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Sloan Center News

When We Look Back, What Will We Say About Lessons Learned?

30 November 2009—When our children were young, my husband and I took them to living history museums. We encouraged them to absorb interesting facts. More important, we urged them to ponder what they might glean from the social, economic and political lessons of history.

Honestly, I had never given much thought about the ways leaders of the contemporary workplace could examine different “history-making” decision processes as a way to gain a better understanding of “history-in-the-making.” Last weekend, during a conversation about the historical import of current events, one family member made the observation that military leaders often engage in purposeful strategy debriefs so that they are more ready for the next situation. The metaphors of military readiness are set in the realities of military action. For example, military leaders are trained extensively in ways to “read the terrain,” both literally and metaphorically.

It is incumbent on leaders at the workplace to read the terrain of today’s business environment, applying lessons learned from the past to the complexities (some might say “chaos”) that characterize today’s business realities. The Great Recession of the 21st century and the dramatic shifts in the age demographics of the workforce are two factors that are shaping tomorrow’s history at the workplace.

Although every historical situation is unique in some way, historians would remind us that patterns and trends can provide clues for the analysis of current situations. In the past, we have been through periods of recession, and there are lessons about organizations that have emerged as innovators when these recessions ended. Similarly, the history of this country has been significantly influenced by shifts in population demographics. In some cases, these changes have been a catalyst for very positive changes.

As employers are reading the terrain of today’s business environment, what do they see?

Findings from the 2009 Talent Management Study, recently completed by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, has found that few employers have adopted strategies that could help them to capitalize on some of the opportunities associated with the aging of the workforce. For example: 68% of employers surveyed had not analyzed at all or to a limited extent, the demographics of their workforce; 77% had neither analyzed projected retirement rates, nor assessed employee plans and work purposes; 64% had not developed succession plans; and 50% had neither assessed competency sets nor supervisors’ abilities to anticipate and plan for staffing needs.

If employers turn their attention away from the new age demographics, they may run the risk of mis-reading the business terrain and missing an opportunity for developing a competitive advantage. Of course, only history will tell.