Complexity Rising and the Need for an Agile Approach to Workforce Planning and Deployment

Allison Mandel

In today’s disruptive market, CEOs must be as equally great at managing human capital as they are at managing financial capital. 

An effective workforce planning and deployment strategy requires an ongoing, dynamic analysis of a workforce to assess staffing needs, locate skills gaps, and ensure alignment with both present and future strategic goals. A strong workforce plan ensures companies can properly handle evolving business needs.

However, business leaders often make decisions about personnel spending without considering the actual skills and expertise needed for their organizations to navigate today’s volatile business environment. In fact, nearly three-fourths of execs surveyed in a recent HBR Analytics Services survey reported that their workforce plans do not adequately take talent considerations into account. 

Instead, workforce plans are largely driven by financial considerations, focused on controlling costs, identifying savings, and, more generally, eking out operational efficiencies. As a result, many leaders do not know whether their employees — and the skills and expertise they possess — are sufficient for executing against company-wide strategic goals.

Poor workforce planning and deployment strategies can have seriously negative impacts on business results, and research shows that the majority of execs agree. (Figure 1) Creating a workforce planning and deployment strategy within an agile framework prepares businesses for a constantly changing environment, whether it’s to drive innovation to capture unique market opportunities or to increase productivity and reduce costs.

Figure 1

Talent Shortfalls Hamper Corporate Goals

Percentage of respondents to HBR’s Analytics Services survey who report that poor workforce planning leads to staffing gaps and hurts business results.

73%

Talent shortfalls, resulting in the inability to meet business goals

57%

Increased vacancy rates or positions left unfilled

44%

Lower margins or missed business objectives

42%

Reductions in force

source: Tackling Talent Strategically, Harvard Business Review

Why Workforce Planning Is a Challenge

Like investors, leaders of companies must invest human capital where it’s needed most, which means an organization’s workforce planning and deployment strategy must align with evolving business priorities and increasing demand for highly skilled specialists. What’s often overlooked and underestimated is the availability of talent with the right skills and expertise to realize companies’ larger strategic goals and tackle innovation-centric work.

Leaders of companies must invest human capital where it’s needed most.

It’s not news to anyone that high-quality talent is hard to come by: according to a PwC survey of CEOs, 77% of respondents see the availability of key skills as the biggest threat to their business. McKinsey reports that one-third of senior leaders cite finding talent as their most significant challenge, while HBR flat out states that human capital is most companies’ scarcest resource.

77% of respondents see the availability of key skills as the biggest threat to their business
One-third of senior leaders cite finding talent as their most significant challenge

sources: The Talent Challenge, PWC
Tackling Talent Strategically, Harvard Business Review

So, what’s preventing businesses from improving the situation? According to Gartner research, business leaders agree that, although there’s a lot of data available, there are still large gaps in  information about their own internal talent’s — that is, their own employees’ — skills and expertise.

Research affirms that business leaders lack workforce information. More than half of the respondents on the aforementioned HBR survey (Figure 2) report they need more data on the types of skills and expertise required to meet business objectives, as well as a stronger understanding of how their given workforce plans impact the attainment of their organizations’ strategic objectives.

Figure 2

Business Leaders Lack Workforce Information

Percentage of respondents to HBR’s Analytics Services survey who report they need data on talent and business objectives to improve planning.

57%

What positions/talent are required to meet business objectives

54%

How the workforce plan contributes to the success of the business plan

51%

How changes in the workforce will cause variance from the plan

46%

When positions will be required to meet business needs

source: Tackling Talent Strategically, Harvard Business Review

An Agile Approach to Workforce Planning

As mentioned, upleveling traditional workforce planning strategies to support strategic goals and objectives requires, as a part of the strategy, the ability to adapt to ever-evolving business needs. Companies must be able to get the right people on the right work, and it’s urgent to both surviving and thriving that they successfully do it.

1. Break Down Work

Starting with a small portion of the workforce even just one business unit leaders must break down large initiatives into smaller, discrete units of work. Each workstream or project should center on deliverables that will contribute to the achievement of larger strategic objectives. With knowledge into the specific deliverables needed to meet larger goals, execs can determine which skills and expertises they need to deliver on those defined, desired results.

2. Access the Right Talent

Executives must have the ability to access the talent with the skills and expertise needed to get this mission critical work done fast enough to stay competitive, which may evolve quickly as business goals evolve alongside shifting market demands. As a result, leaders need a much deeper knowledge and understanding of the skills and expertise they have at their disposal — and this should be measured across multiple pools of human capital, both inside and outside of an organization. Some projects will require the expertise of people who work on a contingent basis and do not hold a company badge, while other work streams may be completed by employees with skills not currently utilized in their current function or place in a given organization.

Leaders need a much deeper knowledge and understanding of the skills and expertise they have at their disposal.

3. Leverage Data

Executives must provide their managers with tools to measure the allocation of human capital and the performance of their investments across their talent portfolio, based on the impact the investments have on business objectives. Surfacing data-driven insights is critical to enabling smarter decisions about allocating resources in an agile way. Tracking, measuring, and reviewing both the leading and lagging indicators of a workforce planning and deployment strategy should be done monthly or, at the very least, quarterly, as advised by Scott Pollak, Principal for People Analytics at PwC. The days of approaching workforce planning as annual exercise are over, as conditions continue to evolve at an increasingly rapid rate.

The complexities surrounding both businesses and the constituents of their workforces have had  — and will continue to have — a tremendous impact on how executives ought to deploy their human capital. With an agile approach to workforce planning and deployment, executives will be better able to get the right people on the right work — and they’ll be able to do it faster than ever before, which is exactly what’s needed in today’s volatile business landscape.

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