January 2012 | 

Top Business Trends of 2012: Wharton Experts Weigh In

top trends 2012

What's new for 2012? Wharton faculty share insider perspectives on issues that could affect your organization and your career in the new year.

Simplifying Marketing Efforts

Marketing professor Z. John Zhang sees marketers going back to basics and moving away from elaborate, multi-layered, exotic marketing activities that unnecessarily complicate things and confuse consumers. "There has been a lot of pressure from ‘experts' who tell us that before making a purchase, the consumer does a Google search and price comparisons, reads blogs, looks for Groupon deals, and checks Facebook and Twitter. The trend in marketing for the past five years has been to respond to that pressure by adding layers of complications even to simple, low-involvement shopping activities. Many organizations have been diverting resources from traditional marketing to a number of new efforts, without knowing whether those efforts will help them attract or retain customers. It's become more complex than what is necessary. In 2012, many organizations will wisely use Occam's Razor and return their focus to traditional marketing as they assess consumer behavior and what really works."

Developing Future Leaders

Management professor Mike Useem identifies comprehensive and culturally specific talent management programs as an important development. "Developing leadership has fortunately become a significant initiative at many large companies in the major economies of North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. Top executives — and even non-executive directors on their governing boards — are becoming more directly involved in selecting, coaching, and building top talent for leading their enterprises both at home and abroad. What is especially impressive is the depth and comprehensiveness of many of these programs, touching almost every aspect of what it means to lead in uncertain, changing, and increasingly global markets."

Useem also observes that talent management is becoming more culturally specific. "You can't be a successful manager of a big public U.S. company if you can't achieve shareholder returns and explain them to your board and to the analyst community," he says, noting, "but that skill set is less important in India or China. In China, it's important to develop relationships with government officials, while in India the role of the leader in society is paramount. International companies are increasingly coming up with leadership development ideas that fit their own cultures."

Creating Multinational Teams

According to Jason Wingard, vice dean and adjunct professor of management, an ability to work on and build multinational teams will continue to grow in importance in 2012. "Executives need an understanding of the global economy to compete in foreign markets. Cultural understanding and language skills and are also vital, and there is evidence that the workforce is responding. The number of U.S. college students studying Arabic languages and Chinese is growing dramatically, for example.

"Cultural understanding is best achieved by a combination of education in global business and interpersonal customs as well as working with business leaders from other countries. Executive Education programs such as Global Strategic Leadership and Leading in Foreign Markets were designed to deliver that mix of education and experience. At Wharton we believe education must go beyond textbooks and include cross-cultural interaction. This is especially true for multinational teams; as the need for these teams continues to grow, businesses need leaders who understand the complexities of working across borders."

Leading an Exhausted Workforce

Greg Shea, adjunct professor of management, identifies the "sheer exhaustion of people" as a critical leadership issue in 2012. "Following the financial crisis, there were at least 10 months of terror, depending on your industry. We were at the precipice. That's been followed by at least three years of very difficult work. You had to paddle away from the edge of the waterfall, and then spend years paddling hard upstream not to get pulled back there. It's exhausting, and there is no relief in sight; these conditions will continue for a few more years."

How should leaders respond? Shea says that, first, you need to avoid the false assurance trap — the situation won't get better soon, so don't even offer it as a solution. "The second important point is pacing. When people are exhausted, it's not the time to demand more. Impose a realistic and manageable pace on people."