6 Keys to Strategic Workforce Planning in Turbulent Times

February 09, 2022

Contributor: Zhenli Lin

With effective coordination and greater transparency, you can overcome the limitations of business-unit level workforce plans and better support your organization in advancing its strategic priorities.

In short:

  • The pandemic has awakened organizations to the need for strategic workforce planning as a way to manage sudden changes.
  • HR leaders are often adept at planning talent needs within business units (BUs) but struggle to integrate BU needs into strategic enterprise plans.
  • Understanding how inputs from business units are used in designing and executing strategic workforce plans will help you drive a coherent talent strategy to drive business ambitions.

Most organizations now realize that a holistic overview of skills in an organization-wide workforce plan will enable them to deploy employees across business units (BUs) more effectively, especially when a mismatch in talent demand and supply needs to be urgently addressed. However, most organizations are making workforce plans at a BU level and often struggle to bring them together in a strategic workforce plan for the organization. Instead of thinking about workforce plans at an organization or BU level as two distinct options, identify the steps and activities that should be conducted at a BU level. Then focus on how these inputs may be used to inform plans made at an organization level.

Download now: How to Build a Business Case for Strategic Workforce Planning

Organizational Workforce Planning Steps With BU Inputs

To better understand how an organization-level workforce plan can be conducted with inputs from BU-level workforce planning, a closer look at the activities involved in each step of the process is necessary. The activities involved in workforce planning can be broadly categorized as designing and execution.

Designing Activities

The first four steps in the strategic workforce planning process involve designing activities. The inclusion of stakeholders within a BU differs depending on the activity, some of which are conducted at both the BU and organization levels.

Step 1: Prepare for Strategic Workforce Planning

As part of preparation for the strategic workforce planning process, identify:

  • Key components in a workforce plan document
  • Key stakeholders and their responsibilities in the process
  • Critical BUs to partner and prioritize investments in

To overcome time constraints and yet continue to actively shape future hiring needs, American Red Cross uses a prioritization framework to identify BUs with high growth rates and high alignment with organization’s priorities as critical BUs. American Red Cross prioritizes deeper talent planning conversations for critical BUs but still takes a light-touch approach with its other BUs. Those with similar resource constraints can take inspiration from this prioritization approach to identify critical BUs to partner and invest in.

Step 2: Understand the Business Strategy

Three main activities are performed as part of understanding the business strategy: setting business objectives, analyzing internal and external labor markets and assessing talent needs. In these activities, a bidirectional flow of information takes place between the key stakeholders overseeing workforce planning on an organization level and those within the individual BUs. Key stakeholders overseeing workforce planning on an organization level usually include the head of talent management and business leaders in top management. In contrast, workforce planning within individual BUs usually involves the HR business partners (HRBPs) and business leaders of the specific business segment.

Key Insights of Cross-HR Skills Team Members

To obtain a more accurate insight into skills needs, Lloyds Banking Group assembled a cross-HR skills team that collaborates with the business on skills planning.

The cross-HR skills team includes representatives from all relevant HR subfunctions such as total rewards, talent management, recruiting and L&D.

When setting business objectives:

  • Identify the strategic priorities of the organization.
  • Cascade the organization’s priorities to each BU to determine individual priorities.
  • Help HR leaders in individual BUs understand the impact of the organization’s priorities on their BU and get them to evaluate how they should set their individual priorities to contribute to the organization’s priorities.

When analyzing external labor markets:

  • Identify emerging trends and their impact on the organization’s business strategies.
  • Cascade information on trends and general skills impact to individual business units.
  • Support HR leaders in individual business units to analyze the impact of those trends on priorities and skills needs of their BU.

When analyzing internal labor market:

  • Create a sufficient, not exhaustive, skills inventory that provides enough data to inform skills decisions at the pace the business requires.
  • Form a flexible, cross-organization network of stakeholders tasked with identifying and monitoring changes in skills supply and demand.

When assessing talent needs:

  • Prioritize critical talent segments or roles at the organization level.
  • Uncover the capability needs of these critical talent segments within individual BUs.
  • Use the analysis of internal and external labor markets to identify where skills are in excess or facing a shortage.

Step 3: Diagnose Risks to Strategy Execution

You will need to use the results of the internal and external labor markets analysis in Step 2 to diagnose risks of executing a workforce strategy. A key activity here is to align talent needs with business objectives. This involves:

  • Centering discussions within the BU around the most important capabilities needed for alignment with the BU strategic plan, which should also align with the organizational priorities.
  • Sourcing inputs from BU leaders and middle management to influence discussions around the most important capabilities needed within the BU and broader organization.
  • Using these multiple sources of inputs to inform risk analysis for the most important capabilities.

Step 4: Develop a Plan to Address Risks

When drafting a workforce plan to address talent risks:

  • Create transparency into skills needs within and across BUs to inform workforce plan creation and facilitate the dynamic transfer of skills within the internal labor market. Ways to create transparency may include a centralized internal application portal, a common point of contact for advice on skills availability within the organization, or a standardized process for BU leaders to requisition skills.
  • Work on the potential action steps in the workforce plan from both the organization and BU levels. Common needs throughout BUs can be collectively addressed at the organization level, while BU-specific workforce needs can be addressed at the BU level.
  • Prioritize action steps to be addressed at the organization level based on their urgency and criticality to meeting strategic priorities. For action steps at the BU level, assign ownership based on responsibilities and capacity.

Execution Activities

Execution activities are mostly conducted at the BU level but involve collaboration with stakeholders throughout the organization. In executing a workforce plan, set clear triggers for when a plan needs reevaluation and assign ownership for trigger identification.

Step 5: Prepare to Execute the Plan

Before you can effectively execute the organization’s workforce plan, you need to:

  • Create a complete workforce plan document that includes each of the key components (workforce plan summary, implementation plan, individual initiative overview and implementation risks map).
  • Communicate the workforce plan to relevant stakeholders for execution within their BUs or areas of responsibility.
  • Establish triggers for reevaluating the plan outside of the regular review cadence (for example, quarterly or annually). Triggers should be set at both the organization and BU levels. For instance, new skills needs that remain unmet for a predetermined threshold period may call for a review of the BU and/or organization workforce plan.

The Australian Financial Security Authority splits the responsibility for updating workforce plans between HR and business leaders based on their existing expertise. This way, each party works on updates where it can have the greatest impact. The split is made such that HR is responsible for identifying labor market triggers, while business leaders are responsible for identifying business triggers, which they already track for business strategy purposes.

Trigger Identification Process for Updating the Workforce Plan

Step 6: Monitor the Plan

To know if a reevaluation is needed, it's imperative to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the workforce plan. BU leaders should set up regular check-ins with HRBPs to review the BU’s workforce plan against objectives. The head of talent management should do the same with BU leaders to evaluate the effectiveness of the workforce plan and determine if an adjustment to the plan is needed.


Conducting workforce planning at an organizational level can indeed be challenging. However, it is not an insurmountable task.

To foster success, work closely with other stakeholders in the organization, especially the BU HR leaders who can collectively contribute to the creation of an effective workforce plan at an organizational level.

With effective coordination and greater transparency, workforce planning at an organizational level can overcome the limitations of BU-level workforce plans and better support the organization in advancing toward its strategic priorities.

This article originally appeared in HR Leaders Monthly in October 2021. Download the full issue here.

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