Sustainable Work  Force

(April 07, 2009)  Over the course of a decade, Kevin Wheeler has compiled a massive contribution to the HR – HCM – Recruiting Industry. Relentlessly travelling the world, he always finds time to head home for ERE. I bumped into him very briefly last week.

To paraphrase James Brown, “Ain’t no dog, Kevin’s got a brand new blog“. As he travels, he connects with HR Leaders and practitioners from all over the place. His great gift is synthesizing all of the points of view. The new blog is a place to work that out.

I particularly enjoyed “What’s a Sustainable Workforce Look Like?“. Kevin notes the need for a more mature and analytical discipline.

What people policies will lead to a sustainable workforce model over economic cycles and changes in skills? This is the central issue that must be solved. Binging and purging people is a zero sum game; neither you, the employees, the candidates, or the organization gain anything. What each gets are anger, frustration, and fear.

He mentions modeling and analytics, key components of a sustainable operation.

HR needs to learn how to use modeling techniques to determine whether it is more efficient to hire a replacement for a position or to train someone internally. The decision needs to be made on data, not on the opinions of HR or managers. Finance has developed models to help guide investment decisions, and over the next few years HR will be  developing similar models for talent planning.

I think there’s much more. On the way to more effective workforces, we’re going to need:

  • Better planning
  • Better tools for planning
  • Better data, better visualization and better analysis
  • Clearer measures of success
  • Revisions to conventional wisdom

I think the first four are somewhat obvious. The last, revisions to conventional wisdom, is where we need to look hard.

It’s getting clearer that there are very few generalizations that can be made without reservation about HR. While the function recurs across many organizations, it’s role, customs and importance is variable. Unfortunately, consultants usually make their money by generalizing.

This has resulted in some serious flaws in conventional wisdom:

  • Is a referral program the best way to recruit or an invitation to mediocrity and nepotism?
  • Is retention good for our organizations or the prime reason for layoffs?
  • Is building a coherent team and keeping them in their jobs important or a self-destructing tunnel of myopia?
  • Will aggressive job rotation strengthen or ruin an organization?
  • Is it better to have structure or ad hoc organization design?
  • Training and certification or bootstrapped OJT?
  • Job descriptions: liberation or kiss of death?

It turns out that these policy level debates are answered by each organization in its environment. What works as a manpower plan in Boeing is a great way to strangle Microsoft. What makes perfect sense in manufacturing is a disaster in advertising. Most of what HR does well is situational and hard to defend to binary thinkers.

The most important part of workforce planning and design is understanding the culture and its supplies. Sustainability is ultimately rooted in the specific traits of a specific organization.

It’s nice to have Kevin’s voice so close at hand. I’m looking forward to a meaty debate or two.


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