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10 Hot Leadership Topics for 2018

by Stephanie Neal

Note: You can see a list of our 10 Hot Leadership Topics for 2019 right here!

What are the most critical emerging trends for leaders to reckon with in 2018, and how will they shake up the workplace? According to top HR and leadership influencers, this will be a year that challenges leaders to increase the adoption—and impact—of new technologies that are developing at an increasingly fast rate.

Each year for the past three years we have analyzed social data from top influencers (listed at the end of this post) to reveal the big topics emerging in leadership as the new year begins. This year’s influencer trend data not only reveals the hottest topics now—pictured in yellow in the word cloud below—but also the topics that continue to rise (and rise) and those which are fizzling out based on performance over the past three years.

Topping the hot list for 2018 are these 10 topics, with the most mentions across social influencers and posts:

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI—the intelligence displayed by machines, including the processes of learning, reasoning, and self-correction—is a popular and divisive topic. The top posts and articles on the subject this year ranged from lauding the advancements and potential of AI, to praising interactions with increasingly convincing and lifelike chatbots, to questioning how the technology would impact people and their jobs.
  2. Data: Information contained in numbers or text—either as separate units, or combined to create a basis for analytics—has become an increasingly valuable commodity for companies as new technologies have provided faster ways to analyze and learn from data. Relying on quality data continues to be critical for improving decision making, gaining a better understanding of what motivates and engages employees and customers, and staying ahead of disruptive competitors.
  3. Robots: Machines programmed to independently carry out a complex series of actions, such as those employed in Amazon warehouses for locating and shipping items to customers, were a hot topic again on this year’s list. Popular opinion on their impact in the workplace is nearly interchangeable with AI—with mixed sentiment about how robots will either take over, replace, or improve jobs.
  4. Culture: Work culture, and the employee experience it evokes, continues to be a critical topic in recruiting and retaining talent. Whether or not a culture has been intentionally designed, it can either advance or disintegrate a company’s reputation and success, based on how well employees thrive (or don't) in their environment.
  5. Employee engagement: Top headlines on employee engagement this year might not indicate anything new—with levels of engagement always seeming to be reported at an all-time low. Yet influencers proved that through the oft-disheartening headlines, this is a timeless topic that is gaining a new focus with attention to creating better employee experiences and improving well-being.
  6. Analytics: Analytics has been a buzzword for years. It continues to be widely used, if often misunderstood, and continues to grow in popularity as organizations from businesses to sports teams have found ways to gain new knowledge from their data to help improve performance and be more successful.
  7. Automation: Automation—the method of making a machine, a process, or a system work without being directly controlled by a person—has recently become a hot topic, even though for centuries it has been used for nearly every type of manufacturing and assembly process. As technologies develop more quickly to automate new aspects of work and jobs, leaders must be mindful of its impact and how quickly people are required to adapt and change.
  8. Digital Transformation: In past years, the words “digital” and “transformation” have appeared on our list, but this is the first year that they were mentioned frequently and together. This signals a strong trend and interest in companies to transform their operations to match the technologies that continue to change their consumers’ and employees’ expectations.
  9. Diversity: Although it has been a hot topic before, focus on diversity as a workplace issue was further fueled this year by tribulations in the technology industry—including the now infamous Google memo. Beyond the controversial headlines, top influencers continued to tout the benefits of building and retaining diverse workplaces to drive innovation and business growth. Diversity promises to become even more relevant and important as organizations begin to take a fresh look at their approaches to leadership potential.
  10. Empathy: Amidst an increased presence of machines in our daily and work lives, the ability to understand and share others’ feelings remains uniquely human. Empathy will continue to be the standout leadership skill companies need to traverse the challenges that advanced technologies pose to people, employees and consumers.

Several of these hot topics are inextricably linked and will have a huge impact on how HR creates new employee experiences—including the application of AI-driven technologies to automate and personalize onboarding, feedback, and coaching.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) tops not only our hot list, but nearly every other key trends and technologies list, including the top position on Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends. AI applications may just be starting to take root within HR, but their influence is bound to increase significantly over the next several years. According to research from IDC, the market for AI will grow from $12 billion in 2017 to $57.6 billion by 2021.

Robots are in, Millennials are out?

Along with AI, two other related topics—Robots and Automation—have emerged just in the past two years, proving how quickly these technologies and their popularity are growing. As indicated by the trend data (pictured in blue) in the chart below, all three of these topics have risen from nearly zero mentions in 2016 to the top of the list this year.

On the flipside, several topics have decreased in popularity, and moved down the list—including discussion about Millennials. This may signal that influencers are moving beyond the generational hype to focus on core topics that will challenge all leaders, including the newest managers in the workforce. Based on the trends taking shape over the past few years, it’s clear that leaders of all ages will continue to face increasing disruption and technological change and will have to demonstrate greater adaptability to be successful.

Human Challenges Persist

The biggest surprise topic to emerge from analysis of social posts by influencers this year reflected current events—for the first time the word “harassment” was among the rising topics on our list. Even with a heavy focus on new technologies impacting the workplace, it’s undeniable that human challenges will persist. They provide opportunities for HR leaders and businesses to seek out technology solutions that can lead to positive change, reduce biases, and create better workplaces for everyone.

What does this mean for the future and how work will be transformed? No matter what the year ahead brings, it’s clear that leaders and businesses who will be most successful will be those who can reckon with the artificial and very real challenges they face—to strike a balance between technology and human.

20 Leadership and HR social influencers who contributed content for this analysis:   

Aadil Bandukwala @aadil
Abhijit Bhaduri @AbhijitBhaduri
Adam Grant @AdamMGrant
Bobby Raehan @raehanbobby
Cheryl Cran @cherylcran
Dave Ulrich @dave_ulrich
David D'Souza @dds180
David K. Williams @DavidKWilliams
Dion Hinchcliffe @dhinchcliffe
Jacob Morgan @jacobm
Jeanne Meister @jcmeister
Jim Stroud @jimstroud
Jon Ingham @joningham
Josh Bersin @Josh_Bersin
Lou Adler @LouA
Meghan Biro @meghanmbiro
Sharlyn Lauby @sharlyn_lauby
Stacy Donovan Zapar @StacyZapar
Steve Boese @SteveBoese
Suzanne Lucas @RealEvilHRLady

Stephanie Neal is a research consultant for the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). She conducts evaluation studies and research on leadership and talent in the workplace, and is a co-author of DDI's Global Leadership Forecast.

Learn more about how to unleash potential in your organization and download the new eBook, The Revolutionary Guide to Rethinking Leadership Potential.

Posted: 03 Jan, 2018,
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