The failure to plan the staffing needs of the NHS adequately has prompted the creation of a menu of training and resources to boost workers' skills

It is hard to disagree with the theory that professional support plays a fundamental role in learning and development. It is tried, tested and proven.

NHS senior managers can turn to the NHS Confederation, the King's Fund and regional support networks; medics have the British Medical Association and royal colleges; while nurses have their own royal college and local networks.

But what happens if we probe a little deeper than these broad staff classifications and look at a category that cuts across professional boundaries: workforce planners? What support exists for them?

There is an argument that says it does not really matter; that workforce planners should identify and tackle skills gaps with managers themselves. And it would be a perfectly legitimate way forward, except for one small but crucial document - the 2006 Commons health select committee report into NHS workforce planning.

It concluded that workforce planning had been 'a disastrous failure', with too few people with the ability and skills to do the task. It urged for 'more time, effort and resources' to be devoted to the challenge. More recently, Lord Darzi's interim report outlined the need for an overhaul of workforce planning and the commissioning of education and training.

Low-profile problem

Cue action from National Workforce Projects, the national NHS organisation which has the remit to advise and improve workforce planning. It looked at what was being offered across the spectrum and ways of explaining and promoting workforce planning that would make senior NHS managers sit up, make workforce planning a priority and develop staff who can do the job properly.

'The problem is it just isn't seen as high profile,' says National Workforce Project's senior projects manager Liz Livermore. 'Workforce planning is often tagged onto someone else's job. We knew if we wanted to make a difference and bridge gaps, we had to come up with something that was exciting. Something that would work.'

And so the concept of 'menus' of training and resources for workforce planners was born. The menus offer a vast range of support and resources for workforce planners no matter where they are in the organisation - whether that's board-level executives or non-executives, operational managers, ward managers, service commissioners or HR staff with a planning badge.

Says Liz: 'The whole idea is that it doesn't matter where someone is in terms of skills and knowledge, they can choose from a selection of items on the menu that are relevant to them.

'Take the introductory menu. While it's aimed at staff just starting out in workforce planning, it's also suitable for a ward sister, finance director or chief executive if they feel there's a gap in their knowledge.

'But, equally, there will be directors who would benefit greatly from the strategic menus, where the content is geared more towards masterclasses and briefing papers. The idea is they can dip in and out and mix and match.'

The real value of the menus is in the detail. And while that detail was crafted by National Workforce Projects' capability and capacity team, it was also tested out on a range of workforce planners before being cemented.

Assistant director of workforce and modernisation at NHS North West, Mike Burgess, was one of the guinea pigs selected to give feedback on the draft plans. 'A menu that reaches across all NHS staff, from frontline staff, senior managers and executive directors, is a simple and very clever idea. Our consensus was that not only was it welcome but that it was much needed too. It's innovative marketing and a concept that will work,' he says.

Mike and others involved in workforce planning were involved in the drafts from the start. As the resource developed, their involvement shifted to looking at the quality of the menu products and resources on National Workforce Projects' web portal.

While normally used for posting news, resources and events, this portal is increasingly becoming a space to share information. Its aim is to enable shared learning. 'As part of the menu development, we've launched regional learning networks where people can post documents, join discussion forums and download templates,' says Liz. 'It's entirely up to the networks how they use their space, but the ambition is that they will grow and evolve to their needs.'

Finding its feet

For Damian Byrne, organisational development manager at Central Lancashire primary care trust, the menus will be his starting point when looking for professional support: 'I think they're really good. I've been around workforce planning for a while and I can see that the operational level is aimed more at me, but I can also see that I'll be interested in other items on the menus. My experience is that NHS workforce planning is still trying to find its feet. Giving it a more solid foundation in this way can only be a positive thing.'

At the other end of the country, the menus are underpinning NHS South West's workforce strategy, enabling the SHA to develop knowledge and skills at a range of levels throughout the region's trusts and PCTs.

NHS South West Interim director of workforce John Wolfe says: 'We'd just refreshed our strategy and were looking at three things: how we could establish support to help us do the detailed work, so we had consistent methodology, language and data; how we could support people who influenced [planning], but who weren't practitioners, and what support we could provide for board members, in particular non-executives who might not have the detailed knowledge but needed a level of understanding in order to help them fulfil their roles.

'The menus appeared just when we needed them, mapping perfectly into our own needs which we'd identified.'

So the early signs from people for whom the menus were developed are good but Liz is also keen to point out they are not a panacea for resolving all workforce planning issues. 'They are absolutely a great starting point, helping to shift thinking around workforce planning; taking it to a high-profile job in its own right as well as starting to address some of the issues raised in the Darzi review. We're confident we've got the basics, what we need to do now is continue to build on them.'

For more information on the development menus for workforce planning visit www.healthcareworkforce.nhs.uk.