HR professionals across the globe are increasingly talking about strategic workforce planning (SWP). However, whilst we’re all obviously aspiring to this level of talent management, very few of us are actually doing it. And those that are, aren’t necessarily doing it right. There’s a lot of energy around this topic, so what is getting in the way?

From the many discussions I’ve had with senior HRD’s of global organisations, what is apparent to me is there are a vast number of challenges which must be overcome before successful strategic workforce planning can be implemented. Perhaps first and foremost there is a need to clearly and consistently define SWP. Current definitions position it as a 3-5 year plan which, while useful to know, doesn’t help to highlight the intricacies of the process.

Integrating this across the whole organisation presents another challenge.  Businesses are, understandably, driven by numbers, a fact which has in the past mired HR in its attempt to gain its place in the boardroom. The issue though is that SWP simply does not give you nice, neat numbers and if it does it is highly likely they will be wrong. The challenge then is how HR can persuade other departments to move the focus from delivery and outcomes, to talking about the business and skills requirements through insights, trends and scenario planning.

One suggestion as to how we can tackle this problem is to look at the language we use.  There needs to be a connection and clarity between those involved in the operational processes and those in the business strategy. To connect the two, both sides need to understand both the HR and business language in order to have these conversations. In most instances we’re still missing the tools to have these strategic or commercial discussions with the rest of the business.

If you consider what strategic workforce planning is actually looking to achieve, this issue of terminology becomes clear. We tend to use the term ‘talent’ in our SWP discussions, but when you boil down to the specific detail, it is in fact capability which is being defined. In business terms, capability is viewed as a more strategic approach than the less tangible skills planning. By using the right language it can perhaps be easier to get the board on side.

It is also important to remember that SWP is something new for many HR departments and is likely to involve capabilities outside our comfort zone. The skills required for successful strategic workforce planning are often at a higher level than those actually doing it, but a clear ‘owner’ is yet to be identified.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not about HR managing the process alone or a system being put in place. Instead the immediate need is for someone to bring the conversation to the table and get the right people involved. As we look to get the HR voice in the boardroom, this is perhaps something we should facilitate.

It is clear that SWP is both a challenge and an opportunity for us, but it is important to remember that HR doesn’t have all the answers, nor is it expected to. Instead HR professionals have the questions to drive strategic workforce planning in the business, we just need the confidence to facilitate these conversations.

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