The Illusion of Workforce Planning

Traditional Models Don’t Work

The pandemic has challenged how we plan the future workforce.  What skills will we need? For how long? Should we hire for those skills or develop them? Should we use contingent workers? If so, in what positions and for how long?

Retailers are trying to forecast how many associates and store managers they will need in the face of growing automation and online shopping. Manufacturers look at the impact of robotics, and coders and recruiters are being augmented with artificial intelligence.

The tools and methodologies previously used for workforce planning are in question. Complexity has soared, and linear planning methods fall well short of what is needed. Planning was only partially successful in the 20th century but now has become illusionary. Skills defined as critical one day (webmaster, for example, in 1999) are commonly available today or not needed, while those skills ignored (creative thinking, project management) are highly sought after.

The older planning tools and techniques were not designed to deal with the consequences of this pandemic, nor the speed of change, nor with the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence, the changing workplace, or the remote and gig workforce.

One of the characteristics of modern economies has been the focus on quantitative prediction and forecasting. Unfortunately, post-pandemic and 21st-century talent needs are much harder to predict. The older methods of analysis are based on assumptions that needs and wants are predictable and that the skills workers have will remain the same or change only slightly.

The bottom line is very clear – it is impossible to “plan” the future workforce in any meaningful way for more than perhaps a few months. Analytics are useful when things are more or less constant but are less useful in times of significant change.

Instead, organizations will have to replace predictive models with adaptive techniques based on the ability to anticipate changes in talent needs and markets, develop employee readiness, respond rapidly to needs, and encourage and champion a new approach to thinking about positions and jobs. The focus needs to be on developing agile recruiting processes and ensuring that you have the tools and capabilities to meet any demand, not on achieving specific short-term numbers.

I believe that organizations will have to adopt the four elements below to build a 21st-century workforce successfully.

A New Look at Jobs

The concept of a job or a position containing a more or less static set of skills and competencies is already dying.  While most organizations need broad categories of work performed – mechanical engineering, database administration, and customer service representation –the skills and the duties performed can be remarkably different from organization to organization, even within the organization, and vary over time. By re-looking at job descriptions and titles and building flexibility around the skills required to get work done, organizations can use more internal employees and a broader slice of external candidates.  By keeping jobs narrowly defined, we limit our ability to hire quickly and lose the potential for creativity and change.


Anticipation of needs will be a major factor in success. To anticipate challenges, educate, and guide hiring management, organizations must gain a thorough knowledge of their talent supply chain and their current employees’ capabilities and skills.  This means that they will need to build wide-reaching networks and targeted talent communities to nurture and maintain relationships with diverse candidates. Organizations will also need antennae that scan the internal organization for signs of emerging needs. These antennae will also have to constantly connect to the external talent market so that they have a sense of which skills and capabilities are readily available and more difficult to find.  This will require the use of competitive intelligence tools and techniques to know who works for the competition of other desirable employers and how likely they might be to move to their organization.

Employee readiness – Not succession planning

Internal talent is far more valuable than external.  Those who already work for you have intimate knowledge of the organizations and how work gets done, which usually means they are more productive.  They are motivated and culturally aligned if they have been with you for a while. Given the right training or development opportunities, they can move into other positions with less productivity loss.

Having a range of multi-skilled employees ready for any needs that arise is a better goal than the current focus on traditional succession planning. No one cannot predict whether an organization will need a particular position or what skills will be relevant in the future. But organizations can make sure that they have an array of skills distributed widely among employees at all levels.  That way, when needs arise, they can pick the level and mix of skills that make sense.

This requires that the recruiting function be part of a larger talent team, including needs assessment, employee development, and internal mobility.

Rapid Response

Traditional recruiting methods will are too slow and inefficient to meet quickly changing skill needs. Recruitment functions need to focus on agility and speed by using analytics and anticipation as guiding elements.

As needs change and talent markets get tighter, the ability to have pre-sourced, interested, and qualified candidates will become a significant success factor.

Traditional workforce planning doesn’t work. It is time for new approaches – perhaps driven by the recruiting folks who are on the frontline of the emergent talent challenges.

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Potential Future of Talent Retreat 2021

For the past 15 years, excluding last year, we have held an annual Retreat for global HR, talent acquisition, and learning leaders. At these Retreats, we probe deeply into trends and issues that will impact our professions and organizations. We use minimal slides and focus on conversation with deep thinkers, writers, and explorers of the future. There is lots of time to network, have informal conversations, and decompress. If you would be interested in attending and feel comfortable with the Covid situation, perhaps in late October or November, send me an email at If we gather enough interest, we will schedule it. Let me know your preference for a month or even a specific date and what concerns you have about attending. We will, of course, not schedule a Retreat if the pandemic is still a significant concern.

Related Links

How to Improve Workforce Planning

The Future of Work is Through Workforce Ecosystems

How Talent Mapping Makes Recruiting Smarter