Agile organizations don’t need workforce planning

I was recently invited by the ZHAW to present my work on the topic of skill change through digital transformation (presentation documents). One of the topics discussed in the ensuing discussion was strategic workforce planning. The question that preoccupied the participants was: What does „modern“ workforce planning look like in a digital world? The discussion reminded me strongly of the topic of competence management, in which I wrote a few weeks ago: „Agile competence management as a fiction, why it is the, but does’t have to be“.

I also believe that in a „digital“ world, we have to radically rethink (strategic) workforce planning. In order to justify this assumption, I would first like to think about the traditional workforce planning and enrich it with a little bit of „digital“.

Incremental innovation of workforce planning through digitalization

Strategic workforce planning essentially means (today) that a system is set up with which the development of the workforce can be centrally controlled. Quantitative factors such as retirement, fluctuations and revenue development are then taken into account. Depending on the model, qualitative factors such as changes in functional groups or competence requirements are also considered. If you think about this current model further, you can build a „nice“ data base with computer power, which can be used for a lot of calculations and planning. Just an example: In the system, target competencies can be defined for different function groups. If the actual competencies of employees are assessed, they can now be played with: What are disparities in competence? Which employees would be better suited to which function profile? Where are collective development needs? And much more besides. A brave new world?

A complex world does not need a complicated solution

I’m skeptical. Not regarding to how this data can be used. There are few limits to the gimmicks here. The artificial intelligence could probably go much further. I am skeptical because this is a very complicated process for an increasingly complex world. And a complex problem cannot be solved with a complicated system. The process is complicated because it still depends on people in three essential points: (1) Human determine the functional group and competency goals on the basis of (arbitrary) assumptions, (2) human assess the actual competencies of other people on the basis of (arbitrary) observations, and (3) human develop (arbitrarily according to the specifications). The computer can do a lot of calculations, but if the input is doubtful, then logically the computer performance is as well.

My skepticism stems from the following considerations

I doubt that we can (centrally) determine which individual functional groups must be available in the future. To this end, the world is too dynamic and complex to divide the human resources into a few functional groups with clear competence requirements.

I doubt that in practice, we will be able to make a reliable assessment of the existing competencies with justifiable effort. Experts argue fiercely even in research about whether and how this can be achieved at all. How can we, as lay people, be able to do it?

I doubt that such a complicated and linear system will bring benefits that justify the necessary effort. This is because functional groups have to be determined on a regular and complicated basis. Competency goals must be set regularly and elaborately. Competency assessments have to be carried out on a regular and time-consuming basis. Etc.

Approaching the alternative through the metaphor of weather forecasting

What would be the alternative for a complex world? The answer is quickly given with a buzzword: It must be an agile system. But what does agile personnel demand planning look like? I try to compare it with the weather forecast. I can’t predict what the weather will be like in five years. I can’t tell you what the weather will be like in a year. Is that a problem for me? No, because I take the weather as it comes. If it rains, I’ll take the umbrella with me. When it’s sunny, the sunglasses. I don’t need an early warning system for years to come.

Agile workforce planning – a radical innovation

How can this metaphor be put into context? As with (agile) competence management, I believe that we need to radically rethink workforce planning. So radical that we are practically abolishing them. The idea of today’s workforce planning originates from an outdated control concept. This has worked in a Taylorist world where „those above“ think and „those below“ execute. At least as long as the world is predictable and projectable. In order to know if it’s raining, not everyone has to look out the window. However, in many industries, such planning is a thing of the past. So if there is no need for workforce planning in its present form, what is the alternative?

Decentralisation of planning as a design principle

Agile organizations are decentralized. They have disrupted power structures and trust mature employees. There are no more managers at Morning Star. All employees are managers and agree among themselves on the tasks they perform. And Morning Star is not an IT start up, but one of the largest tomato processors. Buurtzorg organizes itself into small teams and has practically no longer a central headquarter that „thinks“ for the them. Simply because the team can think for itself. In an agile organization, the decentralized unit is responsible for workforce planning. The team knows what staffing needs it has and what skills are missing to meet customer requirements. For the same service this can be quite different for Team A as Team B, because people and social groups are idiosyncratic.

What remains for the central support function

What remains to be done for a central support function such as HR if the planning and modification of the personnel is carried out within the decentralized units? HR can be a coach, mentor and consultant. It can support teams in the process of reflection, planning or change. This idea may be provocative. And it will probably trigger some people’s reaction: No, those teams certainly can’t decide for themselves – this has to be planned centrally. This is the typical reaction when you question something that is considered as a fact. And there are many typical answers to this question: Does it work the way we do today, even in a VUCA world? Can it really not be decentralized, or has the possibility just never been given to these people and teams? I can hardly imagine how a central unit could possibly know better what another team needs for their own service delivery.

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