Personnel Precision: TO STAY ON TARGET IN ITS WORKFORCE PLANNING, WEAPONS-MAKER ATK USES SOPHISTICATED METRICS ANALYSIS TO ANTICIPATE FLIGHT RISKS AND THE NEED FORREINFORCEMENTS

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WEAPONS-MAKER ALLIANT TECHSYSTEMS INC. has developed a workforce planning system that's like a rifle scope with night vision; look through it and problems can be spotted in surprising places.

Last year, for example, human resources officials at the company's armaments unit examined a range of factors using statistical analysis to study the "flight risk" of each of the roughly 1,200 employees in the group's Radford, Virginia, operation. Organizations often figure the main threat to future success comes from departing executives. But one of the biggest challenges facing the Radford unit was the potential defection of an employee below the management level. The worker, an engineer, was central to a major initiative of the armaments unit, and his age and tenure were both flight-risk factors.

"He wasn't a manager, but he was critically important," says Cory Edmonds, manager of human capital analytics at Alliant Techsystems, which is better known as ATK. He popped up as a "high risk." The company then began to prepare for the employee's departure, considering, for example, assigning a junior engineer to work as an apprentice to him. Ultimately, the engineer didn't leave and ATK didn't take any actions. However, if the employee appears as a flight risk again the next time the company runs the numbers, HR officials will encourage business unit leaders to take steps to prepare for the worker's departure.

In recent years, such sophisticated data analysis has become a workforce defense weapon at ATK. The Minneapolis-based company has become more adept at spotting and overcoming talent management challenges. In doing so, the 18,000-employee firm has put itself at the forefront of the new frontier of metrics, as planning tools increasingly allow companies to predict workforce needs.

Such prophesies promise to be profitable. Carl Willis, vice president of human resources at ATK, expects workforce analytics to save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years in reduced hiring and severance costs and in greater use of contingent and temporary labor during peak production cycles.

To achieve such gains, ATK has tapped outside expertise, including workforce analytics specialist Orca Eyes Inc. The company also has fortified its HR department with quantitative experts. Edmonds, for example, majored in statistics at Virginia Tech and has taken graduate courses in the field.

"If you really want to do this kind of work, the typical skill set you have in HR is not what you need," Willis says. "You need more of an analyst."

What started as an experiment in one division is now a companywide priority with the full backing of ATK president and CEO Mark DeYoung. The decision to expand the workforce analytics effort throughout the company was made before DeYoung took the reins last year, but he calls the analytics initiative "very important."

Not all of DeYoung's executive team members employ the flight-risk model. Nonetheless, he expects those predictions to be used more widely as more results and success stories are shared. "The aerospace industry is well-known for its aging workforce and we need to look beyond the horizon to ensure that we have the right talent to lead our company long after I'm retired," DeYoung says. "Analyzing the needs of our business, developing the talent to meet those needs and identifying recruitment candidates is the job of every senior manager."

There have been bumps along the way, including questions about how to handle sensitive findings, but the company is charging ahead with its data detection system. That puts ATK in the minority. Only a small percentage of firms have significant capabilities to predict the future of their workforce and plan ahead. But experts expect more companies to follow ATK's lead. Predictive analytics efforts fuel bottom-line success, says Dan Hilbert, CEO of Orca Eyes, which has a partnership with Workforce Management related to workforce data analysis. …

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