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Global Insights Archive
Rethinking Workforce Planning
by Craig A. Anderson
Article from Global Insights
January 2004

Among a field of worthy contenders, "workforce planning" must be strongly
considered for nomination as 2003's "Buzzword of the Year". Or even better,
"strategic workforce planning" or "strategic human capital planning". Like many
ideas that sound good in concept, workforce planning too often falls apart in the
implementation stage, ending up costing organizations huge amounts of money and
time with little to show for it. And the costs can really add up. We observed one
Federal public health agency spend over $1 million to collect detailed, self-reported
(!) competency data on 5,000 employees in a questionable effort that resulted in lots
of data and no observable changes in any aspect of the organization or its
management. Although extreme, this case is indicative of the failed expectations of
most workforce planning efforts. You know the drill: the consultants come in, do the
analysis, write the report, and stick it up on the shelf. And nothing happens in any
fundamental sense in terms of how the organization recruits, selects, hires, develops,
and, most importantly, optimizes the performance of its workforce.

Why is this the case? Why has workforce planning so often become a failed
buzzword rather than a practical tool for organizational improvement? Perhaps the
question should be restated: Why would workforce planning be expected to
succeed? The notion that a workforce can be planned is another industrial age
holdover that doesn't make sense today. Simply put, workforce planning, at least in
the conceptions we have thus far seen, is too slow, too cumbersome, and too
limited, to address the real challenges facing modern organizations. The goal ends
up becoming the collection and analysis of measurable data, which misses
everything that is truly important (and unfortunately not measurable) for success in
today's business environment. For what is increasingly important is not measurable.
The ability to thrive in a period of disruptive change. The ability to conceive a future
reality (organizational structure, business process, customer need) that is vastly
different from what currently exists. The willingness to bust out of self-imposed
blinders and strive to "dent the universe" in ways that five minutes ago were
inconceivable. The capacity to create networks of ideas, people, processes, and
organizations that create new value and energy.

Sadly for the pratitioners of old-school workforce planning, it is all of these
unmeasurable dimensions of the human contribution that determine success or
failure in this incredible period of transformation we are all going through. Without a
radical makeover, traditional workforce planning is destined to remain a center of
unfulfilled potential in many organizations.