Henry David Thoreau once pointed out that it’s not enough to be busy. Ants are busy. The real question is: what are we busy about?

When it comes to strategic workforce planning, many companies have more in common with the ants than they might care to admit. A new report from Accenture Strategy finds that strategic workforce planning is largely seen as a luxury item in the world of business. Its use is sporadic, and often inadequate when it does occur.

There are two principal aspects to this inadequacy. First, strategic workforce planning today tends to be done with insufficient tools. A complex world demands complex thinking, and shoving everything into a spreadsheet often obscures crucial data. Second, these planning exercises tend to be limited in scope. They almost always focus exclusively on internal employees, ignoring other relevant factors like the external workforce or client relationships.

Today’s workforce planning status quo leads to a rigid workforce, which leads to rigid problem-solving in an age that demands more agility than ever. The state of workforce planning may explain the pessimism that a majority of executives express about their business making a successful digital transition. Accenture Strategy research in 2015 found that 61 percent of executives feel they are not well prepared to help their organizations’ workforce manage a successful digital transformation.

As I discussed last week, the prevailing approach to strategic workforce planning is likely to change radically in the near future thanks to digital disruption. Current workforce planning tools will be replaced by prescriptive analytics that can integrate much more data than current tools. Their findings will move beyond descriptions of possible futures to prescriptions of what a company should do—hence the name.

To understand the power of prescriptive analytics, it is helpful to look at a concrete example. The Accenture Strategy report mentioned above includes a case study of a major technology firm that applied prescriptive analytics in a simulation model to find areas of improvement for its field workforce.

The model analysed the firm’s use of 4,500 field engineers, three million pieces of equipment, and seven product families to find areas of improvement in over 12,000 different potential demand scenarios. Analyzing this amount of information through traditional, siloed planning tools would have been all but impossible[L1] . But the analytics software crunched the numbers and produced workforce management suggestions that could reduce customer response time by 16 percent, boost overall workforce utilization by up to 25 percent, and reduce overtime by nearly 60 percent.

Organizational insights like these, produced through the analysis of vast amounts of data, will be needed to stay relevant in the ongoing digital disruption we live in. But that’s not to say that the future of workforce planning is entirely machine-driven. On the contrary, human judgement still has a vital role to play. Join me next week when we’ll go over it.

Accenture Strategy’s report on strategic workforce planning is available for download here


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