What’s in a Name? The Tricky Business of Workforce Planning

This is the first in a series of five guest posts by Mollie Lombardi, Principal Analyst for the Aberdeen Group Human Capital Management research practice:workforce-planning

Workforce planning is tricky business. Not just because of the complexity entailed in the process, but because if you ask four people what workforce planning is, you’ll likely wind up with five definitions. Defining what is meant by workforce planning, and the difference between strategic and operational planning, is important because the two have very different, though interdependent roles.

In Aberdeen’s research, we define strategic workforce planning as planning that looks out 18 months or longer, and addresses not only the number of people required to execute business strategy, but looks at the skills and capabilities those individuals must possess. Having this kind of forward-looking plan is highly correlated to ongoing organizational performance, because it helps lay a roadmap for hiring, development, and budgeting that helps ensure that the organization is building the talent plan to support its forward-looking business plans. But it is not enough on its own.

Operational workforce planning looks at the near term and helps the organization map its existing skills, capabilities, and resources against current challenges. It is that next step above scheduling – which is about the immediate assignment of individuals to tasks and activities – that translates operational business plans into operational workforce plans. In order to be successful, organizations need to understand these multiple levels of workforce planning, and how they interrelate. If the terms are not defined, one part of the organization may be looking at a three to five-year plan, while the others are looking at the next six months. Speaking the same language lays the foundation for effective planning.

Despite the importance of workforce planning – both operational and strategic – many organizations feel that their workforce planning and analytics efforts are not having as much organizational impact as they could have. Nearly half (49%) of respondents in Aberdeen’s 2013 Workforce Planning and Analytics study rated the influence of workforce planning data on organizational talent strategy at six or below on a scale of one to ten, and just 8% rate it a nine or ten. Fifty-one percent (51%) indicate that they agree or strongly agree that workforce planning gives them the information they need to identify and close workforce gaps.

One of the critical hurdles for organizations to overcome is ensuring that the business does not view workforce planning as an HR exercise, but sees it is a critical part of having the talent in place required to execute on a forward-looking business strategy. And they maintain a focus on operational workforce planning to ensure results in the near term. Making workforce planning a part of the business conversation starts by making sure everyone understands the terms, and why planning at the strategic and operational levels is critical.

With nearly two decades spent advising, developing, and studying HR and business leaders, Mollie brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in human capital and workforce management to help ignite ...


  1. Jim Graber says:

    The distinction between operational and strategic workforce planning seems useful to me. Planning doesn’t need to be just for the long-term future. In fact, it could deal with how to staff projects best over the next month, because even with the current workforce people are unavailable at times and there may be insufficient resources to get the work done.
    It might be useful to also distinguish how succession planning is similar or different. To me, modern, high quality succession has a lot of overlap with workforce planning. However, workforce planning seems to focus on more positions that may go down deeper into the organization, whereas succession, at least in the past, has tended to focus on leadership positions.

    • Mollie Lombardi says:

      Good point – and one of the reasons I think organizations struggle is it there is so much overlap, and no set of widely held definitions in this area. I tend to think of scheduling and workforce planning(Both operational and strategic) being a bit more from the organizational point of view – what are the roles, number of people, and skills required by the business? Succession is of course about ensuring business continuity as well, but I tend to think of it as being a bit more inclusive of the individuals and their goals. But it’s important to bring these processes together to make sure that not only do you have a definition of what the workforce plan requires, but the have the succession and development plans– And hiring plans too for that matter – that will prepare individuals to fulfill them.

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