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Building the Foundation for Strategic Workforce Planning at Bristol-Myers Squibb

A close up view of a metal bridge.

Strategic workforce planning (SWP) as a practice has been underway for over two decades. Since its inception, SWP has evolved into a more sophisticated discipline, integrating a plethora of capabilities to create value—strategy, data, and analytics, to name a few.

Despite these advancements, more than a third of HR practitioners (35 percent) agree their organization is overwhelmed by the complexity of SWP—making it difficult to implement.1

The challenges to implementing SWP range from a perceived lack of technology, insufficient or inaccurate data, or not having the internal capability or buy-in to get efforts off the ground. For many, the first hurdle is simply trying to answer the question: How do we get started? As organizations continue to struggle to overcome these challenges, the full potential of SWP remains untapped. 

In spite of these obstacles, the opportunity for driving competitive advantage through SWP has never been greater. The ongoing convergence of industry, business, technology, social, and workforce trends continues to place intense pressure on organizations to more accurately anticipate and plan what work needs to get done, by whom, how, where, when, and at the right cost. 

Although it is a tall order for an organization to anticipate and predict accurately any one of these factors, let alone all of them, those organizations who invest the time in SWP can move beyond intuition and guesswork when determining workforce needs and embrace a more deliberate approach that fuels business performance. 

BMS Overview and SWP 

At Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), our mission, our science, what we do, and how we do it is driven by patients and their families. Increased industry competition, pricing and regulatory pressures, and market access are just a few challenges that can impact our ability to deliver. To surmount these and realize the full potential of assets within our drug pipeline, it is vital that we have the best talent, with the right skills, when and where needed. To this end, BMS views SWP as a vital lever for enabling our businesses to deliver faster and better for our patients.

In the spring of 2018, we embarked on a journey to launch a company-wide SWP approach. While SWP had been pursued in parts of the company over the years, we did not have a consistent approach or a common language to talk about workforce needs. Despite these limitations, we used this opportunity to jump-start an internal SWP capability—with the goal of deriving immediate business value, and creating the structure and momentum for evolving an ongoing SWP practice across the enterprise. 

Although we are only in year two of our multi-year SWP journey and have just begun to tap into the potential of SWP, we believe our approach and insights may provide ideas and guidance to other practitioners who are also just embarking on SWP journeys of their own. In the remainder of this article, we will share our SWP: 
  1. design principles, 
  2. approach, 
  3. results and next steps, and 
  4. advice to practitioners. 

BMS SWP Design Principles

Given the myriad challenges that organizations face when developing and implementing a SWP practice, we thought it was prudent to proactively identify potential obstacles prior to developing our SWP approach. This enabled us to then think through how we could minimize risk throughout our SWP implementation.

To address these obstacles and guide the overall initiative, we formed and utilized an internal workforce planning council. The council consisted of the SWP center of expertise (COE), HR business partners across our company, talent analytics, diversity and inclusion, total rewards, and leaders from the business. As shown in Figure 1, we developed a list of design principles to mitigate the SWP challenges we believed we might encounter.

Figure 1: SWP Challenges and Corresponding Design Principles

​Common SWP Challenge
BMS Design Principles​
​Misalignment of SWP with business goals
Everything starts with business strategy: All insights and actions must be derived from and support business objectives and advance the company mission.
Not starting until you have technology
Approach before technology: Build the SWP approach prior to investing in a technology to ensure understanding of what SWP technology capability is needed.
​Making SWP too complex
Simple and practical: Develop a SWP approach that is simple and efficient to ensure adoption and execution.​
Focusing on only the short-term​Near and long-term focused: Address both near-term (6-12 months) and long-term (3 years) talent priorities.
Not having perfect workforce data​Start with what you have: Gain momentum by leveraging data we have to achieve insights—versus seeking exact numbers­­—to accelerate decision-making.
Trying to do too much too fast
​Start with the foundation: Concentrate on building the fundamentals of SWP and then refine over time as we learn.

  1. Everything starts with business strategy: While the business strategy may seem like an obvious starting point for SWP, we realized that SWP efforts can sometimes focus more on process and tools at the expense of a strategic business discussion. When SWP becomes more about process and tools than strategic dialogue, business leaders become disengaged and SWP efforts stall or stop all together. Although process and tools can enable productive discussions, we agreed they should not be the focus. Thus, all SWP discussions were anchored in the business strategy in order to ensure relevance and value. 
  2. Approach before technology: Technology is a vital enabler for SWP, especially when striving to deliver it in an efficient and scalable manner. With that said, we made a deliberate decision to not start with selecting a SWP technology provider and instead focused on developing and refining an overall SWP approach. In doing so, we felt we could achieve a better understanding of our technology needs and then use this perspective to guide technology decisions in the future. 
  3. Simple and practical: The SWP framework and approach were purposefully designed to be straightforward and simple. While practitioner guidance was provided by the SWP center of expertise, HR and business leaders were charged with leading the strategic dialogues within their respective businesses. This flexible and simple approach would drive ownership and adoption of the process as well as increase data quality. 
  4. Near and long-term focused: Breaking out of the cycle of only short-term operational planning was an important objective for BMS’ SWP platform. While short-term, detailed planning is critical for delivering promised results, we needed to help our leaders develop more long-term perspective about their workforce. By encouraging our businesses to think about both short and long-term needs, we could enable them to tackle their most pressing current challenges, as well as think about and anticipate potential future challenges. 
  5. Focus on directional insights: SWP is both art and science, and thus can never be error free. The purpose of establishing our SWP practice, at this time, was not to accurately predict headcount needs or the precise number of jobs, but instead to gain an understanding of how to proactively shift our workforce in a direction that would accelerate the delivery of our business strategy. To avoid “analysis paralysis,” we encouraged leaders to discuss workforce challenges and solutions in a directional way.
  6. Start with the foundation: There are various levels of maturity that SWP offers—from foundational to advanced capabilities. While we did create and share a three-year roadmap (Figure 2) for how our SWP capability could evolve over time, we felt it was important to focus year one on building SWP fundamentals. In doing so, we could gain momentum, get some quick wins, and refine our approach as we learned.

Figure 2: SWP Three-Year Roadmap

Build and Execute
  • Create and roll out SWP approach and tools
  • Build SWP capability within HR to support business leaders
  • Develop baseline measures and derive insights
  • Create and implement build, buy, borrow strategies to close prioritized gaps
  • Gather feedback on approach and tools and adjust as needed
  • Further integrate SWP into existing business and financial planning processes
  • Utilize external market intelligence and workforce trends to refine SWP strategies
  • Leverage SWP insights to inform company-wide talent investments
  • Continue to build HR capability to support business leaders
  • Evaluate opportunities for advancing SWP capability via technology
  • Hone directional insights to forecast workforce needs by location and market
  • Employ scenario-based SWP to better prepare for workforce supply and demand variation
  • Build SWP technology strategy (implement solution in 2021)
  • Review ROI impact of SWP process and plans

BMS SWP Approach

Upon establishing our design principles, we shifted our focus to developing the approach. Our approach consisted of two complimentary components: 1) a SWP framework that could be used to draw connections between business strategy, workforce implications, and action plans, and 2) an internally developed Excel and algorithm-based tool to help gather and sort information, drawing insights for each component of the framework. 

While the Excel tool was important, it was not heavily used in discussions with business leaders. Instead, it was the SWP framework that helped to facilitate strategic dialogues. Output from these dialogues was captured in the tool and a behind-the-scenes analysis then informed subsequent leader discussions and SWP decisions. Further, HR leaders deliberately timed SWP discussions to coincide with the business strategic planning process, so there was a seamless connection between the two. 

Figure 3 shows the six components of our SWP framework and the questions we sought to answer. The first two components establish business context and priorities while the remaining help to determine and prioritize talent implications and investments. 

Figure 3: BMS SWP Framework

3-Year Business Strategy and Priorities: What is our strategic focus?​
Strategic Capabilities : What is most vital to strategy execution?
​Critical Roles and Critical Skills: Which roles and skills drive these capabilities?
​Risk Assessment of Roles and Skills: What is the supply/demand risk for these roles and skills?
​High-Risk Roles and Skills: Which role and skill gaps present the greatest strategic risks?
Actions for High-Risk Areas: What actions do we take in roles and skills that pose the greatest risk?​

1. Strategic Focus: What is our strategic focus?
Although our leaders know their strategy and priorities well, we posed a number of open-ended questions designed to help drive alignment of both objectives and associated challenges. We raised questions such as: What are your key business objectives over the next 18 months to three years? What internal/external business factors place the strategy at risk? By starting the dialogue with strategic priorities and challenges, we gained several insights into the business on which we could further build the conversation. 

2. Strategic Capabilities: What is most vital to strategy execution?
To get to a deeper level of specificity as it relates to business strategy, we then asked leaders to think of three to five strategic capabilities which disproportionately enable their business strategy. We defined strategic capabilities as a combination of people, processes, technology, and information that collectively are/will be vital to enabling the organization to deliver its strategy. For BMS, these capabilities can be things such as drug development, market access, or external supply management, to name a few. We posed questions such as: What do we need to be great at in order to execute our strategy? Which capabilities will enable us to surmount key business challenges? Which capabilities will accelerate our ability to deliver for our patients? This level of introspection allowed us to go beyond strategy articulation and focus on the capabilities of the workforce that are vital to successful strategy execution. 

3.  Critical Roles and Skills: Which roles and skills drive these capabilities?
Once the strategic context was established (strategy and capabilities), we shifted the conversation to talent implications. Leaders were asked to: 
  1. Identify existing or future roles that do/will disproportionately drive the success of one or more strategic capabilities,  
  2. Regardless of role, identify current or future skills which do/will disproportionately drive the success of one or more strategic capabilities. 
These critical roles were not dependent on job level, and therefore multiple layers of the organization were considered. Critical skills were defined broadly, such as being technical, functional, general, or behavioral. Importantly, these roles and skills were identified independently of one another, effectively disentangling assumptions about skills being tied to specific jobs. Further, this separation enabled us to identify vital skills spanning across multiple roles and businesses.

4. Risk Assessment of Roles and Skills: What is the supply/demand risk for these roles and skills?
For each critical role and skill, we used six factors/questions (three for demand and three for supply) to help leaders determine risk, using a high, medium, low categorization. Since our goal was to obtain directional insights, it was important that we used clear criteria from which those insights would be based. The risk criteria also ensured that leaders across the organization were consistent in how they evaluated risk. Upon discussing all of the roles/skills and risk factors, we subsequently entered this information into our Excel tool (not during the SWP discussion, but behind the scenes). Figure 4 illustrates the supply and demand risk factors that were used.

5. Prioritizing High-Risk Roles and Skills: Which role and skill gaps present the greatest strategic risks?
As shown in Figure 4, risk level for each role and skill was automatically generated using the scoring algorithm built into the Excel tool. High-risk roles or skills are those where the demand has the greatest likelihood of outpacing supply and, therefore, are the highest priority. We shared these insights with leaders and asked them to validate the outcomes. In most cases, leaders agreed with the automated categorization of risk for each role and skill, which suggested that our criteria were useful in obtaining directionally accurate insights. If there was disagreement about the risk categorization of a particular role or skill, we continued the discussion using the criteria until the group of leaders came to an agreement—either changing the category to one they felt was more accurate or leaving it in place. Regardless, this additional dialogue provided greater context and clarity, which enabled leaders to more accurately assess risk. 

Figure 4: Supply and Demand Risk Factors

6. Actions for High-Risk Areas: Which actions do we take in roles and skills that pose the greatest risk? 
For each critical role and skill identified as high-risk (and in some cases moderate-risk), leaders were asked to develop one- to three-year action plans, leveraging various build, buy, and borrow strategies to close the gaps. These action plans directly informed multi-year talent strategies for each respective business across the enterprise. We then consolidated all action plans for an enterprise view—ultimately informing BMS’ broader talent strategy. 

Results and Next Steps

This purposefully pragmatic and tailored approach has enabled BMS to begin to build a SWP capability for the first time in several years. In less than one year, we have:
  1. Developed and launched an enterprise approach to SWP while simultaneously building internal HR and business leader SWP capability.
  2. Identified the strategic capabilities that drive long-term success and use them as the basis for determining critical roles and skills.
  3. Assessed directional workforce supply and demand risk for critical roles and skills that disproportionately impact one or more of our strategic capabilities.
  4. Prioritized and developed actions (build, buy, and borrow) for closing critical role and skill gaps in the highest-risk areas over a three-year time horizon.
  5. Rolled up information to provide a company view, showing where there is overlap as well as distinction in talent needs and investments across the company. 
In addition, as shown in Figure 5, various internal talent partners/groups are leveraging this work to inform and prioritize investments, which will further accelerate our SWP capability. 

Figure 5: Application Across BMS

​Talent Management

​Create success profiles for high-risk role(s) for more impactful selection, development and succession
​Talent Acquisition

​Develop sourcing strategies and hiring plans for high-risk critical roles and skills; connect early career sourcing and development strategies to high-demand and high-risk capabilities, roles, and skills
​Corporate Strategy

​Utilize identified strategic capabilities to link back to BMS capabilities; use to further educate organization about the connections between business and enterprise strategy
​Growth & Development

Leverage skill data to inform capability and skill investments across BMS​
​Total Rewards
​Utilize high-risk role information to identify total rewards actions that may reduce risk; understand implications for global mobility
​Talent Analytics
​Leverage high-risk role data to better understand competitive insights about these employee segments (e.g. turnover risk, engagement drivers, etc.)
​Diversity & Inclusion
​Leverage aspirational goals, strategic relationships, and understanding of diverse talent cohorts to find hidden talent for high-risk roles and skills

As for our own next steps in the SWP COE, while the possibilities are extensive, we will use our lessons learned to modify and evolve our approach. Some possibilities are:
  • Scenario-based SWP to gain insights on alternate demand or supply estimates/risks,
  • External workforce analysis to better understand and leverage available supply,
  • Extended planning horizons to drive more long-term decisions,
  • Workforce upskilling and reskilling to better explore internal build solutions, and
  • Exploration/adoption of potential SWP technology solutions.

Advice to Practitioners

Based on our experiences, we have identified a number of practices that have positively impacted our SWP journey.
  1. Just start. Like an exercise or fitness program, one of the hardest parts of SWP is getting started. By waiting to have better technology or better data or a better analytics capability, you can significantly slow down efforts to build your company’s SWP capability and miss the opportunity to drive better business performance. Starting with what you have is usually enough—even if that means using a spreadsheet, a simple trend analysis, or a single data source. As you learn, you can make strategic choices in terms of how you want to evolve the capability over time.
  2. Build engagement through proactive stakeholder management. You may find that despite the intellectual understanding of the value of SWP, some stakeholders may perceive it as additional or “busy work.” By identifying at-risk stakeholders, involving them early, and demonstrating quick wins, you can overcome these hurdles. While our SWP COE had initial ideas and a point of view on how to build a SWP capability, we were only able to achieve what we did in a short timeframe through consistent dialogue and the blend of ideas from HR teams and business leaders.
  3. Create buy-in by tying SWP to business issues. Business leaders not only participated in the SWP effort at BMS, but also led and owned the output of SWP discussions. This was achieved because the link between business needs and workforce solutions was carefully explored and articulated—by design. Further, by integrating the timing of SWP with long-term planning and budgeting cycles, SWP became more of a way of doing business versus a distinct process or stand-alone initiative. 
  4. Develop a set of design principles to guide SWP capability. Because of SWP’s relatively complex nature, the variability of approaches, and emerging workforce technologies, it may be extremely helpful to develop a set of parameters which define how you plan to design and deliver SWP. These principles should function more like a compass versus a definitive roadmap, but nonetheless will keep you true to the principles you deemed important. 
  5. Ensure the tools/technology support the discussion—don’t make them the discussion. While it is exciting and attractive to experiment with SWP tools/technology, they should never replace or overshadow strategic dialogue. Instead, they enable the dialogue by helping to frame the discussion and derive important insights that inform decision making and talent investments. Although the tool or technology you elect to use is important, make SWP more about the conversation and connecting business challenges to potential workforce solutions. 
  6. Make sure action plans are developed, continuously re-evaluated, and adjusted. SWP that does not result in the identification of actions that aims to close workforce gaps is a waste of time, energy, and resources. Ensure your SWP process culminates with a planning process, actions, and owners—all of which can be folded into the overall talent strategy of your business. 
  7. Allow for flexibility in the approach. Allow SWP practitioners a degree of flexibility in the process—such as how they conduct leadership dialogues, or whether they pursue a tops-down or bottoms-up approach to defining the strategic imperatives of their businesses. Designing a SWP process that allows for adaptation or flexibility within a framework will enable you to increase its value over time.
  8. Develop internal and external perspective. While starting with business strategy is essential, examining internal information in isolation will not provide the insights needed to develop a powerful workforce strategy. Examine how your organization may be impacted by current and anticipated external trends. Try to articulate that potential impact in a compelling and easy to understand way. 
  9. Define how SWP can create value for your organization today. While SWP should look to future needs, this does not preclude the exploration of current challenges. Take the time to identify the current pain points of the organization and determine what SWP approaches and analyses may help to address them. Providing immediate value will go a long way in the sustainability of your SWP efforts. 

Closing Remarks

Developing a SWP capability takes time—years, if our experience, research, and benchmarking prove correct. Accepting this period of capability growth and celebrating milestones along the way is critical to gaining momentum, engagement, and leveraging SWP to drive business performance.

The SWP approach and learnings presented in this article were designed specifically for BMS—factoring in our current level of SWP maturity and our business needs. There is no one right way to “do” SWP—a basic acknowledgement that every organization has different needs. Identifying and understanding which options best address your needs is the first of several steps in your journey. 

Brian Heger is the Global Head of Workforce Planning, Talent Management, and Performance at Bristol-Myers Squibb. He can be reached at or

Anisha Aulbach is the Associate Director of Workforce Planning at Bristol-Myers Squibb. She can be reached at

1 Human Capital Institute, “Talent Pulse: Strategic Workforce Planning 2020,” February 2018.