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Trend Watch 2001

“Trend Watch 2001”

9 forces that will shape your company’s future.

In the information age, you need more than Palm Pilots and cell phones to stay connected. It’s crucial to plug into the world as well as your office. What’s happening in healthcare, the environment, the arts and even pop culture can impact everything from consumer demand to your office atmosphere.

Trends are clues to the future and links to business stability and profitability. The competitive edge will go to the companies that identify trends — and respond to them.

1. Power surges

Trend: Energy issues heat up. Due to deregulation of utility companies in most states, utility prices have spiked. Governments will debate whether utility companies should be re-regulated. That won’t happen, but expect prices to remain high until energy providers find a way to revamp distribution to meet escalating demand.

Energy distribution will be a problem, particularly in the Western states. New power plants won’t be online until 2002.

An energy crisis looms, but don’t expect to feel adverse effects until next year. In the long run, energy innovations will provide a sustainable energy source.

Action: Pay attention to rising utility bills. As energy prices increase, so does overhead. Look for ways to conserve. Also be prepared for brownouts as a result of inadequate energy distribution, and make sure that computers and other equipment are protected against power surges.

If you’re on the brink of a new energy source or process, now is the time for aggressive development or marketing.

2. Edible engineering

Trend: Biotechnology will bloom. Watch for dramatic innovations in this field, including chemically engineered food, patient-specific pharmaceuticals, gene therapy and even genetically engineered organs that someday will replace live-organ transplants. Innovations in this industry will change what we eat, how we treat illness and how we evolve as a civilization.

Action: If you play the stock market, biotech stocks will be among the best investments. Jobs abound for researchers, product engineers and scientists.

But some of the greatest opportunities lie in the selling, packaging and distribution of these chemically engineered products. Product development is underway, but skepticism is rampant. Consumers are already rebelling against the prospect of chemically engineered food.

Software and computer companies can also jump on the biotech bandwagon. Computers are critical to speed up the process of biotech development, research and testing. In fact, anything that accelerates the biotech push will be rewarded.

3. Privacy police

Trend: Secrets will be even harder to keep in 2001 and beyond. Peeping Toms will further invade personal privacy on the Web, pulling off more-detailed information — and ultimately pictures of the user — without his or her knowledge.

But clients, consumers and employees are tired of feeling violated; the debate over Internet privacy will intensify. Expect laws regulating the gathering and use of personal information.

Action: Protect yourself by checking out your corporate privacy and disclosure regulations. Update office policy and inform employees about in-office privacy rules.

Research online methods for protecting credit-card numbers, customer-disclosure information and addresses.

Evaluate how your company is gathering information on your clients and customers. Identify who manages that data and how it’s used. If you limit information-gathering methods to protect the consumer, promote it. Consumers are more likely to do business with companies who respect their personal information.

Innovations are sorely needed in this arena. Now is the time to develop and sell privacy-protection products. The competitive edge goes to the entrepreneur who finds a way to protect an individual’s personal information without restricting Web access.

4. Whole health

Trend: HMOs will continue to regulate medical care, and consumers will continue to gripe about them. Costs will escalate in the next three years, with fewer services provided.

Don’t expect prescription prices to drop, at least in the next year. But do expect more discussion centered around importing pharmaceuticals from European nations.

Consumers will clamor for holistic-health services, not only for physical ailments but emotional and mental health. Quality of life, including family relationships and a slower lifestyle, become paramount to good mental health.

Action: Provide products, information or services that make people feel better mentally and physically. Vitamins and herbal supplements will continue to sell. Self-help products and services touting the benefits of simplicity will do well.

As the majority of the population hits the 50-or-older mark, comfort and confidence are key. Strive for advertising that focuses on traditional family themes. Look for packaging and product distribution that draw on seniors’ sense of nostalgia.

Foster customer service and one-on-one relationships. Even though most consumers are connected through technology, they relate health and happiness to human relationships and shared experiences. They will use the products and services of companies they trust. Make sure customers get a real person when they call for information.

5. High tech, high touch

Trend: Smaller, better, faster — that’s the mantra of communication-technology providers. Already in the works: a portable tablet-size device that will offer wireless Web access and phone service in one product. As a result, consumers will never be out of touch. But don’t pull your wallet out yet; it will be two years or more before it hits mainstream markets.

Convenience and ease will push changes in personal technology. In the next five years, expect a single device to manage every aspect of personal communication. However, prices on hand-held technology won’t drop for at least two years.

Expect consumer backlash to accompany these technological improvements, especially when it comes to cell phones and voice mail. People are sick of calls interrupting their meetings and meals, and legislation against cell-phone use in cars will become widespread. Consumers will also demand that customer service be delivered by actual people.

Action: Wait a couple of years before investing in the newest technology. Bugs abound. Instead of looking at devices to improve communication, take an old-fashioned approach and talk to people. It will help you secure and retain both clients and employees.

6. Employee enticements

Trend: Labor shortages, particularly in high-tech fields, will continue. Big paychecks and stock options won’t be enough to woo the best employees. Quality-of-life issues will become a critical component to hiring and retention.

Leaders will scrub business titles, and they’ll worry less about competition and more about knowledge management and collaboration. Fast changes and information overload mean that no individual will have all the answers.

Action: Consider flex-time, job-sharing, sabbaticals and more family-leave options for your employees. Eliminate job titles and encourage creative participation.

Spend more time educating your employees about the corporate mission, business goals and strategies for achieving those objectives. Share your dreams about the company with employees; let them know how important they are to transforming those dreams into reality.

As a result, workers will share in the excitement. People who feel connected to something bigger than their PC are likely to give you their best efforts and loyalty.

Independent contractors will look at ways they can step in and help companies over the short term. They’ll be the problem solvers when employees take leave time.

If you provide temporary personnel, look for ways to specialize and capture a niche market.

Consultants who implement effective employee-screening techniques, employment strategies and employee-retention programs also will be in demand.

7. Cubicle culture

Trend: Managers are getting older. Young entrepreneurs who founded startup companies will hand over the day-to-day operations to more experienced business leaders.

People will also be working longer. Instead of imposed retirements, older workers will become part-time staff or consultants.

Information is vital. Companies that facilitate learning, information sharing and distribution will thrive.

Action: Develop knowledge-management strategies. Open up lines of communication with competitors, evaluate who has the information within your company and industry, and tear down barriers that limit access to others. Encourage employees to talk around the water cooler and use the Internet while at work. A structure that limits employee communication will limit your business.

8. Dying dot-coms

Trend: Look for more instability in the dot-com marketplace. Smaller companies will flounder, while successful ones will be consolidated into larger corporations. This industry will grow, but most of that growth will come from within. Jobs won’t dry up, but job descriptions will change, and newcomers will diminish.

Action: Investors and banks are wary of dot-com startups; such organizations can expect a challenge when it comes to getting the necessary funding to start and grow the business.

If you’re an established dot-com, you may want to shop around for a buyer. Major corporations are looking for solid investments (with people to run them).

9. Internet impasse

Trend: Online retail buying will remain flat until broadband technology is in every home and office or a newer technology evolves — events that are at least three years out.

Consumers are tired of simply surfing the Web. Most of this year’s online purchasing will be by people looking for a specific product, rather than browsing multiple sites.

Communication and business networks are key. As many as 99% of companies in the United States are small or emerging-growth businesses. Business-to-business e-commerce sites will grow, driven primarily by small and emerging-growth businesses, which employ 80% of the nation’s work force.

Action: If you’re selling products and services online, consider how you market to small and emerging-growth businesses. Make your Web site rich in content, so potential buyers are drawn initially for information and benefits.

Time is crucial. Provide easy access and a transaction process that allows consumers to complete a transaction in minutes. Warning: Make sure your distribution methods can handle the demand. Consumers are perpetually impatient.

Writer: Polly Campbell