Increase the speed and agility of answering “what-if” questions in HR and workforce planning
“What-if” scenario planning isn’t an empty thought exercise. It’s a powerful way for HR to become a more effective, trusted partner to senior leaders.
Since the HR profession first flourished in the 1950s, it has become a trusted governance and operational partner to executive leadership. But as we know all too well, HR still struggles to excel beyond operations and compliance. In the last two decades, HR has eagerly sought out ways to alleviate its various administrative burdens, aiming to free up time and resources for the intensive work of crafting organizational agility and talent strategy.
HR technology constantly holds the promise of liberating HR. But with each new wave of innovation, HR seems increasingly buried under more processes, bureaucracy, workflows, systems, and data maintenance.
As the global economy enters yet another long stage of recovery, HR assumes an expanded role in one of the most critical elements: renovating the workforce. For some organizations, this means putting the workforce back to work across their organizations. For others, it involves adapting to a functionally different business environment, perhaps even on a scale comparable to converting wartime efforts to peacetime prosperity. Whatever the case, workforce planning represents a unique opportunity for HR to become highly strategic and collaborative and leverage technology to reduce its administrative burdens.
Using a “what-if” scenario planning approach, HR gains a more significant ability to address top-level strategic questions, factor in the effects of the workforce, evaluate the impacts organization-wide and do so with speed and agility. Let’s look at three big “what-if” questions that HR can address and position HR as a strategic partner to senior leadership.
1. “What if we could actually do this?”
Executive leaders like hearing that they have options, not being told, “here’s why that won’t work.” “What-if” scenarios give executive leaders across the organization a clear understanding of the best, worst, and most likely effects of a specific workforce plan and the impacts on both the overall organization and the respective business functions and results.
“But even more, “what-if” scenarios help HR create options for executive leadership. “What-if” scenarios define the boundaries of what is possible, feasible, and optimal, along with forecasting what to expect by re-working the percentages. For example, what if we could allow 30 percent of our workforce to work from home permanently? Could we reduce real estate and labor expenses over the next three years? Would that also increase retention due to greater job satisfaction? If that allowed us to recruit talent from a larger geographic range, could we fill key positions quicker and start or complete key projects sooner?
2. “What if we don’t have the data to make a good case for this?”
Executive leaders like transparent, solid, and convincing business cases, especially those that enhance critical strategic initiatives. Unfortunately, the correct data to support such cases is not always available. For example, to help us exceed the revenue goals of an aggressive new product rollout, what if we invested more in developing a premium sales training program or provided more targeted incentives for existing revenue producers and enablers while hiring fewer new sales personnel? What if we allocated more of our talent to inbound marketing? Could that generate more demand in key segments? Or are we better off just hiring a bunch of contract sales personnel and giving them basic training, a desk, and a phone?
By starting with a driver-based model in “what-if” scenarios, HR leaders develop a powerful tool to test and demonstrate the effects of numerous possible workforce plans across multiple departments.
3. “What if we can’t wait until the next planning period to assemble the right workforce?”
Executive leaders operate on executive time, which doesn’t always coincide with tidy reporting periods. HR needs to excel at anticipating hiring needs, specifying the right places for the right people, and developing an overall workforce plan where it all happens at the right time and cost, rather than being dictated by quarters of the accounting year.
Getting the timing right is a significant challenge, as hiring operations are notorious for being hurry-up-and-wait affairs. They are often initiated reactively when a manager discovers an urgent need. But then things get delayed by all the back and forth that ensues, first during requisitioning and later during the actual hiring process. On average, it takes 42 days to fill an open position, though it can be much longer for specific roles. This practically assures that new hires will begin their jobs out of phase with the business cadence, significantly lengthening the time it will take for them to become fully productive.
By enabling HR to develop an agile workforce plan, “what-if” scenarios eliminate the need to push critical workforce initiatives to the next quarter or even later. Such a plan is always visible to business leaders across the organization. And especially for executive leadership, it allows them to treat workforce planning as a futures market and not a spot market.
Giving data a voice, even when it cannot speak up on its own behalf
Decisions don’t always wait for data, and data alone doesn’t always drive sound decisions. “What-if” scenarios help tell the story when the data doesn’t yet have a voice, illuminating causal relations and interdependencies and foreseeing the consequences of decisions versus punting those decisions down the road or basing them on gut feel. “What-if” scenario planning isn’t just a thought exercise but rather a fundamental part of responsible, modern workforce planning.