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There are things we know we know

Published on 17 March 2020

There are things we know we know

In some ways it’s great to be in the middle of an unknown unknown situation. To see the world react in the way it has, to see how experts are predicting and explaining their judgement, to read the views of ‘non-experts’ (shall we say) and work our way through myths and misinformation. For many years The Forum has adapted the famous (once infamous) Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns model, looking at our knowledge of impact and certainty of time. This exercise always resulted in us knowing more than we thought. Even now when there is a lot of uncertainty, it’s surprising what we do know.

“What’s the point of forecasting; it’s never right anyway?”

There is no doubt that our strategic forecasts and business continuity plans (or lack of them) will have been tested and stretched over the past few weeks. The uncertainty of what will happen next is likely to be one of the biggest challenges we will face, as we test, learn and create new short-term plans, some of which may last a long time. There is a chance that actions and decisions made now will have a lasting effect on your businesses, your customers and your colleagues.

Our business plans will have been seriously ‘stress’ tested in the past few weeks, highlighting a lack of flexibility and probably a lack of alignment between business strategy and workforce strategy. Too often, I still see organisations whose long-term forecasts and even budget plans are not costed properly. At worst, there is just a financial figure thrown at the Planning team who need to make this fit to achieve strategic objectives. What is missing is reliable data, a trusted method of analysis and agreed assumptions, which are regularly discussed with shared accountability for delivery. Fortunately, there are businesses who now have trusted models in place to test different ‘what-if’ scenarios, with an understanding of margin for error, who collectively agree the workforce strategy, target operating model and costs. Importantly, these models provide upper and lower control limits which support the wider business understanding of how changes to the key assumptions impact costs and workforce capability, e.g. the maximum number of customers we can handle. Crucially, there is a clear data journey, where assumptions can be challenged and change, whilst analysis methods can be improved to provide a more trusted prediction.

There is no doubt, that no-one could have predicted the impact of a global pandemic. However, if your original strategic plan didn’t match your workforce plan, you will have an even harder time trying to create an effective plan to survive. There has been a need to react to the current situation, however the tactical decisions being made today could define our future. I’m not one for over-exaggerating, however, I’m seeing big decisions being made which could have lasting consequences.

Implement the strategy
Planning to implement the strategy is about designing an operating model. Plan resource options and priorities to enable effective delivery of strategic change. Collaborate with stakeholders, including HR, Marketing, Finance & Operations, to design and evaluate options and models. Use long-term forecasting and analysis to anticipate future trends, opportunities and risks. The better this plan, the easier it is to understand the impact of any changes. The tactical decisions being made now need to be understood holistically (impact on wider business and future business decision) and compared to the original operating plan to understand the difference. Tracking changes helps you to understand and measure the change, identifying what works and, most importantly, what doesn’t.

A really simple top tip, though not applied enough, is to apply the ‘Delphi method’ (A systematic forecasting method that involves structured interaction among a group of experts on a subject), or simply collaborating with the wider business to agree a forecast. Following our Forecasting, Budgeting and Capacity Planning workshop, one of our students introduced a weekly meeting including himself (Planning), Finance, Marketing, HR and the MD. Previously, Finance and Marketing would have driven decisions, followed by HR with Planning finally picking up the pieces. These meetings started in February and have already demonstrated their value, helping the business to understand the impact of COVID-19 on their business objectives (drop in sales) customers (increase in service calls) and colleagues (so far, no change in absence). Recruitment has been delayed, unpaid leave has been offered to sales consultants. As homeworking is already in place, they have only needed to ‘tweak’ shift patterns to cover the new demand profile.

Another example of this was seen from our 2018 Innovation Award finalist Barclays. Barclaycard took the bold step of adapting Anaplan to build a pioneering, strategic capability that links Workforce Planning with Finance & HR. A small, global team has rebuilt local Excel models built over time in six siloed planning functions. Robust audit, governance and knowledge sharing is driven by a rule-based modelling platform and a central database. This removes single points of failure and frees time for added-value tasks. The analysts are developing new skills and using this system creates flexible, agile planning resource. Software licence costs for the team are low compared to operation-wide systems like workforce management or analytics. What’s more, live real-time scenario planning is engaging stakeholders and building credibility in ways that might have seemed impossible before.
Based on The Forum’s Standards Benchmarking best-in-class, organisations like British Gas, RSA and LV= are all seen as trusted business partners with easy to use what-if modelling, used and understood by stakeholders, with regular meetings to discuss, challenge and collectively agree decisions. This included long-term strategic change and tactical contingency planning.  

Allocating Resource
When demand is impacted, the way in which supply and demand is allocated must reflect this. This is not as simple as ‘changing shifts’ or starting ‘homeworking’. There are many considerations. That said, because of the need to react now, there is a huge opportunity to change the way we’ve always done things. The one thing I ask is, do this carefully, reviewing regularly and capture the learning to make it a success. Don’t introduce an idea which will always be remembered as a “short-term fix during the Coronavirus outbreak”, or look back on something and say “we used to do that, but it doesn’t work for us anymore”.

One example of this is Homeworking, ten years ago The Forum published the best practice Homeworking guide, thinking that in the next five years this would be widely used by most contact centres for front-line advisors. Not necessarily every person, but an option offered by most organisations. It has always been disappointing how few organisations have embraced this for their call-taking agents. It is great that many businesses are now considering Homeworking, unfortunately because they ‘have to’. It’s amazing how easy its been to sign off the budget, how the IT infrastructure and compliance issues have disappeared. Hopefully, this is the turning point for Homeworking, however, this needs to be one that provides work-life-balance and not just the solution for the Coronavirus.

Start to consider now how to integrate people back into office life. Homeworking isn’t a long-term solution for everyone. Some people thrive in the office and working alongside people. Some people will like a mix of in-office and homeworking; some will prefer homeworking all the time. Don’t limit the opportunity, look at ways of embracing all.  
Consider how to future-proof working hours, being clear that current working patterns are tactical. People will get used to working at home and current patterns, which can become their assumed permanent contract. Ensure that there is a review of all working patterns, which protects the business and the colleague, as the situation demonstrates, changing demands require changing flexibility.

Support team leaders’ and business leaders’ transition to offering virtual support, hosting conference calls and delivering both positive and negative messages. Moving a team stand-up buzz session to Teams/Skype doesn’t directly translate, especially when it can take 5 minutes for everyone to finally join the conference line, turn on their webcams, etc. Create clear expectations to prevent people talking over the top of each other, or ‘claiming’ technical issues and if the question could be repeated and stopping people sending messages to each other during a call. Make sure there is a clear chair/lead for the call, with someone taking actions.
The Forum has successful case studies from the past 10 years from organisations like:

Visit our website for more Innovation Award case studies.

Final thought goes to ‘hindsight bias’ (term used in psychology to explain the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that could not possibly have been predicted). If you don’t capture the ideas and opinions of others right now and document the thoughts and rationale behind your decisions, hindsight bias will feature heavily in the years to come. This time next year we will all be better at planning this year!

If you have any thought please leave your comment in the linked post here

Author: Phil Anderson
Date: 17th March 2020

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Author: Leanne McNamee

Categories: Library, Planning & Resourcing

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