Strategic Workforce Planning in 3-2-1

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Strategic Workforce Planning in 3-2-1

Strategic workforce planning (SWP) is a commonly used term for a multitude of approaches to achieve a singular goal: having enough employees of sufficient quality in the future. In other words, it is about having the right person for the right job at the right time, across the entire organization. In this article, I will explain the four most common pitfalls of workforce planning and how to avoid them using a relatively simple methodology.

Successful SWP is no small feat and very few organizations make the most of it. Four common pitfalls and their common causes are:

Pitfall and common causes of strategic workforce planning

With all the ambitions of looking ahead and planning, many organizations are still struggling to look ahead for more than one year and find themselves recruiting to maintain the current formation. So, what can be done to really look towards the horizon and avoid the aforementioned pitfalls?

Breaking the mold

Think of SWP as a process that benefits from both a bottom-up and top-down approach. At its core, SWP should facilitate both employee and organization to plot a course for the coming years, aligning individual and organizational ambitions.

This requires transparency, to ensure an organization-wide vision on external developments and necessary changes as well as an open dialogue between employee and manager.

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Existing processes and cycles can contribute to such transparency, strengthened with data and analytics. To identify how, organizations can design SWP using a 3-2-1 principle:

  • 3 Views: keep these in mind to ensure a full picture
  • 2 P’s: Processes and Products, to ensure being able to perform SWP structurally and reliably
  • 1 Vision, that forms the basis for employees and organization to plan ahead

3 | Views

SWP aims to bridge the gap between the formation as it stands and the formation as it should be in the future, considering the way external factors develop and will affect primary processes.

Bridging that gap effectively requires shaping plans for a feasible future formation based on an understanding of the current formation and its current development, down to the ambitions of employees.

Organizations need different views in order to piece those plans together:

Strategic Workforce Planning

workforce view strategic workforce planning

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With the different views spanning board level, innovation hubs, the business, and finance/HR departments, the risk in SWP quickly becomes overemphasizing one view. That would result in diminished relevance to the organization as a whole. The challenge, therefore, becomes getting the necessary data and insights to bring the views together. This is best done through transparent and structurally used processes.

2 | Processes and Products

The views specified previously need to be brought together through processes underpinning SWP. If such processes provide immediately useful results or products for their users, structural use is encouraged which in turn benefits SWP.

Building on existing processes also helps to embed SWP in an annual cycle (to avoid the pitfall of reactive SWP).

The figure below illustrates some likely processes and associated products already in use.

Strategic Workforce planning in three steps

How best to determine which processes to tie together to enable SWP will depend on the organization and which processes it already has in place. The performance management cycle will often be a likely candidate due to its overlap with SWP: both include elements of reflection on and planning of job roles at their core.

Making the performance cycle integral to SWP has the added benefit of also being able to translate SWP outcomes into action where it matters most: employee development.

As mentioned before, data and analytics can be of tremendous value to SWP. However, should analytics capabilities be limited within the organization, SWP is still feasible as long as there are processes and products that support a transparent and standardized gathering of all 3 Views (see the Limited analytics example below).

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If analytics capabilities are sufficiently mature within the organization, products may be analyzed with various techniques to further enrich SWP with more sophisticated forecasting (see Advanced analytics example below).

The trick is not to incorporate everything at once, but to make a limited selection of processes and products fit together well as the fundament. Put the focus on key components first and enrich SWP from there, striving first to incorporate the 3 Views. Otherwise, SWP will quickly become a gargantuan task.

Limited analytics example

1 | Vision

As illustrated previously, data and analytics can play a pivotal role in bringing views together from different products (such as mobility reports and personal development plans), for both quantitative and qualitative data. SWP benefits from the increase in transparency and reproducibility that data and analytical methods bring: it is hard to argue with facts and numbers.

Having said that, some assumptions or scenarios incorporated in SWP will not be readily spit out by some algorithm. Therefore, where possible, document and reference sources used for deciding on relevant trends for the future of the organization and assumptions made in SWP.

Furthermore, the use of standard, trusted sources of information increases the credibility of SWP substantially.

Bringing everything together this way, you will have one common basis that everyone can agree on. The organization knows how it needs to adapt its workforce towards the future while keeping in touch with employee ambitions.

Managers can use it as a basis to understand and communicate the role of their team within the organization now and in the future. Meanwhile, employees can anticipate changes, if applicable, and plan ahead in line with personal ambitions.


Using the principles described in this article, organizations can avoid the four common pitfalls mentioned in the beginning.

By explicitly incorporating long-term views as an integral part of SWP, embedding SWP in existing processes to enforce periodic (generally annual) SWP execution and gathering data on employee ambitions and development directly in the performance management cycle to better understand not just where the workforce stands, but what its current development is.

And what better way to do that than in a way that is immediately relevant to employees?

Advanced analytics example

In the end, this culminates in a shared vision that should be adequately communicated throughout the organization. In order to translate plans into actions, this final step in communication and transparency is crucial to avoid differing interpretations or even complete disregard of SWP outcomes.

Provide a compelling reason to follow up with actions; one that the entire organization can get behind because everyone recognizes their own view and understands the impact of the other views.

So let’s get started! After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest. As long as we are clear on that and transparent in how we do it, what compelling reason is there not to be on board and take action?

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