Alexander Alonso is the Senior Vice President of Knowledge Development, SHRM. Prior to this, he was the Vice President of Research at SHRM. Dr. Alonso has been instrumental in the development of SHRM Competency Model, and has also served as the head of examination development and operations for the SHRM Certified Professional and Senior Certified Professional certifications. Dr. Alonso has also been honored by the American Psychological Association and the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) for his contributions to applied psychology and workforce research.
Below is an excerpt from his conversation with People Matters where he talks about the skills that HR professionals need and the importance of finance and technology for the HR function.
Q: You’re back from SHRM’s Tech’17. How was your experience like?
A: The conference was exciting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a truly global conference with over 13 countries representing. But what made it sensational was the fact that it was the perfect place for learning. The entrepreneurial spirit and the opportunities to learn about technology were great.
Q: You’ve had a long career in knowledge management. Please tell us how the SHRM competency model came about.
A: I started out with SHRM as the lead researcher for designing the SHRM Competency Model. It was my job to design and validate the HR Competency Model. In this effort, we worked with more than 32,000 individuals to develop and validate it over a year and a half.
The research is fascinating because it gave us insights into both behavioral and technical competencies. The most critical competencies can be broken down into four clusters: 1) Technical expertise – that includes 15 different areas of functional knowledge. Let’s say I’m a talent acquisition professional, an area of knowledge for me would be to do with recruitment retention and selection skills. The three other clusters have to do with behavioral competencies: 2) Leadership; 3) Interpersonal skills – how well you build and manage relationships; and 4) Business acumen, one part of this is to do with your core business skills – how do you make business decisions? What is your judgment like? The other side is to do with how well you analyze data and information to help you achieve business decisions.
As the move from less tactical task work to more strategic functioning takes over, we’re seeing a greater emphasis on behavioral skills than technical knowledge in the upcoming five to ten years.
Q: What skills (technical, leadership, interpersonal or business acumen) do HR professionals need to refine?
A: HR professionals have the greatest opportunity to enhance data skills and critical evaluation skills in service of organizational objectives. What’s interesting about Big Data is that a good portion of it is not what Big Data can do for you, but how you can apply Big Data? Adopting a data scientist’s approach for analyzing business problems, but beyond collecting data, will impact operations most. It is also critical to understand what relationships exist between the data and how they impact the outcomes. So that’s the area which needs continuous refinement and it looks like HR is doing a good job.
Q: What should HR professionals do to build these data skills?
A: The most effective route is a combination of approaches to learning. I’ve seen programs within organizations that are exploratory, and are meant to be like assignments that give people a chance to understand what data they should be collecting, what the nature of data is and how they should be using that data. That’s an experiential approach.
According to DDI Worldwide Leadership forecast, 3 of the 5 people consider mentoring or coaching as one of the ways to develop oneself as a leader or as a consumer of data. Coaches play a vital role in ensuring that: 1) You’re thinking about what data usage means; and 2) Understanding what it means for your organization. When I think back to the way that I was trained as an organizational psychologist, what was really effective for me was to sit down with my professor and have him walk me through a data set and explain to me what he thought about data and the questions that he asked himself while looking at that data. This is approach that I would expect HR professionals to take — to sit with their mentors and say, “How do you think about this data?” And more importantly, “What would you want to collect as data that we’re not collecting today?”
Q: What are your thoughts about automation when it comes to HR processes?
A: I think automation will create a new set of challenges for the HR profession, but I don’t think it will replace the HR profession in any way, shape or form.
What frightens me is that we create fatigue, burnout or reasons for the workforce to be dissatisfied rather than finding ways to make their work-life easier, or to make the employee-employer connection smooth — for me, the risk with automation lies in not getting it right which can have a detrimental effect on the relationship between the employer and employee.
But I think that’s a place where the HR plays a good role.
A tool that HR professionals need to use, but they don’t always, except in larger enterprises is concept testing or pilot testing. One example is a “think aloud interview” and it’s a tool that would be invaluable for every HR professional. Imagine you are using Snapchat and tracking your daily tasks — a think aloud approach would have you tell me how you think about the ways that you use it and track your daily activities, responsibilities. How do you communicate information? Who do you share it with? How and what do you share? So you tell me on a cognitive level what it is that you would do and how you would use and what my objective is. It tells me how you’re thinking and interpreting the world that is valid.
Q: How has the learning content and mode of delivery evolved for HR professionals over the years?
A: From a professional development perspective, SHRM takes a scenario-based learning approach. A part of what we do is that we grow our repository of scenarios that someone might experience. And the other side of the coin is that we build educational content around those types of scenarios. In the last two years, we’ve added 1200 new pieces of behavioral competencies content — all designed with micro-learning, e-learning, and seminar-based events to enable people to effectively respond if faced with such scenarios. People ask us all the time as to why we focus on this and the truth is that it is because research told us that this is where we needed to be.
Ten years ago, our portfolio was primarily live events and seminars. There were limited asynchronous training, we had some virtual offerings. As we go on to grow on in the next ten years, we will focus more on specialized micro-learning opportunities and on specialty micro-credentials.
Q: What is your one key takeaway from this trip?
A: The number one skill that is often overlooked in communication is listening, and for me, the most valuable thing about coming here is not to share insights, it is actually to learn from others — to borrow others’ perspectives, scenarios and learn about other people’s unique journeys of growth and applying that to my own context in my day-to-day work.
Q: Are there any functional areas that HR needs to pay attention to?
A: One of the two areas that stand out to me is finance, and it’s not just understanding finance from an accounting standpoint, but finance from “how do I build a business case and understand the pro forma financials behind it?” perspective. The other area is technology — the easiest way for any organization to fall down in terms of its strategy is to ignore the relationship between human resources and technology.