For many organisations, workforce progression and career management have varied little for decades. The model presupposes that there will be positions available for high-performing staff to move into. But with most organisations arranged in a pyramid hierarchy, this means losing someone from the top to make room for someone at the bottom. And no organisation wants to lose good staff. In recent years the concept of workforce configuration has come to the fore.
This encompasses a set of practices that emphasise ongoing skills assessment, career planning and lateral mobility to ensure that the best people are in the best positions. According to Dr Wayne F. Cascio, professor at the University of Colorado Denver and Robert H. Reynolds, distinguished chair in Global Leadership, organisations can learn much about workforce configuration from successful sporting teams. Cascio says that the best organisations are performing more reviews and are basing those reviews on different criteria. “They are not just looking at results,” Cascio says.
“That’s important, but they are also looking at whether those results were accomplished in a way that they could be proud of.”
Workforce configuration goes by many names. At Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu it is called ‘Shaping the Workforce of the Future’. According to Deloitte’s national partner for people and performance, Alec Bashinsky, the goal of the program is to recognise that staff have different peaks and troughs in their career development that do not necessarily match the opportunities presented to them in a linear career path.
To support this Deloitte has developed an open recruitment process where all vacant roles, regardless of their location, are posted into a database that is open to employees at all levels. The organisation also provides incentives for staff to move, covering everything from relocation costs to providing incentives after they relocate. Cascio cites another example in the industrial company DuPont. “The CEO at DuPont asked each employee to come up with three money-saving suggestions and present those to their boss,” Cascio says. “Then they had higher levels of committees that would screen those.
As a result, the firm identified something like $16 million dollars in savings.” Giving greater power to workers over their work arrangements can also go a long way to building a healthy and robust culture. “The CEO of E&Y was saying that he gets tired of hearing from HR that a lot of employees wanted to ask for more flexibility in their work schedules, but they were afraid to raise the question because they thought the boss might interpret that as not wanting to work too hard,” Cascio says. “Instead of having the employee ask the manager why, we started asking middle managers why not.
Providing practical alternatives
The managing partner for business partnerships at career management consultancy Audrey Page & Associates, Graeme Page, agrees that workforce configuration can provide practical alternatives to wielding the axe when times get tight. The GFC saw other creative alternatives that may not be common practice emerge such as sabbaticals and extended leave options, or moving towards reduced working hours, Page says. According to human resources director ok UK-based Bupa, Penny Lovett (FCPHR), that evolution is embodied in Bupa’s promise to customers to help them ‘find a healthier you’.
“When you go out and make a promise like that to customers you have to be able to deliver the experience,” Lovett says. “So key for us has been to align the workforce to that promise.” Achieving that process has required an in-depth investigation of the combined company’s workforce design and subsequent significant changes. This has included bringing in new skills, particularly medical skills and Bupa now boasts a large nursing workforce that was not present in either organisation before the merger.
“As we have brought those skills into the business we have had to think differently about how we might work,” according to Lovett. Lovett describes this exercise as Bupa’s transformation period, and it remains ongoing. That the organisation has been able to implement such sweeping changes is testimony to its success in managing the post-merger integration period that preceded it. Bupa’s integration period was marked by a decision to open up all positions within the merged business, from senior executives down.
Recognising the need for certainty, the entire process was completed in just 100 days. The program appears to have succeeded. Lovett says the company has met its financial targets, while staff engagement hit 79.8 per cent last year. “On just about any measure for a merger, it was very successful,” Lovett says.