Workforce Planning Moves into the Real-Time World

By Mark Feffer Apr 6, 2015
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Technology and analytics are combining to turn workforce planning into a more dynamic practice. Together, they’re allowing HR and business managers to explore the impact of proposed scenarios in real time, while offering more clarity into a workforce’s subtleties and providing the tools HR needs to develop a greater voice in overarching financial and business discussions.

Although the majority of organizations are still relatively unsophisticated in their approach to metrics, businesses continue to spend money on products and services that help them make sense of numbers. According to High-Impact Talent Analytics: Building a World-Class HR Measurement and Analytics Function, a 2013 report from Bersin by Deloitte, more than half of organizations are focused on using these numbers for operational reporting as opposed to supporting decision-making or planning.

“There’s quite a bit of research showing that HR is going to be investing fairly aggressively in the next years in analytics expertise and technology,” said Gene Pease, CEO of Vestrics, a Carrboro, N.C.-based analytics company. “It seems like it’s becoming a have-to-have to make sure fact-based decision-making is happening.”

By “fact-based,” Pease is referring to a growing determination by HR to put measurable, predictable reasoning behind its strategies and tactics.

In particular, that approach is becoming increasingly apparent in workforce planning. There, says Himanshu Tambe, managing director of Accenture Strategy, HR is using analytics to shift its focus from filling open jobs to finding candidates with the right skills. It’s also using analytics to pursue more-sophisticated modeling capabilities that can help it predict outcomes.

Michael Housman, chief analytics officer of applications provider Cornerstone OnDemand, is seeing more companies approach workforce planning in real time, though he says “we’re very early in this evolution.” Analytics products, he said, “can be so valuable there. At the end of the day, you’re trying to make decisions now about what’s going to happen down the line. When you can predict with more statistics and refinement, you can get more value.”

“You can’t do the supply side of workforce planning without workforce analytics,” added Peter Howes, vice president, Workforce Planning and Analytics, at solutions provider SuccessFactors. “You’re asking where will the current workforce be in two, five or 10 years.” When trying to examine scenarios over such time frames, he says, “analytics is a core component of workforce planning.”

Actionable Data

The idea isn’t simply to make better predictions, though. Increasingly, HR is seeking to make workforce data actionable and bring a sense of immediacy to its planning efforts. More companies are moving toward “prescriptive” analytics, says Amy Wilson, vice president of HCM Product Strategy at HR and financial software provider Workday. “We’re starting to get to the ‘so what?’ ” she explained. “It’s one thing to predict [if] someone’s going to leave. So what? It’s another thing to do something about it.”

For example, Housman says managers could identify which employees might struggle to complete required training on time, and so plan for contingencies if some workers fall into noncompliance. Or, by monitoring data such as location, function, supervisor and shift, they might predict who is likely to be promoted or who might be at risk of leaving the company.

The intelligence gained by examining such issues can have bottom-line impacts on a variety of business areas, says Kathleen Brunner, president of Acumen Analytics, a consulting firm in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. By studying the numbers, HR can identify risks—such as where talent gaps may be impacting revenue by slowing down operations—and strategies and tactics for addressing them, like investing in the development of critical skills either internally or through new hiring.

In one instance, a dashboard Brunner developed to track the internal movement of a manufacturer’s workforce revealed that new hiring outpaced the promotion of internal candidates at the midcareer level. Meanwhile, an unusual number of employees at that level were leaving the company, creating a talent gap. The analysis begged the question: Was the pace of hiring blocking career opportunities for existing employees? Spread across a 4,500-person business, the trends wouldn’t have been apparent without the analytics. Further investigation revealed a “bunching up” of management roles in certain segments, leading to a revamping that better distributed opportunities and allowed for more internal growth.

The point of such exercises is to identify information in time for it to be useful, says Marcus Joseph, principal consultant for Workforce Planning and Analytics at SuccessFactors. “You want to deliver the insight at the appropriate point in the business process,” he noted.

Expanding Influence

Such capabilities are having an impact beyond workforce-related issues. In many cases, they’re enabling HR to have more of an impact in discussions involving everything from finance to operations to corporate strategy.

Driving this is the increasing ability of HR to sync up its planning numbers with those from the finance department. “These tend to be an organization’s ‘true’ numbers,” Brunner noted. “This is about everyone having a single version of the truth.”

​Harnessing a common set of data, added John Schwarz, CEO of solutions provider Visier, “puts HR and Finance on the same ground.”

That’s important in a world where the finance department owns much of a company’s data. Armed with real numbers in areas like pay, benefits, payroll taxes and other expenses, HR can more credibly argue its case to the CEO and CFO when forecasting workforce needs. “Having data to back up your assumptions makes for more-compelling arguments,” said Tim Sasek, manager, Human Resources—Talent Analytics, at ConAgra Foods.

It also expands HR’s influence into areas that previously were considered almost purely operational or financial. For example, moving a corporate headquarters even locally can lead to an exodus of employees whose commutes are disrupted with a corresponding impact on child care or other family issues. Brunner has seen just such a case, where her data showed that any cost savings realized by the move would be eaten up by the expense of recruiting new workers. “HR always wanted a seat at the table,” she said. “This is a fast-track ticket to get there.”

Many organizations already have the tools in place to undertake such efforts, says Accenture’s Tambe. As he sees it, HR has to nurture its credibility when it comes to developing business strategy, in part by demonstrating that it can use analytics to produce action plans as well as strategic studies.

Beyond that, the idea of real-time insight can be disconcerting in ways that may not always be apparent. More-granular data can quickly identify stronger vs. weaker managers, for example, or whose department is meeting training guidelines and whose isn’t. “The knowledge you gain can be overwhelming and uncomfortable,” Schwarz said. “Culturally, organizations need to proceed carefully.”

Mark Feffer is a Pennsylvania-based writer who focuses on careers and technology.

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