Defining human resource planning HR Management

In Through the Looking Glass Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, ‘When I use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ The same might be said of ‘human resource planning’ (HRP) as the phrase can be used in a number of different ways. The main distinction is between those who view the term as synonymous with ‘manpower planning’ and those who believe that ‘human resource planning’ represents something rather different (Taylor, 2002).

Manpower planning has been defined as ‘a strategy for the acquisition, utilisation, improvement and retention of an enterprise’s human resources’ (Department of Employment, 1974). The prime concern is generally with enabling organisations to maintain the status quo; ‘the purpose of manpower planning is to provide continuity of efficient manning for the total business and optimum use of manpower resources’ (McBeath, 1992: 26), usually via the application of statistical techniques.

The term ‘human resource planning’ emerged at about the same time as ‘human resource management’ started to replace ‘personnel management’, and for some (e.g. McBeath, 1992; Thomason, 1988) the terminology is just a more up-to-date, gender-neutral way of describing the techniques associated with manpower planning. For others, human resource planning represents something different but the extent of this difference can vary.

In some instances, human resource planning is seen as a variant of manpower planning more concerned with qualitative issues and cultural change, than with hierarchical structures, succession plans and mathematical modelling (e.g. Cowling and Walters, 1990). In other instances, the term can be used to signal a significant difference in both thinking and practice (Liff, 2000). For example, Bramham (1989) argues that there are fundamental differences between the two approaches:

This broad interpretation of HRP can be seen as rather vague and lacking explicit practical application or specification. For example, Marchington and Wilkinson (1996) argue that Bramham’s conception of HRP is synonymous with HRM in its entirety and, as such, loses any distinctive sense. Indeed, in his book Human Resource Planning, Bramham (1989) discusses a very wide range of people management issues, including employee development, reward management and employee relations, and only focuses on specific planning issues in one chapter.

A third approach is to define HRP as a distinct process aimed at predicting an organisation’s future requirements for human resources that incorporates both the qualitative elements of human resource planning and the quantitative elements of manpower planning. These two elements are often labelled as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ human resource planning respectively. Tansley (1999: 41) summarises the general conceptions of ‘hard’ HRP in the literature as follows:

  • emphasis on ‘direct’ control of employees – employees are viewed like any other resource with the need for efficient and tight management;
  • akin to the notion of manpower planning – with emphasis on demand–supply matching;

There are particularly important differences in terms of process and purpose. In human resource planning the manager is concerned with motivating people – a process in which costs, numbers, control and systems interact to play a part. In manpower planning the manager is concerned with the numerical elements of forecasting, supply-demand matching and control, in which people are a part. There are therefore important areas of overlap and interconnection but there is a fundamental difference in underlying approach. (Bramham, 1989: 147)

  • undertaken by HR specialists;
  • related HR strategies are concerned with improving the utilisation of human resources.

In contrast, she summarises the general characteristics of ‘soft’ HRP as:

  • emphasis on ‘indirect control of employees – with increasing emphasis on employee involvement and teamwork;
  • a wider focus to include an emphasis on organisational culture and the clearer integration between corporate goals and employee values and behaviour;
  • involves HR specialists, line managers and possibly other employees;
  • greater emphasis on strategies and plans for gaining employee commitment.

Like the broader interpretations of HRP, definitions of ‘soft’ HRP tend to assume a ‘best practice’, high-commitment approach to people management. Although there is emphasis on the need to integrate human resource planning activity with corporate goals, the implicit assumption is that this will be achieved via the design and application of plans aimed at developing employee skills and securing their commitment to organizational goals. However, as we shall discuss later in the chapter, there may be some business strategies, e.g. cost minimisation, that require different approaches to people management.

In order to convey the meaning of HRP as a set of activities that represent a key element of HRM but are distinct from it, and to include both the soft and hard aspects of the planning process, the definition used in this chapter is as follows:

HRP is the process for identifying an organisation’s current and future human resource requirements, developing and implementing plans to meet these requirements and monitoring their overall effectiveness.

There are a number of ways in which this process can be undertaken. The chapter begins with an exploration of the key stages in the traditional approach to HRP (incorporating many of the ‘hard’ elements) and then considers more contemporary variants.


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