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Your Workforce under the Microscope

Accessing the right talent at the right time to best support your business strategies

by Mark Lanfear
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There is a simple goal at the heart of practically every life science company—to improve the health of the public at large, often through medical intervention such as drugs or life-saving devices and procedures. Achieving this goal takes rigorous work.

In the preclinical phase, ideas and theories must undergo microscopic examination—literally and figuratively—to be understood, put to the test, and ultimately developed into something sound. Will problems be found along the way? Of course. But such examination almost always allows an organization to see problems early and eliminate them before the process evolves too far.

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In order to achieve a company’s ultimate goal, the talent that the company employs must work just as well as any new treatment or other project. After all, one’s scientific workforce is the critical link between idea and outcome and those individuals are the ones with the skills to achieve that organization’s next great discovery.

Understanding and effectively managing a scientific workforce is similar to the research and development process in that companies need to put their workforce practices under the microscope as well. Only then can they discover and understand what it is about their mix of talent that most supports their business strategies. This “microscopic” analysis will also put organizations in a position of insight and knowledge when it comes to selecting the most qualified and cost-effective mix of workforce engagements.

Unfortunately, most life science companies are not experts at “operating the microscope.” And often they do not fully understand the kinds of problems or bugs that can rear their heads under that microscopic lens when they start to look at their workforce at a more granular level. However, with a plan and continued practice, life science companies can become just as adept at using the workforce microscope as they are at using other analytical methods in the lab.

Let’s start with the adjustment knobs when using a microscope to view a specimen. There are coarse adjustment knobs that give a macro view, and fine adjustment knobs that provide a more granular view. When examining your workforce, there are four critical adjustment knobs you will need to use. Their impact on your business will be variable, and, as with research, will sometimes reveal results slowly.

Knob one—business goals such as profit, bottom-line stock price, delivery of product to market and operational goals— are driven by knob two—business strategy. The business strategy and how to get there—increased market share, decreased product lines, investment in R&D, decreased costs, off-shore resources, and a change in workforce balance—are under the direct influence of knob three—HR practices. Those practices include time to fill, cost of filling roles, retention of talent, partnering with the business units, and talent acquisition. These challenges are only addressed through the fine tuning of knob four—HR strategy, which encompasses the ability to attract and retain talent, raise an employment brand, and true supply chain management.

Of course all of these knobs, when adjusted correctly, can have a dramatic impact on a company’s workforce as a whole. Once the business goals are formed, turning the business strategy knob becomes one of the most important steps. Before any workforce planning can begin, an organization must have a clear understanding of the long-term company strategy in order to determine the kind of talent needed to achieve corporate objectives. Each company’s long-term plan or business initiatives are unique to them, but a few key elements tend to stand out under the microscope both at a macro and granular level. At the beginning of their fiscal year, these plans usually take the shape of corporate revenue goals announced by the company’s leadership. Things such as percentage of revenue growth, increases in production, and increases in sales are tangible and can easily be seen and understood. More granular aspects of business strategy, which require fine tuning of the knob, tend to be market trends, new markets to explore, where efficiencies can be found in the current state, or where immediate growth or R&D opportunities exist.

These aspects of business strategy, once seen and understood from both a broad and granular viewpoint, will start to give a company clearer insight into the labor pool, allowing an organization to better understand how it can attract, retain, and engage talent. A majority of workforce engagements, however, are still time- and materials-based, rather than outcome-based— ultimately, these engagements are never looked at holistically enough to effectively drive overall business goals. The result is inefficient use of the workforce, which can significantly affect operations and business goals. To gain a more meaningful understanding of how the workforce affects business, there must be a paradigm shift in how the firm views talent. When HR practices and strategies are considered first in the process, the acquisition of human capital becomes one of the business goals. Specifically, how your workforce is engaged becomes a primary goal, while the physical goods or services a company provides are considered the activities. In this model, hiring the right talent becomes the first step in all business strategy discussions.

Fine-tune adjustments will be required to make this paradigm shift permanent. This is where organizations systematically align the priorities of the organization with those of its workforce in order to make sure all facets of product and service delivery are met. This is done by segmenting roles, scanning those roles, and analyzing the current state of the workforce. These three steps require analytics that identify the current and future state of an organization’s departments, quantity and types of positions, and technology. This valuable data will help organizations form a framework for linking talent acquisition directly to business strategy. Done right, this will allow companies to secure and optimize talent and services through vendor channels both internally and externally.

By learning to operate the workforce microscope and all its inherent knobs correctly, life science organizations can better move through the dynamic clinical trial environment, where both revenue and talent supply are tight. Companies today are forced to accomplish more with less, but having a smooth workforce plan is key to adhering to a drug launch schedule—and indeed, business strategy as a whole—that is crucial to the viability of an organization.

Consequently, this new analysis of your workforce may reveal some surprising truths. Namely, that being able to properly access the right talent at the right time can actually increase time-to-market for scientific products, yielding an increase in profitability and revenue dollars. Why? Because aligning an organization's human capital program with its current and emerging business/financial goals has the effect of creating efficiencies, streamlining processes, and spurring innovation—all things that can help a business reach and exceed goals. By giving HR a greater stake at the strategic workforce planning table, companies will also see how HR can contribute to business performance in addition to its traditional HR functions. Rather than human resources teams focusing only on administrative efficiency, companies will come to see human resources as a partner to every business unit, providing strategy to overall management and contributing to improved business outcomes.

Remember those bugs—those problems—mentioned earlier? Now that you’re looking at your workforce more carefully, these problems will become more obvious. Some of these problems are outside risk factors beyond a company’s control when it comes to implementing a successful workforce plan. They are the political, environmental, social, and technological (PEST) factors, which can manifest themselves in the form of increased costs and complex regulations that affect all businesses and interfere with expected outcomes.

Globalization. Mobility. Talent management. These three concerns consistently make the top of the “PEST” list for most CEOs and CHROs. All three areas are underpinned by one core activity: workforce planning. As one continues to see these PESTs under the microscope, one can further examine the factors that propel companies to greater success or the factors that cause them to stumble.

For example, line leaders don't need to wait for the whole company to adopt a workforce planning focus to benefit from the creation of one that drives their own business goals. As with finance and marketing, workforce planning is increasingly a skill needed by every business leader, and understanding how it affects your particular business unit will give you an additional tool to make decisions with. A leader can address vital skills needed for success in his or her own specialized workforce. They can do a gap analysis. They can rectify an imbalance in skills to help combat turnover. All of these things help tweak individual goals of reaching new outcomes in business development through workforce planning.

While this novel approach to understanding your workforce may seem overwhelming, the need for such in-depth examination and analysis has never been more important. Studies suggest that as much as 80 percent of most organizations’ assets are intangible and based on their human capital. Human resources heads are being asked for detailed and strategic workforce plans by the C-Suite. Those professionals or service companies that can provide them will thrive and see greater partnership and opportunities. Those that can't will likely drift into increasingly marginalized roles.

Furthermore, the talent shortage, as well as the demand for talent, is high on a global scale. Yet currently, college students who pursue scientific degrees are not choosing the most in-demand courses of study. The talent pool is not being replenished quickly enough to replace retiring life science professionals.

In addition, future talent needs are changing so quickly that companies are having a hard time adapting fast enough to meet those demands. What kind of talent, exactly, will be needed in five years? This rapid pace of job development will require organizations to move more quickly in the training process in order to capture the ideal talent for their current workforce needs. The life science industry may need to get involved in helping develop highly specialized training programs designed to produce a new workforce that can meet the demands of specialized scientific fields.

Similar to using the right lens to examine a specimen, using the right lens to examine your talent strategy will no doubt lead to some breakthrough discoveries when it comes to your workforce. You will start to understand that human resources and talent acquisition, along with talent development, collectively contribute to business performance.