In Strategic Workforce Planning, Questions More Important than Answers

Relax. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to know the right questions to ask. And, sometimes, that’s where the real challenge lies.

When it comes to working with senior business leaders on strategic workforce planning, what matters most is the conversation, not the HR professional’s ability to quote data, reports and metrics, said experts on a recent Conference Board webinar.

Mary Young, principal researcher, human capital, and Stacy Chapman, senior fellow in human capital management, told webinar listeners that HR’s role in the strategic workforce planning process is to ask the questions that get to the heart of the company’s needs.

“Strategic workforce planning is a process you can use to engage business leaders so you can prepare” for customer demands, economic fluctuations, different talent needs and other changes, Young said. “Give yourselves the agility and flexibility to respond quickly to changes to the operating environment.”

While HR leaders might see the need to engage in strategic workforce planning, other business leaders might need more persuading, Chapman said. However, inundating colleagues with data, reports and metrics isn’t a good way to make the point, she added.

“Tell [your colleagues] what is really important and interesting,” Chapman said. Often, HR leaders “assume the business sees what you see—especially [when you are] immersed in data scanning and analysis.” Give colleagues only the high points of your research, she said.

Another mistake some HR leaders make when trying to engage senior business leaders in the strategic workforce planning process is reducing what should be a dynamic dialogue to a form or template to be filled out, Chapman said. Having colleagues fill in blanks on a page “makes it a compliance activity and disengaging,” she said.

Finally, in their quest to supply the answer to every question, some HR leaders shortchange the conversation around strategic planning by leaping to conclusions and providing the solutions they think are needed instead of probing to find out what their peers and senior leaders consider the problems to be. “We often want to leap to solutions,” Chapman said. “But we need to work on the discussions and underlying issues.”

“It’s a two-way educational process,” Young said. “You help them think at a high level about strategic workforce planning; your questions help educate them. Their [responses] help educate you. The conversation needs to be ongoing.”

Guided Conversations

Envision the conversation following this format, Young said:

  1. HR leaders conduct an environmental scan to educate themselves on the developments and challenges facing the business over the next several years.
  2. Ask the business leaders what the strategy is to address those concerns. What do the leaders want the company to achieve?
  3. To get to those achievements, what capabilities will the organization need?
  4. How can the organization and talent be adjusted or acquired to gain those capabilities?

Using this framework, the HR leaders are directing the conversation but not the answers, Chapman said. The key is to ask open-ended questions without focusing on what you might perceive to be the top solution or problem. “Don’t lead the witness,” she said.

Young encouraged webinar listeners to interview their business leaders one on one, then collate the data and present the results anonymously to senior leadership. This ensures that no one person dominates the discussion and that any “taboo” subjects are exposed, Chapman said.

“The main purpose for asking these questions is to create fear, uncertainty and doubt so that business leaders want to think and act” to strengthen the company’s future workforce, Chapman added. “If they can’t see that there’s a problem, they won’t work on a solution.”

Young said companies have told her that asking the questions and being pushed to think is a significant part of the value in strategic workforce planning. The questions that organizations ask themselves aren’t that unique, she added. They are just “good business journalism questions designed to understand an organization’s challenges.” But she acknowledged that developing the questions and guiding a conversation among business leaders are skills that HR professionals have to develop—and it’s not easy.

“This is one of the foremost challenges for businesses. It speaks to the fact that this is a skills gap for HR people. This is a developmental need. And practicing is the way you get good at it,” Young said.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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