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Forecasts for the 2008 Workplace

Okay, forecast is too strong a word. Prediction is even more precarious. So let's speak the truth and just call them educated guesses. Here's some of the best current thinking about what's likely to happen in 2008 in regard to workforce issues:

Productivity ho! If the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) didn't think productivity would continue to be a major issue for the future, of course, we'd never have embedded it into the name of our company. Even so, there are some good reasons to think this is going to be an even higher priority in 2008.

With the exception of the latest quarterly data, the U.S. has seen dismal productivity growth recently. In fact, 2006 saw the lowest U.S. productivity rate increases since 1995, and the first half of 2007 was worse than the first half of 2006 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2007). In the meantime, global competition is heating up in the area of productivity. Privately owned technology firms in China, for instance, have seen large gains in productivity in recent years, managing to nearly match the levels of their foreign competitors operating in that nation. Companies are also going to worry, at least in the short term, about the possibility of economic sluggishness partly brought on by a housing downturn and the subprime mortgage mess.

This all adds to up to the idea that companies will want to improve their productivity performance as they strive to ensure that every employee is working as efficiently as possible. Companies might also become more cautious about making new hires in the current climate even as they focus more intensely on issues such as performance management. In fact, a whopping 95% of 157 HR professionals surveyed by Human Resource Executive and ERC Dataplus said that, over the next 24 months, performance management will be either very important or important ("Taking the Pulse," 2007).

A growing focus on legacies as well as retirements. When the experts talk about the Baby Boomers retiring from the workforce, they tend to discuss the skills that will be lost, the need for knowledge transfer, and methods that they can use to retain Boomers longer or lure them back into the workforce. In 2008, future-oriented employers will think harder about these issues as part of a growing trend. For example, a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that, in preparation for impending retirements, more employers than just a couple of years ago are starting to "examine internal practices and management practices" (Cadrain 2007).

But many of those hard-working Boomers, especially the top achievers, have a more immediate issue to consider: What will they be leaving behind? When i4cp conducted its Leader Legacy Survey in September 2007, it found that the large majority—86%—of the 210 respondents believe that leaving a professional legacy is a high or very high priority. In 2008, this question will loom larger as the Boomers—many of whom are in the highest corporate positions they're likely to achieve—endeavor to leave behind professional legacies of which they can be proud.

Acquisitions of U.S. firms. The Transaction Services group of PricewaterhouseCoopers (2007) predicts that mergers and acquisitions activity in 2008 will be driven by corporate and foreign buyers. The group also predicts that there will be a rise in the number of international buyers coming into the U.S. "[T]he downturn in mega-deals by private equity will be offset by an increase in international buyers coming into the U.S. to take advantage of a continued weaker dollar. We also believe that more traditional private equity transactions will build momentum as 2008 progresses," noted Bob Filek, a partner in the group.

Retaining and developing talent. A 2007 i4cp Talent Management survey found that most of 524 respondents do not believe their companies are especially good at talent management. That's a problem companies will work to address in 2008. In fact, among the top priorities of high-level HR executives over the next two years will be retaining talent and developing leaders, indicates a study by Human Resource Executive and ERC Dataplus ("Taking the Pulse," 2007).

The i4cp survey results clearly show that leadership development is the single most widely cited component of talent management. Other i4cp data shows that two-thirds of companies plan to restructure their succession management programs in the near future as well. The bottom line is that many organizations will be focused not only on developing talent but also on systems for tracking talent and planning how it will be used.

Taking on multitasking. The need to address productivity issues related to multitasking will grow. "There's substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically ... what's really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing," explains Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (Wallis 2006). Yet, in today's complex, highly collaborative workplace, the desire to try to multitask is stronger than ever. In 2008, employers will focus more on tools and strategies for addressing this problem.

Tackling skills and knowledge deficits among young people. In the U.S., worker skill levels will become a rising concern, especially in terms of reading abilities. The "Nation's Report Card," issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, found that there was a six-point decline in average 12th-grade reading scores between 1992 and 2005. Some experts are concerned we may be moving into a postliterate era.

Employers will increasingly need to consider ways of addressing this issue. This may entail providing or funding remedial education in reading, initiating programs that encourage reading (book clubs, etc.), or turning to technologies that allow young people to learn. In fact, some experts believe that a whole new approach to learning is in order, one geared toward the interests and habits of a generation growing up in a multimedia entertainment universe. "As human resource executives and chief learning officers, we will be left behind if we remain tied to our linear production model of instructional design," writes Jeanne Meister (2007), author of Corporate Universities. "As we look into our crystal ball, we begin to see that the lines will blur between learning, working, communicating and entertaining, with learning being embedded in all the devices we now use in our daily lives...."

Staying agile and resilient. Above all else, organizations must continue to be adaptable in 2008. They'll not only need to be agile enough to move quickly toward new opportunities, they'll need to be tough and resilient enough to take a hit, whether that's in the form of an economic slump, a strong new competitor, or a radical change in the market. After all, by far the safest forecast for 2008 is that a lot of unexpected things are going to happen. Organizations and executives can take that one to the bank. 

References:

Cadrain, Diane. "Employers Prepare to Keep, Not Lose, Baby Boomers." 2008 HR Trendbook. Supplement to HRMagazine. 2007.

Meister, Jeanne. "Web-Based Corporate Learning Takes Off." Human Resource Executive, November 19, 2007, pp. 15–17.

"PricewaterhouseCoopers Outlook: Disruption in the U.S. Credit Markets to Create Some Favorable Valuation Opportunities for Buyers in 2008; U.S. M&A Fueled by Corporate and Cross-Border Activity." PR Newswire. December 12, 2007.

"Taking the Pulse." Human Resource Executive, November 19, 2007, pp. 8–10.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Major Sector Productivity and Costs Index." 2007.

Wallis, Claudia. "The Multitasking Generation." TIME. ProQuest. March 27, 2006.