Talent Management Column Trendspotting: 2013 Edition

While creating forecasts is never an iron-clad proposition, a perusal of others' HR predictions for 2013 can yield some intriguing conclusions.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013
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It's that time when we pause for at least half a second to think about what will be different at work this year. Forecasts are notoriously unreliable, and I have no confidence in my own ability to predict the future (among other things, I thought this economic downturn would have been over years ago). So instead of making my own, I read many of the 100 or so lists of top HR developments and predictions for 2013.

There is a little saying among forecasters that they will make any forecast you'd like as long as they don't have to tell you when it will come true. We can certainly see that as we read many of the predictions that have made many of the lists for 2013: Social media will get hot, as will analytics and there will be more pressure to control costs and to demonstrate a return on HR investments. These were also predictions for 2012, 2011, 2010, and probably the decade before as well. That doesn't mean they are wrong. It is a reminder that the important developments tend to play out over a very long period of time and are rarely "new" in the sense that we've never seen them before. 

Of course, a slow increase in the economy as a whole is likely caused by very sharp changes within individual employers: A few companies that move from using no recruiting technology to being fully automated, for example. If you are in one of those companies, the change is not gradual, it is a revolution. So, even slow trends matter.

Given that, here are some of the more interesting predictions for 2013. First, from PricewaterhouseCoopers: recognition that concern about baby boomers retiring has been overblown and will not turn out to be -- in the long run -- a big issue; and that, while most employers have raised their talent level through hiring in the economic downturn, there is a big problem pertaining to the disengagement of burnt-out employees who survived the layoff waves.  

They also point out that employers have shifted away from the trend of a few years back of hiring young, cheap but inexperienced workers to fill vacancies and toward acquiring experienced workers already employed elsewhere. If we assume this development continues, it will create artificial labor shortages (by definition, not every vacancy can be filled by those already doing the same job elsewhere) and unemployment among school leavers and career switchers. Perhaps their most controversial conclusion is that returns on HR investments have started to decline, which will create pressure to cut back on those investments, the opposite of what most others are predicting.  

Deloitte also has some interesting projections based on responses from HR departments. They find that building leadership capability is the top priority for these departments, only slightly ahead of improving employee engagement. The question is whether there will be any money to do anything new here. 

Particularly in a period of tight budgets and limited staff, will there really be the will to push back on the practices that have eroded employee engagement or to force line managers to take leadership development seriously? Deloitte's data shows that although HR budgets on balance may go up a bit, the rise is likely to be slower than in the past.

There seems to be considerable consensus that wages across the board will rise by about 2.9 percent this year.

Here are my own guesses about which of the HR trends are most likely to lead to some surprising outcomes:

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*           The rise of big data: Many of the lists predict that HR will start making use of the big data sets that are already sitting in their organizations to innovate in HR.  I doubt it.  The reason is that getting the different sets of data together and then learning things from them requires a very high level of expertise that few organizations have.  Vendors may have an opportunity to exploit this gap in expertise if they can somehow persuade top executives to pay for it.

*           Workplace violence: The Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., was a workplace, as was many of the locations where other shooting massacres have taken place. Homicides account for 10 percent of all the deaths in U.S. workplaces. If gun violence and gun control policy continue to get attention, someone in leadership is likely to ask if our organization has a workplace violence policy in place.  By some measures only about 1 in 3 do, so the answer is likely to be no, and the pressure will be on to do something about it fast.

*           The hottest issue: The top eight fastest-growing companies in the Inc. ranking of HR companies are in the staffing business. Hiring and staffing is, and will continue to be, where HR's resources go.


Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.


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