependencies, opportunities and risks earlier and can even create significantly more innovative strategic dialogue (such as looking at automation or M&A) rather than same-old-same-old role and recruitment-based growth plans.

SWP: The 5 mistakes to avoid - Henley Business School Finland

When we look at this 3-dimensional approach to strategic planning including the people and organisational dimension, and compare it to traditional SWP approaches, a number of things emerge:

  1. There is no need to position SWP as anything separate or new – merely as an augmentation to the strategy and business planning processes that most businesses already have. The impact on organisational bandwidth and process fatigue is therefore significantly abated, and the connection to key business processes and even meeting calendar already established.
  2. There is no requirement to ‘brand’ this as something with a particular name like ‘SWP’. We are simply talking about the process by which we include people and organisational capability considerations into the development of strategy and business plans.
  3. Ownership. These efforts are much more likely to be seen as business activities than purely HR activities, helping to put ownership in the right place and bringing the HR relationship in line with other key strategic relationships. HR does not need to sell such activity upward.
  4. Better preparedness. We immediately address some of the adverse outcomes of the current approach, whereby risks and opportunities can emerge too late in the process and put us on the back foot.

So, when we are thinking about how we include consideration of people and organisational factors into the mix, we should think about the things that we do which create headwinds from the start, and the opportunities offered by positioning SWP along the existing grain of the organisation and in language that is already widely understood. In doing so, we not only stand a greater chance of creating true business ownership and better strategic outcomes, but also vastly simplifying what could otherwise be seen as an HR hoop for business to jump through.

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 Henley’s Centre for HR Excellence from 2010 – 2016. In recent years, he has worked with clients around the world both as a Senior Partner for Korn Ferry’s People Advisory business and as owner of his own consulting firm.

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