Workforce planning in China

Back in September 2011 a friend emailed me saying he was planning a new book that will be a collection of articles that follow the evolution of strategic workforce planning (SWP). It is to be divided it into a historical section that will trace the early development of SWP practices, a larger section that will deal with current practices within a cross section of leading organizations and a final section that will offer some thought leader perspectives on future directions for this whole prospect of resourcing workforce capabilities.

He asked me if I would be willing to contribute a piece, saying he was "open to ideas, but I initially had in mind something from you that would be in the future directions section — perhaps suggesting some ways that virtual organizations may pursue to deal with cultural challenges when organizations are loosely tethered networks."

So, ever unable to resist a challenge, I said ok then. Until about the end of November 2011 this commitment remained in the back of my mind. This was partly because I know not much about workforce planning. Indeed given the world as we know it I am rather skeptical about the notion but maybe that is the point of my contribution.

So I sent an email saying "I guess I'm no technical expert on workforce planning, but I think there are some concepts that could be explored around what is a workforce? The thought of planning is also worth scrutiny. Then there's the question of why do we need to plan and over what time frame? The concepts seem to be tied closely to external context i.e. what value workforce planning in the Japanese tsunami scenario, or the collapse of Lehmans, etc. On this one maybe there is value in scenario or contingency planning e.g. what would we do if all the world's engineers were airlifted to Mars and were unavailable to work on earth? This type of thing."

My friend emailed back saying "There's a Churchill quote about D-day that paraphrases as from the time we hit the beaches, our plans were for naught, but the planning connections enabled us to prevail," Curious, and after some effort, I managed to find a more-or-less matching quote but it was from Eisenhower "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." So I ploughed on in my search and finally found Churchill's speech on D-Day, recorded in Hansard, 6 June 1944, cols 1209-1210, where he states that

"The Commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred. It involves tides, winds, waves, visibility, both from the air and the sea standpoint, and the combined employment of land, air and sea forces in the highest degree of intimacy and in contact with conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen."

Later in November, having just come back from China, where the 'War for Talent', is in full play this came to mind and I emailed again saying, "Over the past couple of years I've been working in China with HR people who work for mainly US based multinationals and are very interested in workforce planning which has a whole lot of challenges for them. One of the Chinese HR people's frustrations is that their US HR colleagues don't sufficiently understand the Chinese context. Would a Chinese perspective be of any interest to you/the readers of the book? " He replied that it would. Thus, this week I have been working on that piece.

A quick glance at some facts and figures about China give the barest impression of the challenges and opportunities that face HR professionals and business people as they grapple with business strategies for growth in a country that many outsiders define as a single, comprehensible 'China' but what is, in fact, a country of vivid differences that almost defies definition. As James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, points out in his book Postcards from Tomorrow Square:

'The huge and widening gap between China's haves and have-nots … is only one of countless important cleavages within the country – by region, by generation, by level of schooling, by rural versus urban perspective, even by level of rainfall, which determines how many people a given area of land can support.'

Nevertheless some facts and figures serve the purpose of painting an impression of the scale of the country:
Population: 1.3 billion (2010 census)
Area: 9.6 million km2 (3.7 million sq. mi)
Capital: Beijing (largest city: Shanghai)
Economy: USD 10.885 trillion (2010 estimate) compare with USA: USD 14.624 trillion
Per capita: USD 7,518 (PPP) compare with USA: USD 47,123 (PPP)
GDP CAGR 1980-2010: 10% compare with USA: 3%
Cars per 1,000 capita: 128 (2008 estimates) compare with USA 779
50% of consumed crude oil is imported (42bn gallons in 2005)
China has 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities and is the world's largest CO2 emitter
Sources: Wikipedia, World Bank

Beyond the facts and figures, an Economist Intelligence Unit report notes that 'in many sectors, China is now an emerged, rather than an emerging, market. It is the world's largest market for cars, air conditioners and LCD-TVs, to name just a few products. No doubt, China will soon be the greatest consumer of a whole host of other goods from medicines to designer handbags.'

For many non-Chinese multinationals (MNCs) China is an important market but not an easy one to enter or work in. 'China is making greater demands – especially on foreign companies with proprietary knowhow and cutting-edge technologies. Competition is already brutal. To build a winning business in China, foreign multinationals must now plan even more meticulously – as well as make tangible contributions to the host country's continued economic development.'

In this kind of situation the concept of 'workforce planning' defined as the process of getting the right people, with the right skills in the right jobs at the right time is almost laughable. The plan won't work. There is no way that HR staff can follow a systematic route to:

• Identify current and future numbers of employees required to deliver new and improved products and services.
• Analyze the present workforce in relation to these needs.
• Compare the present workforce and the desired future workforce to highlight shortages, surpluses and competency gaps.
• Plan how to address the gaps
Address the gaps

But maybe the planning is worthwhile. So this past week I've been talking with seven Chinese HR Directors about (to quote Churchill) "conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen" in relation to their workforce challenges and how they think things will move forward. These are not on the scale of World War 2 but there is some resonance in reworking Churchill's statement. It is true to say that Chinese HR practitioners are involved in a "vast operation [which] is undoubtedly [one of] the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred [in recent HR circles]. "

More on this when I have fully assessed and interpreted the responses.