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2019 HCM Trends & Forecasts

by Steven Hunt and Lauren Bidwell

After reading multiple lists of human capital management (HCM) forecasts, trends and predictions, we are happy to announce the results of the 2019 “Wine Bottle Index” (WBI). This is the fourth study in what has become an annual event where we summarize predictions published by HR thought leaders, consulting firms, and industry associations. The focus is on articles with titles like “10 things in HCM to watch for”, “3 major changes affecting HR”, or “the top 5 talent management trends”. We categorize the predictions based on similar themes and concepts and then rate them based on whether they address well-established vs. novel challenges (old vs. new wine) and involve use of familiar vs. innovative solutions (old vs. new bottles).

The first review was completed in 2016 and categorized 131 predictions from 20 articles. The 2017 review categorized 130 predictions and observations from 21 articles and introduced the “wine bottle index” (WBI). The 2018 study summarized 176 predictions from 29 articles. This year we identified 176 predictions from 23 articles.

This year’s predictions fell into 19 general categories. Figure 1 (below) plots these predictions using their WBI scores. The score involves two ratings ranging from 1 to 5, with one being “very old” and five being “very new”:

  • New vs Old wine. Is this a new problem companies have not focused on before, or is it an older problem that’s been around for years but perhaps was not as important in the past?
  • New vs Old Bottle. Are the tools being used to address the problem leveraging new techniques and technologies? Or are companies using methods similar to things used in the past?

The color of the bottles reflects the number of predictions that fell into a category. Jeroboam of Cabernet Sauvignon: more than 15 predictions fell into these big, bold, substantive categories. Magnum of Pinot Noir: containing 10 to 15 predictions, these categories are complex but not overpowering. Liter of Merlot: with 6 to 10 predictions, these categories are significant yet not particularly strong. Split of Sauvignon Blanc: containing the minimum of 5 predictions needed to form a category, these are interesting and unique but may have limited staying power.  More detailed descriptions of all 19 categories and an explanation of their Wine Bottle Index (WBI) Rating is provided in the next section.

Here are some of the more interesting findings from this year’s study:

  • “Experience Management” and “Team Management” are the hot topics of 2019. Most forecasts highlighted the need to provide employees with simpler, more enjoyable work environments, as well as the need to provide better tools to support agile, dynamic teams. These trends are some of the newest changes to emerge since we started compiling the WBI in 2016. To be clear, there is nothing new about “work experience” or “team management”. What is new however is how companies are defining these concepts, the focus being placed on them, and the solutions being developed to address them.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are still present but less prominent. Increased use of AI/ML was the dominant trend in 2018. In 2019 the trend is still mentioned, but usually in the context of predictions around the development of Embedded Analytics in HCM processes and deployment of Data Driven Staffing methods. In sum, AI/ML are starting to be viewed as simply another tool, albeit a powerful one, that companies use to enable automation and interpret data.
  • Cooperating instead of competing with job automation. Many forecasts discussed the need to help employees adapt to the digitalization of work. The categories “Skills Management”, “Wholistic Development”, and “Job Automation” were all discussed in the context of helping employees co-exist with work technology. This is a shift from previous years when predictions often focused more on employees being entirely replaced by automation.
  • Skills management is starting to reach a critical level. People have been discussing the growing skills shortage for years.  Yet companies struggle to identify, track and develop skills within their organizations at even very basic levels. Based on this year’s forecasts, this may finally change. But it will require more innovation before we have technology that truly does skills management justice.

A detailed description of each category and an explanation of its Wine Bottle Index rating is provided below.

Figure 1. 2019 Wine Bottle Index Results

Detailed summary of 2019 Wine Bottle Index trends

Table 1 lists all 19 trends identified in this year’s WBI study.  The trends are listed in order from most to least prevalent.  It also shows how these trends roughly compare to trends from previous WBI studies. We purposefully avoid retrofitting this year’s predictions onto categories from previous years. However, it should be no surprise that many of the trends we identified this year look like trends from previous years. The whole concept of the WBI is rooted in part in the belief that when it comes to HCM, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”! A more detailed discussion of each of the trends is provided below.

2019 2018 2017 2016
Experience Management Improving the Employee Experience Technology Enabled HCM/Easier HR

Team management tools

Tools for Teams

Improving Collaboration/ Virtual Organizations 

Embedded and Linked Analytics

AI/Machine Learning /Increasing HR Analytics

AI, Machine Learning and Predictive Analytics

Data Driven Decision Making/Workforce Analytics

Diversity and Inclusion/ Rethinking Retirement

Workforce Inclusion

Embracing Diversity/Workforce Aging

Skills management

Growing Skill Shortage

Data driven staffing

Greater Staffing Complexity

Purposeful Engagement

Creating Engaging Cultures

Culture and Engagement Employee Retention Hiring for Potential and Culture

Wholistic Development   

Creating Employee Development Culture

Manager Development

Humanizing Job Automation

Managing Job Automation

Integrated HR

HR Driven Technology Innovation

Digitalization of Human Resource Functions

HCC Transformation Business/ Oriented Human Resources 

Engaging External Workers

Developing HCM methods for Contractors

Flexible organization design

More Flexible Work Arrangement

Fluid work arrangements Flexible Work Models

Real time, continuous coaching

Performance Management Evolution/Better feedback 

Performance Management Transformation Continuous Coaching

Active Recruiting of Passive Candidates

Managing Employer Brand

Recruiting Marketing/ Developing Talent Pools


Increased Focus on Well-Being

Workforce Health and Well-Being

Providing Effective Healthcare

Artificially Intelligent Managers


Organizational Agility

Transforming Organizational Structure

Compensation Transparency

Transforming Compensation and Rewards Employee Recognition/Organizational Transparency Measuring and Rewarding Performance

Building Employee Trust

Managing Cyber Security Risks
Growing Legal Challenges Employment Legislation  HR Legislation
More Accessible Learning Content
Continued to Shift to the Cloud

Table 1: 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016 Prediction Categories

Experience Management

Companies will invest in efforts to create work experiences that fit the unique preferences and work styles of employees. This includes allowing employees to structure jobs and work schedules around their lifestyles and interests, rather than forcing all employees to conform to a “one size fits all” job structure. It also involves giving employees tools and technology at work that are as easy and intuitive to use as the “consumer grade” tools they use at home. Greater care will be taken to eliminate or redesign tools or processes that employees perceive as a waste of time. The goal is to create jobs where people are excited to come to work each day, and where each hour at work feels like an hour well spent. Experience management technology will eventually become a mainstream part of HCM.

WBI Rating 4/5: The concept of providing a great place to work is not new. What is new is the emphasis placed on creating enjoyable and efficient work environments that respect and appreciate the value of employees’ time and skills. Also, the growing willingness to let employees craft jobs to fit their preferences, rather than forcing every employee to conform to the same standardized job description. The extensive use of advanced automation and experience measurement tools to do this is also very new. It will be fascinating to see how this trend evolves over the coming years.

Team management tools

The increasing reliance on dynamic, agile team structures to get work done will trigger greater investment in the creation and use of technology built specifically to support team management. This includes tools to make virtual team members feel connected and included with their onsite colleagues, organizational network analysis (ONA) tools to assess and nurture team relationships, and team-based performance management and goal setting tools. Companies will more actively manage the use of team collaboration tools, taking care to ensure teams are using tools that maximize efficiency and knowledge sharing while minimizing excess noise and non-productive chatter.

WBI Rating 2/4: There is nothing new about teams. People have been forming teams of one sort or another since the dawn of agrarian societies, and probably well before. The concept of “agile teams” is mildly new in some organizations, although the concept came into existence about 20 years ago. What is new related to teams today is the emphasis on rethinking talent management methods and communication technologies to focus specifically on groups rather than individuals. And the idea that providing collaboration tools alone is not enough – companies need to make sure these tools are actually driving productive collaboration.

Embedded and linked analytics

As companies increasingly leverage the masses of data generated by digitalized business methods, they will move beyond conducting analytics outside of work and look for ways to embed analytics directly into work systems and processes. The core concept is to put analytically-driven “suggestions” and “nudges” into HCM systems and other work tools to encourage specific behaviors or influence decision-making. There will also be more focus on linking HR analytics across business systems, tying together information about workforce composition and performance, business productivity, sales volumes and customer satisfaction.

WBI Rating 4/5: The concept of analytics is certainly not new. But using technology to embed analytics into other systems to provide real-time insights into decisions and actions in the moment takes us into new and potentially highly fruitful territory. Linking HR analytics to other types of business data is also a concept that dates back 20 years, but the development of technology that does this automatically has the potential to enable companies to finally measure and manage employees as assets instead of costs.


The need to build inclusive cultures will become more important than focusing merely on diversity. Age- and gender-supportive staffing and management practices will become critical to attracting talent with necessary skills and capabilities. Advanced analytics will be used to find potential sources of bias and to help reduce adverse hiring and pay practices, ideally identifying and addressing bias before it happens.

WBI Rating 2/3: Companies have been wrestling with diversity and inclusion for decades. What is new in this area is an increasing focus on ageism becoming a major issue due to the aging population of the labor force, and the emphasis on implementing inclusive talent methods as the best way to encourage diversity, rather than focusing on diversity numbers alone. This focus on inclusion instead of diversity, while not radically new, is a critical shift in mindset. A company culture can be inclusive even if it is not diverse due to differences in talent found in the external labor market. A company can also become diverse through use of quotas and numeric targets without being inclusive, resulting in cultures that are toxic to employees of all types.

Skills management

The focus of organizational design will shift from designing and staffing jobs, to identifying and helping people build the skills they need to perform specialized tasks. Companies will increasingly struggle to find people with the expertise needed to perform roles created by the digitalization of work. This will trigger innovation around data mining methods used to determine what skills are required to support changing business operations, advanced recruiting methods to help find people based on specific skill levels, and the creation of more effective learning technology to help employees rapidly build new skills.

WBI Rating 3/2: Skills management is a perennial problem in companies, particularly in industries where people must possess specific qualifications and capabilities to run business operations (e.g., healthcare, manufacturing, energy). This problem is starting to reach critical levels due to specialization created by the digitalization of work and growing labor shortages associated with aging workforces. What is particularly new in this area is a focus on individual skills rather than jobs as the primary unit of analysis. We wish we could give this trend a higher “bottle” rating as we desperately need better skills management technology. Sadly, this technology still remains in the category of “future aspirations” rather than existing innovations.

Data-driven staffing

Advanced analytical algorithms such as AI will gain widespread use, matching people to jobs based on specific skill requirements, candidate expertise, and candidate interest. In addition to looking at external candidate data, companies will start to amass large datasets providing insights into the skills and capabilities of their existing workforce in order to support internal job transfers. Recruiting systems will also start tracking data in real-time to ensure they are providing candidates with an engaging applicant experience.

WBI Rating 2/3: Companies have been using AI and other advanced analytic methods to guide staffing selection decisions since the late 20th century. However, we are seeing more widespread use of these methods as the algorithms become increasingly faster and effective. There is also growing application of these methods to new areas such as internal job transfers, restructurings, and candidate sourcing.

Purposeful engagement

Purpose will become the most critical part of engagement in coming years. Companies will work to ensure employees do not just understand what they are supposed to do, but also appreciate why it is important at a personal and societal level. Purposeful work will be viewed as key for attracting talent, and for helping employees stay focused and motivated in the face of increasing levels of change.

WBI Rating 2/2: The concept of purpose-driven work is not new, although it used to go by different names such as “mission-driven” or “engaged”.  What is changing are the reasons purpose-driven work is so important. In the past, purpose was mainly talked about in the context of talent retention and productivity. Today, it is about resilience. Having a sense of purpose enables people to more effectively stay focused and manage stress during times of change. The more things change, the more important having a sense of purpose becomes. The best way to accomplish this is through good leadership, an old technique that is still sadly lacking in many companies.

Wholistic development

Companies will move away from training-based development and embrace designing jobs to promote development through stretch assignments and creating learning cultures. Technology and advanced analytics will be used to embed feedback into work, support career pathing, and support mentoring and other forms of learning partnerships. Increasing emphasis will also be placed on engaging older workers to support lifelong development.

WBI Rating 1/4:  The value of developing people through job assignments rather than training has been well established since the 1990s. What is changing today are the array of tools and methods available to support job-driven development. This includes tools to design jobs with development in mind, technology that helps establish learning relationships at work, and systems that provide in-role feedback to increase learning from experience.

Humanizing job automation

As automation continues to permeate every aspect of work, companies will increasingly think about automation not in terms of “job elimination” but as a form of “job transformation”. Technology is primarily used to simplify work by automating repetitive, time-consuming, dangerous, or extremely complex tasks. But humans are still needed to design, manage, and guide these machines. What companies must get better at is envisioning the ideal role of humans in an increasingly automated world. And guiding employees on how to maximize their value and impact in a world where work is done in partnership with technology, not in competition with it.

WBI Rating 2/3: The move toward work automation dates back to the industrial revolution. The thing about this trend that might be considered “new” is the amazing number of jobs that can be automated using modern technology.  What is also somewhat new is an increasing acceptance of automation as an inevitable reality. Somewhat like how people living in Minnesota approach winter weather, automation is something to be understood, respected and adapted to; not something to be ignored, feared and resisted.

Integrated HR

Human resource technology and human resource departments will become ever more integrated. The traditional siloed functions of staffing, development, and compensation will steadily blend into one multifaceted system that combines a variety of large systems and small apps. Many HR processes will be supported by technology from publicly available systems used for communication and collaboration inside and outside the company. HR professionals and departments will have to develop integrated skill sets and structures to effectively support this more blended approach.

WBI Rating 2/2: The move to more integrated HR methods has been going on since the late 1990s. Fueled by advances in HCM technology, companies are breaking down traditional HR silos to focus on creating meaningful workforce change rather than managing administrative processes. One particularly novel aspect of this trend is the growing use of publicly available technology solutions that employees access directly outside of a company’s in-house HR/IT systems.

Engaging external workers

The use of contingent and contractor employees will continue to increase. Freelance employees will become critical to staffing skilled positions, while contingent employees will be crucial to enabling companies to quickly ramp headcount up and down in response to changing business conditions. Companies will stop treating external workers as “resources to be procured” and start managing them as valued talent that needs to be actively recruited, developed and engaged.

WBI Rating 3/4: The trend toward greater use of external workers has been quietly growing for the past ten years. It is now starting to reach an inflection point. Companies are awakening to the reality that their business success depends on the ability to attract, engage and retain employees who do not actually work for them. This is forcing companies to address complex cultural and legal challenges associated with managing a blended workforce of full-time, contingent and freelance workers, each with their own set of career motives, legal regulations, and talent management concerns.

Flexible organization design

Companies must get far better at managing frequently changing job and team structures. This includes addressing concerns related to team bonding, collaboration and work-life balance. Employing remote workers and managing virtual teams will become the norm instead of the exception. And flexible job design will shift from being viewed as a perk to becoming an expectation.

WBI Rating 3/1: The need for more flexible organizational designs has been a steady theme for over a decade. One somewhat new aspect to this theme is the growing focus on methods designed to help employees craft jobs that fit their preferences. There is also increasing attention being paid to the impact that restructuring companies has on work relationships and team dynamics. What is unfortunately still missing are innovative tools that help companies effectively plan, conduct and manage restructurings. Sadly, the hierarchical org chart and Excel spreadsheet continue to be the primary tools used to manage organizational restructurings.

Real time, continuous coaching

Companies will put increased emphasis on providing employees with real-time, data-driven coaching. Technology will also be used to support managers in providing continuous performance coaching. More attention will be given to tracking the quality of coaching that employees receive from their managers and others in the company. Analytic systems will be used to collect and deliver empirical insights on an ongoing basis, so employees have a better understanding of their performance and how their actions are impacting business outcomes, coworker relationships, and customer attitudes.

WBI Rating 3/4: This is a continuation of the transformation in performance management that first started around 2012 when companies began thinking beyond annual performance reviews. The newest innovation in this area is creating automated tools to give employees real-time, data-driven feedback. The innovation that is needed but has yet to happen, is for companies to get serious about assessing, supporting and rewarding managers who put effort into supporting the career development of their employees. Currently managers are often punished for developing employees by companies that fail to backfill roles left vacant when managers promote their direct reports.

Active recruiting of passive candidates

Companies will invest in a variety of methods to more actively build brand awareness among potential candidates. Some will go beyond traditional employee referral programs and start training employees on how to build the company’s employment brand through social media and other channels. Technology will be created to identify opportunities to “nudge” high potential candidates, shifting them from passive to active status.

WBI Rating 2/4: This is a continuation of a trend to more actively build candidate pools that dates to the “recruiting marketing” concept that first emerged around 2010. It is driven by the recognition that the quality of who a company hires depends entirely on the quality of who applies. And that in tight labor markets, companies cannot simply “attract” highly skilled candidates. They may have to seek them out and pry them loose from their current roles. One innovation in this area is the concept of using technology to identify when candidates might be interested in other roles and then give them targeted communication to encourage them to make a move. Another is the idea of training employees to be recruiters.


There will be steady growth in the creation of well-being programs to help employees manage the stress brought on by the accelerating pace of change caused by digitalization. Financial and mental well-being will become as important for companies to pay attention to as physical well-being. Emphasis will be placed on using talent management methods and job design to create supportive, psychologically safe work cultures.

WBI Rating 3/3: This trend started around 2015 when companies began to realize the stress of an “always on”, 24/7, hyper-changing digitalized world was burning employees out and driving increased health and stress-related costs. Put another way, it is hard to expect employees to be engaged, creative and service-oriented when they are exhausted, overwhelmed and distracted. There are some interesting new technologies built to support employee wellbeing available today, but companies have still not fully embraced the idea that the best way to improve employee wellbeing is to promote, develop and reward leaders based on their ability to create supportive work environments.

Artificially intelligent managers

A small but notable number of predictions this year envisioned managerial tasks to be increasingly performed by AI systems. This included delivering performance feedback and making decisions about workforce scheduling. However, caution is advised around the risks of using computers to perform managerial tasks that require some level of human empathy to be done well.

WBI Rating 4/2: From an optimistic perspective, this could be a new trend to use technology to relieve managers from administrative tasks that do not require a lot of human empathy or creativity. Viewed pessimistically, however, this is just a new name for “employee self-service” where companies use technology to reduce administrative headcount costs by forcing managers and employees to perform bureaucratic activities that used to be done by HR support staff. We will see….

Organizational agility

To quote one of the predictions we reviewed, “transform or die!”. Companies will need to continuously adapt their workforces and talent management practices to cope with the accelerating pace of change found in a digitalized world. Emphasis must be placed on changing mindsets as much as changing methods, paying more attention to customer needs and encouraging employees to rapidly try, test and when necessary, discard new technology, techniques and tools.

WBI Rating 2/2: It is somewhat interesting that relatively few forecasts mentioned organizational agility given how much business leaders talk about it. Perhaps it is because the need for more agile organization is no longer something that is going to happen – it is something that already has happened. There is not much new being discussed related to this concept, other than the growing recognition that agility is more about internal mindset then it is about external tools and processes.  

Compensation transparency

Companies will come under increasing pressure to explain why they pay some employees more than others. Pay data will start to become public as a result of regulations requiring companies to demonstrate pay equity and growing use of online sites where employees can publicly share and review pay levels. Forward-looking companies will embrace this move to transparency as an opportunity for greater dialogue with employees about how they want to be paid, including exploring more tailored reward strategies that include non-traditional compensation components such as housing allowances, education or flextime.

WBI Rating 5/1: This trend has slowly crept up on employers and is now hitting a turning point. For the past ten years, online sites have been emerging where employees can get detailed data about pay level in different companies. Whether this data is accurate is somewhat irrelevant; if employees believe it is accurate, it will shape their perceptions of equity and fairness. On top of this are social movements in many countries to drive pay equity by requiring companies to post salary levels publicly. As a result, companies who used to keep pay data secret are suddenly being forced to explain how they make compensation decisions. This can be challenging for two reasons. First, it is far easier to demotivate people with pay than to motivate them. Second, a lot of companies’ pay decisions are based not on legitimate employee contributions, but rather on employee negotiation skills, manager leniency, and the prevailing labor market conditions when they were hired. What is sorely lacking in this area are new tools or technology that will help companies manage these difficult conversations.

Building employee trust

Corporate scandals and data privacy leaks will steadily undermine employee trust in organizations. Because trust forms the basis for collaboration and knowledge sharing, companies will have to put increasing effort into demonstrating that they are treating employee data appropriately and being open and honest with employees when addressing culturally sensitive issues. A sub-theme in this area is the need for better cyber security as company and employee data becomes an increasing target by criminals.

WBI Rating 1/3: Trust is far from a new trend. Union movements of the early 20th century were rooted in distrust of company leadership. And professional employees have not trusted companies since the promise of job security was blown up by the corporate downsizing wave of the late 1980s. What is new related to this trend is the role that data privacy plays in establishing trust. The GDPR regulations in Europe are in part a reaction to employees not trusting employers to use their data in an appropriate manner. What will be interesting to see is whether regulations like GDPR will gain traction in other parts of the world. The answer probably depends on whether companies demonstrate good data stewardship. It only takes one major company scandal to mobilize an entire nation to change its laws.

About the Author

Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR
Senior Vice President, Human Capital Management Research

Dr. Steven Hunt's role at SAP SuccessFactors is focused on guiding the development and implementation of technology-enabled solutions to maximize workforce engagement and productivity.

Lauren Bidwell, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Human Capital Management Research

Dr. Lauren Bidwell is an Experimental Psychologist with a specialization in Decision Making research. Her role involves driving innovative thinking and best practices around talent management and the use of technology to support effective talent decisions. Lauren has engaged with dozens of customer organizations around the world and is an active author and presenter.

About SAP HR Research

Our research team advances the art and science of Human Capital Management by studying the relationship between technology, workforce psychology, and business performance. Our researchers and psychologists uncover trends to keep you on the cutting-edge of technology and thought leadership – and help shape the design of SAP SuccessFactors HCM software.

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