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Plan it, don’t pan it


“The end of the year’s here, which means HR planning time again. Time for the same old problems to rear their ugly heads, HR having to change their plans at the last minute to react to business changes, drop last year’s priorities because they’re now out of date, build a new training programme from scratch, before the last one’s even had time to be assessed. Sound familiar?” Jan Hills of The Hills Consultancy explains how to plan businesss change to give HR credibility in 2007.

So why is it so difficult to put together a durable HR plan?

Businesses need to move faster than ever before, so it’s pretty difficult to plan a year ahead, let alone five. But if you don’t look to the future, you can’t plan, and you risk getting caught out when the business environment changes. You’ll become reactive rather than proactive– a difficult pattern to get out of.

An HR Business Partner’s strategic planning role is still relatively young, so it’s not always listened to at the top management table. If this role isn’t acknowledged, management will agree on an overall business plan without knowing whether the human resources are in place to implement it. If this happens, HR plans will always end up being reactionary.

And reactionary can often mean risky. Imagine a UK civil engineering company that decided to move operations to China without consulting HR about the implications. How would the company know it could even find enough English-speaking civil engineers there, let alone know how to recruit them?

HR planners often don’t connect with their client businesses. There’s still a tendency towards models, frameworks, and ready-made solutions. But retro-fitting these to a client’s business will never be truly effective. Last year, I worked with a retail company that had previously used a ready-made HR template. There were three problems: first, it was generic. It told them all the ‘right’ processes to follow, like developing good employee relations and training up necessary skills, but it didn’t tell them how to do it in their specific company environment. Secondly, there was no period of consultation before the template was applied, so the business didn’t buy in to it. Thirdly, because it was thought up and based on a business environment at a single moment in time, it was too rigid, and soon became dated.

Is there a better way?
There’s no quick fix, but there are some basic principles that can help HR plans work:

  • Prevent, don’t cure. Get as close as you can to your client business. The closer HR is to the overall business plan, the more it can help to shape it, rather than having to react to it. So insist on being part of every department’s business-planning process.

  • Look for trends. A good way to focus on the future is a technique called ‘scanning’ – taking half a day, once every three months, to scope out the short-, medium- and long- term threats to your client business, and how HR can help avoid them. It will prepare your client’s business for the future (and raise the profile of your strategic role). For example, if you have a client that produces FMCG snacking brands, their response to the continuing trend towards healthy eating will have a major impact on their success. What strategic recruitment plans could be put in place to contribute to this? Health food professionals would be good for starters.
  • Use a Silicone Valley approach. Learning from the processes developed in the IT industry, this approach will give your clients a tailored, up-to-the-minute plan. In essence, a new process is built quickly, using flexible modules, piloted, then refined through ‘in-course correction’.
  • You’ll need to manage your clients’ expectations. But it shouldn’t be too difficult, as they’ll get a bespoke plan. It’ll also allow you to:

  • Involve your clients at every stage of the process – planning, design, rollout and assessment. This means they’re involved in your HR plans, and are far more likely to support them when it comes to implementation.
  • Take feedback on board along the way to make a process more effective. For example, if you’ve planned a modular course to enhance HR Business Partner skills, and after the first module in the pilot you get feedback that the pace is too fast, then a Silicone Valley approach allows you to change the pace without waiting until the rest of the pilot is complete.
  • Get feedback from all areas of the business. Employees in more junior roles have very different perspectives, and very different HR needs, to those at the top. A 360 degree approach will make your HR plans more realistic. And if senior management know that HR has got a finger on the company’s pulse, they’re more likely to listen to your strategic advice.
  • Measure HR plans against business objectives. For example, measure the success of a sales personnel recruitment plan not on the number of positions it fills, but on the performance of those people you recruit. It helps focus HR plans on what will really make a difference to the business, and increases the profile of the strategic role HR plays in reaching business targets.

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