Workforce considerations and planning in the health care sector – Part 2

The idea of workforce planning

In Part 2 of this blog I will discuss the idea of workforce planning as an organisational practice and will consider practical models and methods for delivering practices in the workplace, with a focus on the health care sector. The workforce planning process has been well documented and essentially it is a sub component of a strategic plan. Although workforce plans are not commonly seen in OD departments I think we will start to see a demand for them as the ageing population starts to exit the workforce and we are forced to consider new approaches towards managing people and organisations.

The difficultly with workforce planning in the health care industry is that we are dealing with the unknown, we can’t predict precisely what the future needs of a health care system are going to be. Parsons (2010) raises the question is workforce planning an art or a science and I think this is a interesting question to consider. Like Parsons I think workforce planning is a bit of both. It is about quantitative statistics, measuring and analysing the data, but it is also about using a bit of creativity and intuition when coming up against things we simply can’t predict.

Workforce planning models

In most literature workforce planning is talked about from a supply and demand perspective. The simpler models essentially consider the current workforce against future workforce needs and then suggest doing a gap analysis to determine workforce strategies and plans. However as I discovered resources such as the Centre for Workforce Intelligence I started to realise that workforce planning can be a far more sophisticated process that includes statistical forecast modeling. I have not been exposed to these methods so it was wonderful to learn something new that I can apply to the workplace.

One of the most thoughtful and meaningful workforce planning frameworks that I have viewed in this process is the framework from CFWI. The CFWI is essentially a centre of excellence in workforce planning for health care providers in the UK. I think it is wonderful concept by the UK and it is pleasing to see a government take such innovative action for a highly important issue. The CFWI has developed this framework to ensure health providers have the knowledge and practical tools they need to deliver workforce planning effectively. I thought it touched on some of the most important areas of this organisation practice and would like to share some of their ideas with you.

Workforce Intelligence

This is where an organisation focuses on analysing workforce data and interpreting the results to provide meaningful information about the workforce.  For example in a CFWI report NHS workforce intelligence indicated that some particular specialist nursing roles remain difficult to recruit. As a result these particular nursing roles were added to the National Shortage Occupation list and action was consequently taken. If organisations like the NHS can predict what sort of problems they are going to have in the near future they can respond appropriately and target their efforts in the right strategic areas. I believe that workforce intelligence is a very powerful concept and organisations should make it a priority to invest in human capital management systems. From my experience organisations see the value in investing in financial systems so why don’t they invest in high quality human capital management systems?

I strongly support and believe that workforce intelligence will become a critical practice for many organisations, not just for workforce planning, but things like identifying and tracking talent, in particular emerging leaders, and monitoring workforce transitions in terms of recruitment and retention. In fact the Harvard Business Review has reflected the trend of businesses using data analysis in a recent article Data Scientists – the sexiest job in the 21st Century. This article highlights the compelling story of businesses turning to data analysis to provide insights and to start capitalising on them.

Workforce modeling

Workforce modeling is challenging to understand but put simply it is about testing variable scenarios drawing on a range of information, including historical and projected data. For example the Northern Territory in Australia projected the requirement for, and supply of medical professionals. Growth in population was considered and patterns of population ill health to project the future need for treatment and the medical workforce required to meet that particular need. The inflow and outflow of medical practitioners and important trends and influences (variables) including migration, average working hours and ageing were considered.

I assumed that there would be a shortage of medical professionals but what the report in fact predicted was an over-supply, albeit small. And it was interesting to understand this depended on two factors; that NT could continue to attract and retain medical practitioners at past levels and that funding was available to support such growth. A number of critical issues were also highlighted. The report showed the NT has no problem in attracting medical professionals (inflow) but when it comes to retaining them large outflows indicate that the state is less successful at doing this. I find these results fascinating and what they show is that retention and funding need to be a focus area for the state. This is a great example of how modeling can help to determine what specific workforce strategies should be in place.

In today’s economic climate where the government and organisations are having to really question every dollar being spent, modeling and forecasting can play an important role in helping us decide what money should be spent on. There is no doubt in my mind that workforce modeling will become a growth area for strategic HR.

Scenario Generation

The CFWI suggests that scenario generation is based on considering high-impact and high-uncertainty driving forces (technological, economic, legal, social, environmental) that might shape the future and then generating a range of plausible solutions. One could say that it is similar to scenario planning which has been around for a while. Scenario generating or planning is usually done in the form of an open workshop.

The CFWI recently was part of a scenario-generating workshop that considered the following:  Thinking up to the year 2040 what factors will influence: 1. Requirement of the future medical/dental workforce and 2. Future medical/dental workforce numbers and proportions. The workshop allowed participants to determine driving forces, cluster the driving forces, define the cluster outcomes and produce an impact uncertainty matrix. From this scenarios were scoped and developed. Modeling is then used to quantify the scenarios generated and reports were developed to discuss the scenarios in further detail. I find the end-to-end workshop process for scenario generation inspiring and invigorating. Similar to strategy planning I think it gives managers and leaders the ability to express their creative ideas with the focus on real future challenges in mind.


Horizon scanning is when an organisation does research to consider the potential influences, challenges and opportunities that might impact and informs decisions around the development of the workforce. Horizon scanning may explore unexpected issues as well as persistent problems.

The CFWI breaks horizon-scanning research into two research areas, macro and micro level. The macro focuses on the ‘big picture’ challenges in the health sector. Evidence is developed through research and can influence planning and development of the workforce. For example research into the ageing population could be seen as macro level research. Micro level research focuses on a specific research question by profession or trend. Considering what type of specialist medical roles are likely to be needed in the future is an example of micro level research. It is most likely organisations already do horizon scanning in the form of strategic planning, but I think as professionals we are only beginning to realise the critical importance of it. Perhaps that is because we are in tune with concept of global economic change and the idea of uncertainty.

The beginning of the new health care sector 

As I consider these challenges for the health care sector they are in doubt complex and real. They will require systematic and holistic change in health care sector organisations. However I think if we can plan robustly through practices such as workforce planning we can make a substantial positive difference to how our organisations respond to future scenarios and uncertainties. Learning so much about workforce planning has inspired me to join a new network group and I hope that I have given you some inspiration to consider workforce planning practices and how they could add value in your organisation.


Parsons, Donna (2010), Medical Workforce Planning: an art or science? The difficult problem of matching supply and demand, Human Resource Management International Digest, London

Workforce considerations and planning in the health care sector – Part 1

Recently I was in discussion with an organisation about an opportunity and one of the key strategic deliverables for the organisation was developing a workforce plan. I have not been exposed largely to workforce planning in the workplace so it gave me a good excuse to start reading and learning about it. This particular organisation was a healthcare provider, which I believe adds another layer of complexity to developing the plan. As HR professionals I think we have a sense of what workforce planning means and what value it can provide, but I am not sure we have fully grasped what it means to develop a rigorous, meaningful and practical workforce plan.

Most of us know that Australia has an ageing population. I believe now is the time for us to start closely looking into this global trend and constructively planning for the future, with an open and curious mind. There are going to be substantial implications, some of these will bring much needed positive change and some will bring great challenges, but through developing rigorous workforce plans I believe we can play an important role in shaping the future of our health system.

What are the facts and figures around the ageing population?

Australia’s population is ageing substantially. The intergenerational report Australia 2050 shows the proportion of working age people is projected to fall, with only 2.7 people of working age to support each Australian aged 65 years and over by 2050 (compared with 5 working aged people per aged persons today (and 7.5 in 1970). What this means for Australia is that there will be fewer workers to support retirees and young dependents. The labour force participation rates are forecasted to drop and as we acknowledge today this may equate to slower economic growth. Australia’s population will continue to grow but it will be at a slower rate then previously experienced.

Future workforce considerations

This may just be ‘future talk’ to the average person, but if you start to consider the impacts of these changing demographic factors that is when you realise we need to be proactive in planning for the future. The current health and hospital system in Australia is stretched considerably with people not being able to access the services they need and the inequalities in the system clearly need to be addressed. Health is a subject discussed regularly in Parliament and in particular it is the demand for extra funding and better quality in the services delivered. Australia spends a huge amount on the health system already, in 2009-10 we spent $121.4 billion, the majority of the money going towards hospitals. However in the future the system will demand more of the governments expenditure, in fact nearly double the amount. How much value we can get out of that extra expenditure depends of how well considered and meaningful our workforce strategies and plans are today.

As the population ages more people will fall into the older age group category, this is the category that has the largest users of health services. We are also living longer which is a wonderful thing, but it has implications. Other social and economic considerations besides the ageing population include the growing burden of chronic disease, workforce pressures and technological advances. To find out exactly what these implications consist of I been researching the ideas and work of the government, both in Australia and the UK. As a start the Workforce Innovation and Reform Strategic Framework for Action 2011-2015 is worth reading, it provides great insight into the issues the health care industry is facing, what sort of health care system we are going to need in the future and has outlined a number of direct action points that need critical attention.

Having immersing myself in this framework I have enjoyed learning about what opportunities there are to develop a better health care system for Australians and I have included these below. I  must point out that interestingly most of these concepts are linked to developing and broadening the practices of the workforce.

As HR professionals we know that organisations don’t change, people do. I think the level of change required in health organisations can be viewed as systematic change, where there is a shift in the inner (personal/psychological) and outer (social/psychological) world. This transformational change required in the health care sector will present new challenges and opportunities for HR professionals. Workforce planning is an excellent tool as it can bring to light the needs and demands of the future, and at the same time allow the organisation to strategically and practically plan for the future workforce/organisation. There is no doubt that workforce planning will play a very important role in meeting the challenges of the future, in particular the ageing population, hence there is a need for us to understand the concept further and I will discuss this in Part 2 of this blog.