Article: Myopic HR education: Preparing present & future-ready people practitioners

Life @ Work

Myopic HR education: Preparing present & future-ready people practitioners

Here we suggest a curriculum that will equip most students of HR to contribute from day one in all essential and some specialized tasks while retaining the ability to meet future needs.
Myopic HR education: Preparing present & future-ready people practitioners

It is more than forty years since Theodore Levitt published his classic article on Marketing Myopia.1 "The 'heart of the article,'... is Levitt’s argument that companies are too focused on producing goods or services and don’t spend enough time understanding what customers want or need."2 Of course, we couldn’t be doing something so stupidly short-sighted when it came to educating HR professionals. Or could we? Let’s take a closer look.

Imagine you are planning to buy a car. Your rational reasons (if you’d like to go off on the tangent of irrational reasons for your choice, follow this3 interview of Daniel McFadden) would probably be on the following lines. Perhaps your most important requirement would be to have a car that, from the word 'go', transported you safely and reliably from one place to another i.e. it did the job all cars are meant to do. But you may also have particular requirements from your car e.g. you may want it to be extra economical or sporty or capable of cross-country excursions. Finally, you would probably want your car to last for a few years and be obsolescence proof for its working life. Aren’t campus scouts for HR talent permitted to have similar expectations of immediate usability and non-obsolescence in the future? As a recruiter for HR professionals at management and other campuses at least from the time of Levitt’s article, I am forced to say that, a few exceptions apart (I do need to retain a few friends), these institutes do not make their students:

  • Ready for carrying out the most basic HR tasks as soon as they join
  • Comfortable and capable of contributing to specialized sub-functions or emerging industrial sectors
  • Able to reinvent themselves repeatedly over their careers

The fundamentals and latest developments in Psychology, Social Psychology and Sociology are essential for HR professionals to understand the wellsprings of human nature as well as behavior in groups

Of course, there are individuals who do each of these very well on their own and there are large corporates that only need good raw material and will fill in all the blanks left by the educational system. My purpose here is to suggest a curriculum that will equip most students of HR to contribute from day one in all essential and some specialized tasks and industry environments while retaining the ability to meet totally different needs in the future. What I have presented above as the logical order of requirements is not the chronological sequence of instruction, which is what I will now follow for suggesting how present and future-ready HR professionals should be educated. The first three of the learning goals listed below are essential foundations for all HR beginners (best imparted in the first year of the program) while the next two contain optional choices (that could extend over the internship and second half of the course):

  1. Conceptual grounding for understanding people as well as the fundamentals of business and technology.
  2. Ability to deal with and influence people at all levels, through different channels and in a variety of situations.
  3. Skills to deliver basic HR results in all sub-domains of the function.
  4. Cutting-edge, plug-and-play expertise in at least a few HR sub-domains.
  5. Comfort in and understanding of at least one or two industrial sectors.

While I shall suggest what the education of an HR person entering the profession should include, I’ll not presume to prescribe how it should be imparted. I can lay some claim to understanding what customers of HR programs want but academicians would be in a much better position to figure out the best pedagogy to deliver this requirement.

Understanding people & business

Everyone with a formal education in HR should have a sound understanding of:

  • How and why people behave the way they actually do
  • How people should behave, particularly in the work context
  • Business and technology

The fundamentals and latest developments in Psychology, Social Psychology and Sociology are essential for HR professionals to understand the wellsprings of human nature as well as behavior in groups. Not only does the grasp of the core principles of these disciplines permit the design of innovative systems and interventions best-tailored to an individual organization’s needs, they are the best guard against obsolescence. Specific skills, people processes, and even cultures may need to change repeatedly but HR practitioners with a firm grasp of the underlying principles of individual and group behavior can easily re-design these applications to meet future demands. In addition to the research-based generalizations learned from the behavioral sciences, the insights provided by History (and Biography) are an invaluable supplement to understanding how people have actually behaved in a wide variety of situations and which behaviors, particularly of leaders4, have proved most efficacious.5

Considering the fact that the ability to influence people is so central to an HR generalist's role, it is surprising that post-graduate programs in HR do so little to impart this unsubstitutable capability

Institutes for educating HR professionals cannot simply stop with growing agile minds that can find creative solutions. They must get those minds to internalize ethically acceptable channels within which those solutions must be confined. At the very least they must be familiar with one or more codes of organizational fairness and the practical challenges and methods of implementing them in the Indian context. I am naturally biased in favor of a code I have played a hand in designing6 but more refined and relevant ones will certainly become available over time. Several MBA programs now stipulate courses on Business Ethics. The issues facing HR practitioners are specific enough to justify the design of a course on HR Ethics. After a strong foundation in theories of ethics7 and justice8 (the references are illustrative – many alternative texts can be used), students should be equipped to apply these principles to topics such as engagement of contingent workers9, justifiable compensation differentials10 across levels/geographies and employee data privacy11. The course can be topped off with live interactions with CHROs who have walked the talk when faced with ethically conflicted decisions and an awareness of the pitfalls into which less scrupulous or vertebrated CHROs fall.12

I will be stepping into more conventional territory when I plead the case for business awareness for HR students. At least Business Strategy, Finance, and Marketing should be taught to HR students at a level no inferior to that taught in the core curriculum of the best MBA programs. Technology courses, again, should be on par with those in good MBA schools. They should cover not just Enterprise Management Systems and HR Management Systems but Data Analytics and Social Media.

Influencing people

Considering the fact that the ability to influence people (individually and in groups, face-to-face as well as remotely) is so central to an HR generalist’s role, it is surprising that post-graduate programs in HR do so little to impart this unsubstitutable capability. There are, of course, some natively gifted influencers who elicit trust wherever they go and have a natural flair for getting people to do what they want (and be thrilled while doing it). That, unfortunately, is not the happy situation most of us are placed in. If people who are not naturally gifted do not acquire people influencing skills as part of their education, they can only learn them through error and fatal error on-the-job, frequently with permanent career-retarding consequences.

The people skills needed by HR neophytes, before they enter the workstream, are a bit different from those essential for other freshers and they fall under three heads:

  • Influencing individuals and small groups
  • Communicating to large groups face-to-face
  • Remote (primarily one-way) influence

Everyone at work needs to handle one-to-one and small group interactions. Where the HR entrant’s situation differs is that, in many cases, s/he is pitched into interactions with senior line customers almost from the start. Such visibility can be a great opportunity but immature missteps can stunt progress for years. Even interactions with people who are not at the management apex can have serious consequences. Dealings with union leaders fall into this category and, even if the novice is entrusted only with meetings at the shop-floor level, a stray or indiscreet comment can be the proverbial butterfly causing a hurricane of plant-wide industrial unrest. Experienced IR interlocutors run their words past their own internal censor (like the broadcast delay on live TV shows) before they blurt them out. With practice, the lag imposed by this check becomes almost unnoticeable. Of course, HR freshers’ paths are not strewn only with threats. They have an almost unique opportunity to make flowers bloom at the bottom of the organizational pyramid. Instead of capitalizing on this chance, some young entrants come across as arrogant, aloof and unfeeling. I am frequently reminded of what Eliza Doolittle says to the mother of her teacher in My Fair Lady: "...the difference between a lady and a flower girl isn't how she behaves but how she is treated. I'll always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will. I'll always be a lady to Colonel Pickering because he always treats me like a lady and always will."13 Learning to treat people at different levels with respect is only the start of the interaction lesson for HR aspirants. It is genuinely expecting others to live up to a higher standard of performance and behavior that is at the heart of the Pygmalion effect and of people development anywhere.

Every HR person's education must include a mandatory toolkit of skills in each of the key sub-domains of the function which include strategic HRM, talent management, among others

A people influence target which arrives much earlier for HR beginners than for those starting in most other functions is a large audience. Occasions can be as benign as taking an induction session for new entrants to uncomfortably hostile ones such as calming a crowd of employees agitated by a fellow-worker’s accidental death. Institutes of education do give opportunities to acquire skills in addressing large groups of peers. They need to extend the reach to diverse groups in more or less ugly moods. A special aspect of this skill which will be increasingly demanded is addressing large groups that are not physically present e.g. managing web conferences with real-time interaction.

The other medium of interpersonal influence which a budding HR practitioner must master is the one where the the message is read (or seen) rather than heard. The company’s vision must be shared in inspiring words and unvarying thrust, strategies need to be informed to those responsible for executing them, policies must be explained simply and unambiguously, victories must be celebrated and lessons extracted from setbacks. Many of these communications appear under the signatures of line leaders but the text frequently originates from or is at least vetted by HR. Given the shaky command many senior HR leaders have over the written word (frequently guised as shortage of time), these relatively ineffaceable messages slip down for crafting to recently recruited individual contributors who cannot delegate it further. The buck for written communication stops even more immovably at the newcomer’s desk when delivery has to take place through social media. But simply being a user of Facebook and Instagram doesn’t make a youngster an expert on 'memes' and 'virals'.14 As with every other influence capability mentioned in this section, the skill needs to be imparted, practiced and honed as a foundational part of acquiring an HR qualification.

Basic DIY skills for HR generalists

Some of the greatest disappointments recruiters face, after paying top dollar for HR MBAs from the best institutes, is their inability to carry out basic HR tasks as soon as they come on board. What is simply a disappointment for recruiters in large and mature HR departments can prove to be a fatal flaw if the fresher is positioned straightaway as the sole HR presence in a detached location or in a start-up where no one has the time to take a newcomer through KG HR. In the absence of these rudiments of the HR practitioner’s trade, the latest concepts acquired with assiduity over months of study find no application. As George Swinnock put it long ago: "Knowledge without practice is like a glass eye, all for the show, and nothing for use."

Every HR person’s education must, therefore, include a mandatory toolkit of skills in each of the key sub-domains of the function, which include:

  • Strategic HRM
  • Organization Design
  • Workforce Planning & Staffing
  • Talent Management
  • Learning & Development
  • Total Rewards
  • Performance Management
  • Employee Relations

Each institute is, of course, free to vary this list. I have used the one which forms the basis of the framework of technical competencies for HR professionals that I was involved in designing for the National HRD Network. My choice is not only prompted by a desire to have curriculum design conform to the most comprehensive HR competency model in the country but because (bar the first bullet point) it corresponds to the Centres of Excellence (COEs) into which the specializations in most large HR departments are structurally divided.

While we will deal with higher-level expertise in these specializations in the next section, each of them demands three to four basic skills which each HR generalist should know well. For example, Staffing would include the skill of conducting an interview and Employee Relations would have the capability to conduct disciplinary action proceedings. Any experienced HR practitioner or academician can draw up a list of these 25-30 must-have skills that should be in the repertoire of every qualified HR professional.

With these three foundations, we have now converted all our aspiring HR practitioners into ready-for-action HR generalists. But we are still only about halfway through the education process. What remains?

Specialization for Sub-functions and Sectors

A Swiss army knife is one of the most useful tools to have on hand at home or while traveling. Should the task you wish to undertake go beyond the most basic, however, you will struggle to make do with just a vanilla Victorinox. The larger the recruiting organization and the more sophisticated its HR activity, the likelier it is to need people who are not just ready to carry out basic tasks in all HR sub-domains but who can equally readily make more advanced contributions in a couple of them. The second half of the HR education journey must begin with people choosing these and go on to making them competent in the specializations they have selected.

All institutions may not be able to offer specializations in the eight sub-disciplines listed in the previous section. Rather than imparting mediocrity, it would be far better for each institute to limit itself to the ones in which it can do an excellent job and aim to become nationally renowned in two or three of them. Choices of advanced classes, dissertations, research, fieldwork, and summer internships, which are currently somewhat haphazardly chosen in many institutions, should all dovetail into building expertise in two to three specializations. Students should also be encouraged to acquire original design innovation capability in one of these. This would not only make the task of recruiters easier but increase the likelihood of freshers starting in COEs where they can make the maximum initial contribution and impact.

Exactly the same combinations of classroom, research, and field/internship learning should be used for industrial sector familiarization, understanding, and immersion. Here too, while all students should have a glimpse of what working in a particular sector involves, they should be given deeper insights into the culture and demands of one or two of them. For our purposes, choices of sectoral specialization could be:

  • Manufacturing
  • Services
  • HR consultancy and HR services
  • Start-ups
  • Aggregators and GIGs
  • Non-profits and NGOs
  • Self- entrepreneurship, usually in HR services

While most institutes knowingly or unknowingly design their curricula to deal with the demands of the first two sectors listed above, for the remaining sectors classroom as well as project and practical exposure has yet to be crystallized to any significant extent. Here again, not all institutes need offer an in-depth understanding of the people, operations and process peculiarities for all the sectors. Those which become known for doing a particularly good job preparing HR professionals for some sectors will obviously, attract recruiters from those.

Some of the greatest disappointments recruiters face, after paying top dollar for HR MBAs from the best institutes, is their inability to carry out basic HR tasks as soon as they come on board

Taking the longer view on HR

The type of education pattern this column has described should yield HR freshers ready-to-contribute from day one and yet able to reinvent themselves repeatedly in their careers. Should all the sourcing for HR come from people of this stream? By no means. While people with the kind of education suggested here should certainly form an essential core for staffing HR departments, they should be supplemented by a mix of people who have moved into HR from the line or other functions as well as promising talent that has been promoted from subordinate levels in HR itself. Over the years, I have found the diversity of viewpoint and training both these internal sourcing streams bring in to be invaluable. In addition, there will need to be specialists (e.g. in the behavioral sciences or IT) who will be necessary for large HR set-ups to be effective. When people from these varied backgrounds move into HR, they too will need a part of the curriculum described here but it will have to be imparted to them in doses that can be consumed mid-career.

In the never-ending (and sometimes acrimonious) debate senior HR people have about how to revitalize our profession and remedy its failings, we quickly agree on a long list of the obstacles we run into because of our shortsightedness. Agreeing on prioritizing which should be tackled first is another matter altogether. Admittedly, myopia in HR education is not the only or even the most pernicious form of short-sightedness afflicting HR. It is, however, undoubtedly the one that has the longest gestation period before any curative measures can come to fruition. After all, it will be at least a decade or two before the people benefiting from a changed education pattern occupy truly heavyweight HR leadership roles and make a difference to the image and direction of the profession. It is for this reason that the process of curing myopia afflicting HR education cannot start a day too soon.

 

Notes

  1. Theodore Levitt, Marketing Myopia, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1975.
  2. Amy Gallo, A Refresher on Marketing Myopia, Harvard Business Review. August 2016.
  3. Derek Thompson, The Irrational Consumer – Why Economics Is Dead Wrong About How We Make Choices, The Atlantic, January 2013.
  4. Visty Banaji, Learning leadership lessons from leaders, People Matters, 18th July 2019.
  5. Isaiah Berlin The Proper Study Of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998.
  6. Visty Banaji, Fairness is Fundamental, NHRD Network Journal, Volume 7, Issue 4, October 2014.
  7. Kenan Malik, The Quest for a Moral Compass, Atlantic, 2015.
  8. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press; 2nd Revised edition, 1999.
  9. Visty Banaji, Udta Udyog – Industry’s addiction to contract workers, People Matters, 15th September 2016.
  10. Visty Banaji, But who will guard the guardians?, People Matters, 14th March 2018.
  11. Visty Banaji, Brave new corporate world: On employee data protection and privacy, People Matters, 17th August 2018.
  12. Visty Banaji, Is your HR Head a Jerk?- A Taxonomy of HR Asterisks, People Matters, 24th May 2018.
  13. Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady, Penguin UK, 1975.
  14. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, MIT Press, 2013

Topics: Life @ Work

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