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George Blair

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Workforce planning: Do you have the right people and skills?


In the first of the series, we explored where to look for wasted effort in your organisation and the importance of left-field thinking in re-designing processes. In this article, George Blair, President of the HR Society looks at how the right people with the right skills can make a difference, and how targeted recruitment and training can achieve this.

Can you offer job security?

Job security is a powerful attraction to most employees. And although your finance director may choke seeing this, there is a strong business case for offering secure employment. Without it, productivity improvements go out the window, as staff feel that this will lead to job losses. That is why Toyota, one of the most productive car manufacturers, has a long track record of avoiding compulsory redundancies. Some organisations place temporary workers in less critical roles, whose numbers can be run-down more easily. 

How well does your workforce match your customers?

It’s true that people like people like them. This is particularly relevant for your customers.  So, female customers can feel alienated by organisations that are staffed almost exclusively by men – particularly important where potential customers are women with high, disposable incomes.

Ethnicity and age are also important. A building society discovered that its most successful branches had older staff, whose ages and experienced matched their customers more closely. These staff could relate much better to their customers. On the other hand, industries that are geared to youth need to avoid long-term vacancy freezes, as this merely results in an aging workforce

Therefore, recruit strategically to rebalance your workforce to your customer needs. If you have a static workforce and no vacancies, create them by offering sabbaticals and shorter working weeks.

How do we keep the knowledge, even when you lose the people?

Scattered throughout your organisation are people with many years experience in small, specialist units. Sadly, they are only fully appreciated when they have left and their scarce skills are lost. Quite often their experience cannot be replicated by sending staff on short courses. 

So set up skills transfer programmes to gather and pass on their knowledge before they leave. This may include work-based training, coaching and perhaps more formal types of learning also. For scientists and technologists, it may be a case of making links with a local university and offering student placements. For rare specialisms, there may be only a couple of universities in the country that produces the Phd holder that is required and these constraints need to be built in to any recruitment processes – both in terms of time and cost.  

How are you going to deliver innovation?

Our first article looked at identifying value and improving efficiency in your organisation as it is now.  Simultaneously, the process might have discovered potential new markets and products. These may well need a new range of skills, such as brainstorming, problem solving and process redesign techniques. If you are moving into a new product family or technology, there may be more industry specific skills.

Given the pressure on training budgets, these programmes might well need to be delivered by a combination of means – coaching, cascade training and web-based methods for example, different methods that can be mutually reinforcing and support a wider range of learning styles.

Do you have the right culture for innovation?

Targeted recruitment and training may come to nothing if the organisation is not willing to try new things. Risk averse and blame cultures will inhibit the spread of new ideas and ways of working. Expensive development programmes may be wasted as staff find the organisation unreceptive to their new ideas. 

To shake things up, use pilot projects, where rapid failure is regarded as valuable feedback. The emphasis is on “rapid”, as this will enable organisations to gain experience quickly. Ego orientated organisations have a very expensive habit of persisting with unsuccessful approaches, so that key people avoid losing face.

The results of mystery shopping can provide valuable material to demonstrate what needs to improve in role playing training exercises. Future surgeons should be significantly more deft at having difficult conversations with patients, because they have had to pass a role-playing examination.

Benchmarking can be a powerful incentive to change, if your organisation is rated as poor to average. Staff may be won over, if they see their counterparts in other organisations working more productively.

However, do not be complacent if you come to the top of comparisons – after all, these are likely to be comparisons with organisations which are like you. The biggest risk comes from new incumbents scything through the competition with different business models.  For instance, downloaded music has decimated high street music retailers. 

  • In the next of the series, we will cover implementing your workforce plan and give you practical tools to save time and effort in doing so.

George Blair is Chairman of the HR Society and a workforce planning expert.  He runs courses in workforce planning for the HR Society, which focuses on the business edge of HR.


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