I'm OK with Being Mediocre

Author: Master Burnett | Source: HCI | Published: May 17, 2010

I can’t say that I have ever seen an HR leader stand before their organization's senior leadership team and exclaim that they are comfortable implementing mediocre practices, but when it comes to workforce planning, that is essentially what most do!

Workforce planning, like social recruiting, is a practice area within HR that is rising quickly in popularity for good reason.  Modern organizations are significantly more complex than ever before, and the role that talent plays in determining organizational success or failure continues to grow in scope daily.  Consider for a second what percentage of work in your organization is accomplished by non-employees, i.e. contractors, consultants, talent on loan from a partner, and outsourced service providers.  Now consider the value of the work these non-employees are doing.  Add to that complexity shortened tenure of regular employees, increasing rates of obsolescence in skills, and an ever changing technological and competitive landscape.
For many organizations that have stepped back and looked at the bewildering array of labor relationships that enable work to get done, the potential risk of not managing labor holistically is a big issue.  In recent years the mandate for more effective workforce planning has come from nearly every leadership unit within organizations except for HR. In a few publicly traded companies the mandate has even come directly from the board of directors, an unusual event likely to increase significantly now that BoD’s can be held accountable for their organizations actions. 
Despite the increasing complexity of the workforce, more than 80% of organizations in my experience are comfortable performing only mediocre workforce planning.  They can produce historical headcount reports, apply growth projections lineally across the organization, and in some cases factor in average turnover and projected retirements, but that’s about as robust as typical efforts get.  None of the reports produced provide actionable guidance to talent management functions or help line managers better design their organizational units to leverage talent market conditions.  While other corporate functions can predict the fiscal impact of doing and not doing something within the realm of their expertise, HR leaders can’t.
Ten years ago I would admit that the data requirements, tools, and expertise required to do truly effective workforce planning were out of reach for many organizations, but that isn’t the case today.  Modern HR functions are loaded with data and the tools required cost a fraction of what they once did.  Advances in technology make it possible to not only identify projected labor need gaps (shortages/surpluses), but also project the fiscal impact of those gaps, making the parameters governing possible solutions more clear.  The issue today is no longer feasibility, but rather desire. 
When many HR leaders see modern workforce planning in action, they are both excited and blown away by the potential, but that emotional state quickly fades leaving behind a leader afraid of what such efforts might reveal about past management actions and the functions ability to enact truly strategic programs.  Once the emotional state changes, every excuse in the book emerges.  I’ve heard “our data can’t be trusted,” “our managers would never go for that,” “I don’t have the people to focus on this,” and my all time favorite… “this would require a multiple year change effort and I plan on retiring in two.”
Of all the excuses I’ve heard, I’ll accept that your data may not be 100% trustworthy, but no data set inside a organization ever is.  Even if it’s only 60% indicative, statistics are in your favor that projections made from it would be better than no projections at all.
The parties behind the emerging tools powering modern workforce planning recognize that most HR leaders are a barrier to the growth of workforce planning practices and have been retooling their products, marketing them to leaders in finance, operations, business development and risk management.   More often than not leaders in those functions are assuming responsibility and jumping at the chance to govern talent functions, i.e. assuming human resource strategy but not tactical operations.  Overnight, HR leaders are surrendering their seat at the table.
If you think that HRM is a strategic act, now is the time to step up and drive change or to sit down and admit that you are OK with being mediocre.
Master Burnett is the managing director of Dr. John Sullivan & Associates, an advisory services organization dedicated to emerging issue research, thought leadership, and talent management best practice evangelism.  As a talent management strategy advisor, Master Burnett’s role is to partner with organizations to identify and develop innovative solutions to emerging talent issues that leverage the latest global thinking and technology. He has worked with leading organizations in more than 37 nations and is an avid proponent of taping the wisdom of crowds.  You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him via LinkedIn, or friend him on Facebook.