HR folks have been talking about being a partner to senior business leaders for 20 years now. But small- to medium-sized organizations with either a small HR team (or a solo HR pro) can easily be so consumed with the details of the “crisis du jour” that more strategic functions, such as long-term planning or management inventory, just never make the list.
I think the time is ripe for HR professionals to take the lead on long-term workforce thinking for their businesses, and in doing so, become the HR strategic partner they aspire to be. You might agree HR has the business knowledge, the data, and the analytic and people skills to do the job and the need is critical, but somehow it just doesn’t happen. What is holding us back?
I don’t think it is lack of senior level support or HR’s lack of business acumen or expertise. It is more fundamental. First, there is the time factor. The work of building strategic business plans for people issues takes thinking time, and it’s hard to step away from the daily crises to do the hard work of long-term planning.
"For HR staff, it’s often hard to step away from the daily crises to do the hard work of long-term planning."
Let’s say your CEO is interested in workforce planning and you have the preliminary meeting to start things happening. The more you talk, the bigger the project becomes. Interviews with senior leaders expand into surveys and focus groups. A few demographic reports morph into data-mining, graphs, charts by division, region, function. The original 30-day workforce- planning project stretches to six, nine, twelve months. For many senior leaders, it’s easier to say, “We just don’t have the time right now. Maybe next year.”
Then there’s the money. It might be that senior leaders agree to make time for workforce planning, but while shopping for expert help, they discover that the cost of engaging a consultant can easily grow to five or six figures. Numbers like that are often showstoppers for many companies.
You can see why any organization might give up; however, this is the HR opportunity. With some counterintuitive guiding principles and a slight adjustment in the goal—away from perfection and toward realism—HR can lead any organization, big or small, toward a useful workforce plan that is accomplished in the time available and without the crazy price tag. Those guiding principles might include:
• Set modest expectations. The bigger the build-up, the harder to deliver, especially for something your organization has never done before: better to offer modest, achievable goals for a first try, than to set yourself and the organization up for a loud thud.
• Move anything that slows you down out of the way and then keep moving. Can’t agree on the definition of FTE? Count every person as one and keep moving. Can’t get Operations and Sales to agree on the future needs of the organization? Include both scenarios and keep moving. Keep track of all the unresolved issues for the next iteration but use the “80-percent rule” (close enough) to keep moving.
• The conversation is more important than the document. As much as the HR professional in you wants to end up with an accurate and thoroughly documented record of this hard work, you might have to settle for the satisfaction of knowing that a thoughtful and challenging conversation about the long-term strategic workforce needs of your organization happened for the first time because of you.
A project like this requires close teamwork with senior managers, an understanding of the business challenges, and the kind of people-focused leadership skills HR is uniquely qualified to provide. Strategic workforce planning could be the best way to showcase HR as a knowledgeable, expert business partner. Since our future as a profession depends on our ability to actually be what we said we should be, this is the time to step up. The debrief with your CEO after the first effort may reveal that you are viewed differently for leading this—more like that strategic business partner you said you could be if given the opportunity.
There are tools out there and consultants who will embrace your approach. What is needed is a commitment to start. You may be surprised how quickly things move once HR starts the ball rolling. Just start—and you can do it yourself.
Susan Harmansky is a consultant and author. She has served on the task force that developed the first American National Standard for performance management and on the first international committee developing ISO standards for HR. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org