If I could only select one concept to sum up the work that we do in Strategic Workforce Planning, it would be that differentiation is at the heart of strategy.   At an organisation wide level, corporations understand this concept.  The vision and mission statements of sustainable organisations clearly articulate a sense of purpose and explain what is unique about that organisation, and good organisational strategy sets out tangible, actionable steps to deliver that unique value proposition. 

Photo:  George Kelly , 2011,  Creative Commons . No changes made.

Photo: George Kelly, 2011, Creative Commons. No changes made.

For most Human Resources departments, however, the story is quite different.   We tend to run programs or initiatives because they’re popular, because we’ve always done them, or because it seems like the right thing to do.   What we don’t often do is to construct a cohesive and meaningful workforce strategy that coordinates these initiatives, validates what’s working, and provides the insight to know where more effective workforce initiatives are possible.  As a general rule, we’re also fairly poor at recognizing instances where we’re not adding value - we're good at the to do list, not so good at the "not to do" list.

If differentiation is truly at the heart of strategy, and I believe it is, then we can’t continue to run our HR departments by benchmarking, populist opinion, and the status quo.  Instead we need to go beyond the cliché that people are our greatest asset, and start acting like we believe it.  The purpose of asset management is to monitor and maintain things of value.  With strategic workforce planning we are able to monitor and maintain the value of the workforce, and if it's done the right way, we can conserve the limited resources of time, money, and focus that are available to us.  We can do this by reducing investments of those resources in programs and initiatives that are no longer maintaining or enhancing value.

To have a good workforce strategy,  you need to understand business strategy and the workforce’s role in delivering it.   You need to take a top-down approach, identifying programs and initiatives that will support business strategy,  know how to measure the effectiveness of these interventions, and target these programs and initiatives to where they will have the highest strategic return on investment.   But you also need to take a bottom-up approach to workforce strategy by identifying the value that you’re getting from your current workforce programs and initiatives, and being prepared to discontinue those that are not adding value.   

This gives you the opportunity to redirect those resources to where they’ll be most effective.  A good workforce strategy will tell you as much about what to stop doing as it will tell you about what to start doing.