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Workforce planning isn’t just about people

Labels are useful, but they can also be misleading.

Imagine the surgeon in the operating theatre who doesn’t know how to ask for the precise type of scalpel she needs, or the mechanic who needs a specific wrench but doesn’t have the language to describe it. In the professional services sector, labels are every bit as important as a mechanism for allowing clients to express what they need and firms to describe what they do, but with the added complication that the services being provided defy consistent definition. Every client has unique needs, so a strategy project for one organisation may look very different from one elsewhere, and every firm has its own definition about what a strategy project consists of.

It’s a challenge that has been amplified by the rapid growth of multidisciplinary projects such as digital transformation, the tentacles of which run across different functional areas of a client organisation and require many different consulting capabilities. The good news is that the digital transformation label allows clients and consultants to feel reassured that they’re broadly on the same page as each other. The bad news is that their common understanding might not be carried any further than the first page.

Worse than that, the assumptions that inevitably fill the white space on the subsequent pages could actually be misleading. Take workforce planning—a term being bandied around by virtually everybody in the current crisis—as a case in point.

At its simplest, workforce planning refers to the host of different capabilities clients are looking for as they try to make their organisations more scalable. Customer-facing businesses are the best examples: Airlines are increasing the number of flights they operate but may need to cut back if the virus returns in force in certain locations. So how many cabin crews will they need next week? How and when do they tell the crews themselves whether they’re required? The problems are legion. But ordinary offices also need to work out how many people need to be where and when; and what will happen to those who aren’t needed, at least for now.

What’s meant by the “workforce planning” label that’s likely to be trotted out in these circumstances may be clear from a client perspective, but it’s misleading for suppliers. It sounds like an HR service but it involves process design, scheduling, technology, and much more. In practice, it’s an opportunity for far more than HR specialists or even just consultants. Hidden under its heading is a raft of implications for risk management—indeed, you could argue that risk management is actually at the heart of workforce planning: Organisations aren’t interested in this area because they want to improve customer service, but because what they ask their employees to do may have huge consequences for the latter’s health and wellbeing. Needless to say, risk specialists and firms with significant risk practices will need to work closely with HR specialists and operational planners, but there’s a danger of them not being thought of at all under the banner of workforce planning, when in fact they bring a uniquely helpful perspective.

Similarly, recruitment may not be uppermost in many clients’ minds at the moment, but reconfiguring what work gets done has implications for the skills needed. Clients and consulting firms are both finding themselves short of some capabilities but with a surplus of others, and there are big questions about how best to deal with both of those issues. Permanent, full-time employment is likely to be replaced by more temporary, part-time jobs for the foreseeable future. Executive search companies’ ears are more likely than risk managers’ to prick up at the mention of workforce planning. But there’s still a danger that they’ll wait passively to see if anything turns into a recruitment opportunity, when in fact there may be opportunities for them to take the initiative and start wide-ranging conversations with clients at a much earlier stage.

So yes, labels are still useful, but only if firms think carefully and creatively about which ones apply to them, and resist the temptation of making too many assumptions about what they mean.