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Strategic Workforce Planning

It’s enough to strike fear into the heart of every HR Director – the line from the board

“Let’s have a look at our strategic workforce planning process”.

I’m not advocating there shouldn’t be one or that HR Director’s fear is because they aren’t capable of creating one.  It’s another one of those things like employee engagement – what ACTUALLY is it?  What’s the “explain it to a 5-year old” definition of SWP?

According to Wikipedia, SWP is a 3-5 year period of alignment to business needs and outcomes around the current, transition and future business objectives and includes scenario planning.

It’s almost as unpredictable as customer loyalty, product shelf-life and marketing plan successes.  What will we need from people in a future where the business is saying it will be but this will depend on external factors we cannot control.

You can imagine how many of these SWP slidedecks, spreadsheets, databases and the likes were all largely null and void as the great crash of 2008 hit us all.

THAT’S the fear I’m talking about.

> Where a major retailer suddenly suffers a collapse in their markets and holes in their accounts.

> Where the high street telecoms provider has to shut up shop over venture capital being pulled.

> Where the government department was suddenly smashed by a spending review.

> Where the engineering company is short of skills because of retirements and has no apprentices to bring on.

How DO you create a strategic workforce plan that makes sense and is useful?

I’m going to offer something of a skillset, mindset and approach I call the HR Futurologist.  I will use the frames of how you can define futurology from the outstanding Magnus Lindkvist.  Someone who has the gift, skill and articulation to make the future serious, flippant and exciting in one sentence.

So how do you be an HR Futurologist and how does this impact on scenario planning?


  1. Data Analysis. The scenarios you need to plan for?  They’re all in the data you have or can get about the world, your company and people.  You could say that all the solutions we need about most anything, are somehow a pattern in amongst a wedge of data just waiting to be discovered.  Quite why we haven’t got more roles called HR Analyst is beyond me.  We’ve know this for years.
  2. Historical Analogy. So you have to be an historian to understand the future? Well yes.  Sometimes in order to plot the future, you need to understand both what’s been there before that led to this now and to look, again, for patterns and trends, situations and events that somehow shaped the future.  For the Spinning Jenny now read the Microchip.  For electricity now read laser technology.  We can see from the past how some of our future might be a return to the previous.  For example there’s a return to craftsmanship in instruments and furniture.  We’re rediscovering lost “making” skills and so we’re returning to cottage industries.   Etsy is an e-bay for artisans for example.
  3. Scenario Planning. Now this – in my view – is the construction of situations then rolled through to look at a range of potential outcomes. A little like the old Dungeons & Dragons games where the action took place not on a board but in people’s minds.  That we still seem to get caught out is odd to me as there’s software, consultants, experts, academic studies.  Oh wait, that’s the same about everything.  Yes we still struggle to predict.  So we need to reboot scenario planning.  I’d suggest part of the problem is we only do scenario planning episodically.  When we’re about to go into a M&A, when we have a major funding crisis etc.  And we do it BIG all the time.  We simply haven’t made scenario planning that much of a skill in all our people and our leaders.  We have defaulted to rotas and recruit to open positions rather than scenario plan for skills gaps to close, future workforce needs, robotics etc.  Once this a skill in all people we don’t need to create so many grand master plans.  We can aggregate up regularly, micro scenario plans into some form of compilation of thoughts.  Whether that’s better or not remains to be seen.  One thing for sure, it can’t be much worse than the majority of hit and miss thinking we do here now.
  1. Asymmetries. If you worked in a small rural village in Papua New Guinea with no internet or television and were suddenly whisked off to Shanghai you’d have thought you’d taken a journey through time to the future. There exists senses of the future in now when compared to others actuality which hasn’t progressed as fast as others have.  So it’s in line with the William Gibson quote that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.  The future, therefore, is actually all around us now.  You just need to look and listen more.

So in order to scenario plan, these 4 views of spotting trends and thereby looking at the future differently need some form of attention.

Strategic Workforce Planning – in my opinion – is summed up thus

F + A + I x R

Futurology + Analysis + Imagination x Regularity.

I think it’s time we made the future a normal day-to-day activity of now.

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