Succession planning has rapidly emerged as a significant strategy for sustaining organizational health but recent data collected by ASTD indicates that succession planning in many organizations has fallen short of its goals.

Of the 45 percent of organizations that have a formal succession plan in place, senior leaders revealed that barriers - such as inadequate funding, weak development plans, and difficulty tracking performance - inhibited their efforts. Data revealed that 55 percent of the organizations surveyed do not have a formal plan in operation.

Despite the lingering effects of the sputtering economy that diverted attention to numerous short-term issues, succession planning was the most searched term on ASTD's website last year. It's safe to say that every learning professional knows that maintaining an active, prepared pipeline of qualified high-potentials is vital for his organization, but why do so many struggle to implement it?

ASTD investigated the topic with an in-depth study conducted in late 2009. In total, 1,247 high-level learning, HR, and other business professionals completed a survey on their succession planning practices. Many insightful findings from the study help explain the challenges faced in this area.

In the first place, many organizations have failed to formally activate a succession planning process. The research team defined succession planning as "the process of identifying key positions, candidates, and employees needed to meet the challenges that an organization faces in the short term and in the long term." Only 45 percent of respondents indicated their organization has a formal process matching the definition. Consequently, senior leaders have adopted other tactics to manage succession planning. Among the organizations that admitted not having a formal process, more than half reported relying on an informal approach to succession planning.

Despite a self-professed lack of action from many organizations, the perceived importance of succession planning clearly emerged from the data. The most popular driver of succession planning is to identify and prepare future leaders (87 percent cited this as a driver). The second-most cited reason was to assure business continuity (74 percent). These results demonstrate that for many organizations, succession planning is predominantly about the future health of the organization.

Additionally, the respondents indicated that talent management drivers were important factors as well. Creating opportunities for internal advancement was cited by nearly two-thirds of respondents. Half of the respondents identified addressing projected talent shortages and aiding retention as drivers.

Although the connection between succession planning and long-term organizational health is readily apparent, many executives openly acknowledged limitations with their efforts. The research team found large gaps between the actions companies are currently taking and the actions they believe they should be taking.

One encouraging take on these findings is the fact that senior leaders recognize the steps needed to achieve their goals with succession plans. Various options do exist for improvements in planning effectiveness. Learning professionals have tremendous potential to define new and strategic roles in charting the course for future success.