What is strategic workforce planning, what part does data have to play and what value can it bring your business?

We spoke to Olly Britnell, Global Head of Analytics and HR strategy at Experian.


How would you describe strategic workforce planning and what do you need to make it successful?

Olly Britnell: Strategic workforce planning is the process that proactively anticipates current and future needs of your workforce. What skills gap do, or will you have? Where do you need to plan for future hiring or training needs? You need to have the right data and analytics to provide you with the insight you need to plan ahead, but a critical part to its success is getting out and about right across the business and talking to colleagues to understand what they do and what they need.

Workforce planning needs to have business commitment, it can’t be an HR initiative. It has to be driven from senior business leaders around their commitment to it, which needs to be a longer-term vision rather than a tactical short-term vision. Three to five years is probably the typical time I would say for true strategic workforce planning, anything less than that I would class more as resource planning.


How would workforce planning ideally look? 

OB: For me it very much starts with that business commitment in terms of business leaders articulating what the vision is for the organisation.  Leaders would recognise clearly that people are going to play a big component of the vision, even in an organisation such as Experian where technology plays a huge part in terms of what we do.

The pace of change of technology now is so quick that the skills we need to execute on that strategy are evolving at a similarly fast pace. We need to be thinking much longer term to anticipate what that looks like for our organisations. We also need to be thinking broader to understand what the workforce mix might look like. The flexibility of the workforce is a common theme, such as the gig economy in terms of contingent workers versus permanent.

The location strategy is probably the third component in terms of being clear where we want to move and grow our workforce. There’s clearly a cost element to that in terms of offshoring and the like, but equally we need to think about where the skills are that we need and plan accordingly.


Workforce planning is a big and broad project then, so how do you do it in practice?

OB: The reality is it’s difficult to execute on a global scale, so the way we’ve gone about it is a more piloted approach. We’ve focused on a small number of key job families within the organisation that we believe are going to be critical to our future workforce. So, it’s probably only focusing on maybe a quarter or a third of our actual total workforce, but it gives us focus in the areas that will make the biggest impact for us to truly accelerate our growth.


What are the first steps to implementing workforce planning?

OB: One of the first hurdles is often that no one believes the data to start with. Getting credible with the data I would say is certainly the first step.

There are a lot of organisations who still can’t agree on their headcount. This is usually down to different methods of reporting, such as whether you include workers on leave or contractors. This is closely linked to the definition side, quite a dry subject but a critical one I think. For example, when we’re talking around future skills and capabilities, are we truly clear on what we mean? Product development can mean lots of different things to lots of different people.


So, definitions are important to get right from the start, but how do you identify them?

OB: You must be clear on what and why you’re defining something. You should look at definitions in terms of the skills and capabilities – current and future state. So, what’s needed today isn’t necessarily what’s needed in the future. Having that definition of today versus tomorrow clear, you can then look at the differences and get business commitment to agree that these are the skills that we do truly need.

Getting to clear universal definitions, especially in a global organisation can be complex, but you can tackle it by running lots of workshops, lots of discussions and playing it through. We run workshops with our senior leaders and team leaders with consistent questions ‘By product development, what do you mean? What does it look like? What does a good one today look like versus what do we think it needs to look like moving forward?’ And go through those kinds of questions. There’s a lot of information gathering to start with to get your baseline view of what’s required. And then you start to move on in terms of data capture. We’ve got a clear view of what we’re talking about now, but how many are we going to need moving forward?

This exercise can be done across organisations no matter the size. At Experian we have a workforce size around 17,000 and we’re very matrixed as a business, so getting those definition up front is a tricky exercise. Whereas I think if there’s a smaller, simplified model of an organisation, potentially it is easier to get your hands around it.


What buy-in have you got from senior leaders and how has this impacted your strategy?

Doing this exercise is very beneficial in all sorts of ways. From going through this ourselves it’s provoked some great discussions at the very most senior level within the organisation. We’ve done this simply by being able to articulate how we anticipate the organisation to grow in five years and the mix of workforce we’ll need and where they should be located. People have taken a bit of a step back and realised that it’s going to be quite a big challenge. . Those are big numbers. It’s therefore kicked off a huge amount of work in terms of hiring strategy and making sure we’ve got really clear plans around how we’re going to tackle this from a hiring perspective.

Equally from a retention perspective, we’re utilising analytics in a detailed way. We’ve got predictive tools that look at retaining talent. Using analytics is a big part of our strategy and I believe the future of HR in becoming that strategic business partner. By analysing your workforce and predicting behaviours it completely changes how you approach workforce decisions and plan for the future. And then from a learning and development perspective as well you can see how you can grow some of that talent internally.


If you’re putting together a project team to think about this work who would you have on it? 

You’ve got to have the business leaders involved as part of this exercise. Finance have got to join the party as well because there’s a cost implication around the changes that are taking place. HR and business partners need to be driving the activity and asking the right questions around it as well.


What success are you seeing with this approach to workforce planning?

A far clearer strategy at an organisational level, in terms of what skills are important and what capabilities we need over a three- to five-year timeframe. For the HR function I think it’s given our talent and talent acquisition, recruiting and learning teams, something to really hang their strategy around. Because we’ve got some real numbers, we’ve got something really tangible that they can say from a hiring perspective, That’s a challenge that they can really get their hands around and tackle how they’re going to execute. I think it’s helped us really frame our HR strategy in a more strategic way.


What does this all mean for the future?

I think organisations are recognising more broadly, or certainly with HR, the use of data to drive decisions. It’s not going away, it’s not a fad. It’s been talked about a lot over the last five, ten years as the next big thing. Luckily, it’s not the next big thing anymore because it’s already being embedded, and I think most organisations recognise that they need to have a handle on their people and HR data in a more strategic way. It isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must have. CEOs, FDs are demanding better insight on their people data because they recognise the skills and capabilities that are needed are probably not in existence currently. Therefore there are gaps that need to be bridged now.


Workforce planning practices can deliver a higher return on investment and offer insights into the future of work. Olly and his team are leading the way in HR innovation at Experian and have successfully developed tools that use data and analytics to help make intelligent decisions on the future workforce.

Our development of a predictive workforce analytics solution that has helped safeguard talent and saved c.$14m is now available for other organisations to benefit from.
You can request a demo of our predictive workforce analytics tool or get in touch with us here.