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Micah Fairchild Workforce Planning Software: New Approach to an Old Problem

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 By Micah Fairchild

How New Workforce Software Technology Is Fixing the Old Planning Process

Though it's been around for nearly two decades, workforce planning has really only started to emerge as a strategic issue for organizations. According to recent work by Ventana Research, "To date [while] there have been a handful of documented workforce planning success stories with 3M, UBS, IBM, Toyota, [and] Google…for the most part workforce planning remains an elusive HR management best practice".

Perhaps this is due to the complexity of the planning process or the proactive nature of any planning that has historically turned many organizations off. Regardless of past reasons however, the workforce planning process (thanks to a much needed boost from software technology) is seeing a renaissance. Indeed according to Gartner's Thomas Otter, "During the past few years, a set of HR software solutions have emerged that take a more strategic view of workforce planning".

What's Trending Now? Scenario Planning and Trend Analysis

This "more strategic view" Otter references has to do with the new tools that technology firms are utilizing. For example, let's say that an opening comes available through the retirement of Employee A. Done without workforce planning software automation, the company losing Employee A would post the job, advertise, interview, and ultimately (and hopefully) land a new employee to take over. However, with the "increasingly sophisticated scenario planning and algorithms" of newer workforce planning systems, patterns and trends would have belied Employee A's vacancy by possibly years—allowing for the organization to make proactive knowledge transfer, mentoring, and succession plans.

Because of the advanced visibility offered by workforce planning software systems, organizations are starting to come out of the woodwork to take advantage of these types of applications. In fact, a recent joint poll between the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found a 28% increase (since 2009) in the number of organizations conducting strategic workforce planning efforts. And it's not difficult to see why. Wrangling that amount of data into a usable forecasting model is extremely hard to do outside of some type of automated solution. Partner that data difficulty with the rapidly changing employment landscape and the true nature of workforce planning's need comes out.

Take the Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) industry for example. Ten years ago, HVAC technicians were considered to be a healthy mix between electricians and laborers because "servicing" these systems meant physically visiting individual heating and cooling units. Today, more and more HVAC units are becoming true IT systems, and HVAC technicians are controlling massive amounts of data through automated interfaces. Being able to identify trends such as this make the capabilities of workforce planning software nearly indispensable (and can easily make gaining on organizational competition easier). Indeed, according to Gartner's James Hollincheck, when it comes to workforce planning efforts, "leading companies combine people-related data with other industry trends…to create scenarios for long-term plans".

The Two Faces of Workforce Planning

Still, because of (or perhaps in spite of) the enterprise-wide scope of workforce planning, the process suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis. Traditional versions of this planning process (such as those used in the retail, contact center, and warehouse industries) focus on head-counts and "enable managers to plan employee costs by forecasting full-time-equivalent, head count, salary/pay rates and other employee-related expenses", says Gartner's Otter. While helpful, the problem with this financial-focus approach is that, the intricacies of the process aren't being used for the broader talent strategies of competency management, succession planning, or true gap analysis.

The newer version of workforce planning that has been set in motion with these latest software offerings is a process that is seen as future-state, far-reaching, and rooted in forecasting. As it is seen by this camp, workforce planning is the systematic process that predicts the who, what, when, and where of the organization. Encompassing the entire enterprise—from executives to outsourced labor—this version of workforce planning is strategic human capital management at its core. Indeed, as ICS's CEO Katherine Jones puts it, "Workforce planning is not about hiring in the next six months, but what…my workforce [should] look like in three to five years".

Planning for Workforce Planning Software Selection

It's important to note though that you can't just run down to the corner store, purchase a new workforce planning software suite, and get applications such as this to have an immediate effect. Ventana Research's VP and Research Director Kevin Grossman writes, in Workforce Planning Is Part of the Next Generation of Human Capital Management, "before you can practice workforce planning, you must have sound workforce metrics and analytics, and that's not an easy task for many organizations". Therein lies the rub for many organizations looking to benefit from this latest wellspring of software offerings—you have to do some planning legwork first before you roll out the workforce software solution. Gartner's Hype Cycle report attests to this, citing that the first thing organization's looking to conduct workforce planning must do is to "Understand what you are trying to accomplish with workforce planning. "Indeed, warehouse operations and others only looking to focus on financials, should likely not choose a specialized "segmenting" solution because it won't accomplish what is needed. Similarly, organizations that are strategy driven shouldn't hone in on the offerings that tout head-count as a key software benefit.

Once goals are determined, then define what metrics will be used and where data needs to start being compiled. After that, you're ready to start up the workforce planning selection process, but take note—while many large vendors do have workforce planning, analytics, and management functionality, best-of-breeds are also around that can supply purpose built solutions with time to value and cost advantages. End

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The newer version of workforce planning that has been set in motion with these latest software offerings is a process that is seen as future-state, far-reaching, and rooted in forecasting. It is a systematic process that predicts the who, what, when, and where of the organization".


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