Human resource planning in practice HR Management

While much is written about HRP in theory, evidence about its application in practice is harder to obtain. The Workplace Employee Relations Survey (Cully et al., 1999) reports that 91 per cent of managers with senior responsibility for employment relations include ‘staffing or manpower planning’ in their list of tasks.

Analysis of data from the three most recent workplace surveys (Millward et al., 2000) shows a shift in responsibility for HRP. The proportion of HR specialists with responsibility for HRP declined from 87 per cent in 1984 to 80 per cent in 1990 and remained stable at 80 per cent in 1998, while the proportion of non-specialists with responsibility for HRP has increased from 85 per cent in 1984 to 90 per cent in 1998. This could be seen as indicative of a general trend · Human resource planning

The ability to forecast accurately is central to effective planning strategies. If the forecasts turn out to be wrong, the real costs and opportunity costs … can be considerable. On the other hand, if they are correct they can provide a great deal of benefit – if the competitors have not followed similar planning strategies.

(Makridakis, 1990 cited in Mintzberg, 1994: 229) in the devolution of people management matters to line and general managers. However, HRP seems to be a unique case as, of the six HR functions covered in the surveys, reduced responsibility for HRP is ‘the only enduring change’ (Millward et al., 2000: 62). There are significant sectoral variations in this shift: the proportion of HR specialists with responsibility for ‘staffing or manpower planning’ declined in the private sector but increased substantially in the public sector.

However, the scope for different interpretations inherent in the term ‘staffing or manpower planning’ means that we know little about the type of HRP activity actually carried out and so are unable to draw firm conclusions about the reasons for shifts in responsibility. There is also the potential danger that the high proportion of respondents reporting HRP activity could be indicative of intent rather than actual practice. A number of authors (see, for example, Liff, 2000; Rothwell, 1995) have noted the gap between widespread claims and relatively limited activity.

Storey (1992) observed that the majority of companies in his sample would have ‘ticked’ survey questions about HRP, but a substantial number were not doing it. In the past, studies investigating HRP in practice (e.g. Mackay and Torrington, 1986; Cowling and Walters, 1990) have tended to find evidence of only partial activity and limited implementation of any plans. Rothwell (1995: 178–179) suggests four principal reasons for the lack of empirical proof of HRP activity:

  • The extent of change impacting on organisations makes planning too problematic, even though there is a growing need for it. This might also explain why plans, even if developed, are rarely implemented.
  • The need to account for the ‘shifting kaleidoscope of policy priorities’ and the relatively weak power-base of the HR function meaning that either inadequate resources are devoted to planning activities or there is a lack of ability to ensure implementation of plans.
  • The preference for pragmatism and the distrust of theory and planning prevalent amongst UK management and the potential inconsistencies in organisational goals, e.g. need for consistency and flexibility, for prediction and planning and speed of response, etc.
  • Research into HRP is often over-theoretical and fails to take sufficient account of organisational reality. A lot of HRP activity is undertaken but because it is on an ad hoc rather than a systematic basis it is frequently discounted by researchers.

This last reason could help to account for the potential discrepancy between the proportion of managers reporting involvement in ‘staffing or manpower planning’ in WERS and the limited evidence of systematic planning activity in more detailed studies. In his study into people management practices in SMEs, Hendry (1995) found some evidence of HRP-related activities (e.g. managers considered recruitment and selection, training and pay in relation to issues identified in labour and product markets) but approaches tended to be tentative and incremental rather than classical and rational.


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