Human Resource Education

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1 Human Resource Education Ensuring the future of the profession A BPP BUSINESS SCHOOL WORKING PAPER FEBRUARY 2013 BPP.COM

2 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This paper seeks to explore and understand why, traditionally, Human Resource (HR) education is held in low regard and considered to be of little value by the wider business community. The paper reviews the reasons behind the perceptions, looking at the influences of the professional body and employer organisations on their member s attitude towards HR education. This paper investigates how practical and theoretical knowledge is built into the curriculum and the impact the nature of this knowledge has on the perceived value of the qualification. Traditional HR degrees are usually taken by HR professionals or those wanting to work in HR. This paper concludes that in the age of multi-disciplinary teams in the workplace, separating out HR practitioners from other professionals in a classroom is no longer appropriate. It is recommended that, for HR education to develop well rounded business professionals with specialist HR expertise, there needs to be a move away from a culture of HR qualifications for HR people. The current culture only serves to create an internally focused profession. It is recommended that there is more value to be gained for the HR professional who undertakes Management and Leadership orientated degrees with HR specialisms. INTRODUCTION In 2005 a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reported that the majority of respondent organisations felt that business skills and experience were more important for HR professionals than an HR qualification. In particular the survey identified that it was the CIPD qualifications that were of lessening importance rather than non CIPD HR degrees. This was an interesting position for the only UK HR professional body to be in and one that threatened to undermine them. It is arguable that the leading body for HR in the UK (CIPD) should be seen as a credible authority in HR education. The Chartered Institute of Marketing is considered the leading authority in its professional qualifications, as is the General Medical Council with regards to authority in the field of medical education. How is it possible that the professional body for HR found itself in such a position of deep criticism? Historically, the CIPD has taken a disinterested view in education which seems to be perceived as a nice to have rather than an essential and valuable part of professional development. It should however be said that recently they have made promises to work more closely with universities. This suggests that they are beginning to take HR education more seriously themselves. It is therefore reasonable to deduce that if the professional body does not hold education in high regard then neither will its members. The perceptions of HR qualifications have not changed much over the years and in 2007 a survey was carried out which revealed a similar situation to that in 2005 (Heaton and Ackah 2007). Survey respondents identified that their employing organisations still did not value the CIPD professional qualifications with damning statements reported such as: I will gain nothing for completing my BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

3 CIPD qualification. Since the department values experience over qualification (Heaton and Ackah 2007: 958). HR EDUCATION A picture begins to emerge where business practice and experience is becoming more and more important for HR professionals and their employing organisations, but is there a danger that it has become important to the exclusion of all other forms of knowledge thus undervaluing HR degrees and professional qualifications? Schön (1991) writing in his seminal work, the reflective practitioner, argues that traditional approaches to education do not address the needs of businesses today. He argues that what is learnt in the classroom is a series of academic models for dealing with situations that bear no resemblance to the reality that is faced by practitioners on a day to day basis. This perhaps provides one possible explanation as to why HR education is so undervalued, if there has been too much reliance on academic models and not enough on real word scenarios, it could be difficult for the practitioners to see the relevance to them and their work. However, this is an argument that can be difficult to support as there is often more focus on practice than theory in HR curriculum. The CIPD preferred supplier of their professional qualification is a training organisation not a higher or further education institution., Manchester Open Learning (MOL) pride themselves that: All of our tutors are current HR practitioners who are engaged specifically for their value added skills and knowledge (MOL 2013). MOL make no boasts about research or academic credibility within the field of HR, their trainers are all HR practitioners. They are clearly emphasising the value of real world experience in their teaching. There is no danger here of the course being undervalued through too much academic content. It is possible therefore, that instead of not having enough real world scenarios, they could have too many. They could be putting too much emphasis on HR practice to the exclusion of other forms of knowledge. LESSONS FROM THE PAST The balance or value of theory and practice is not a new debate for business schools nor for HR. Kaufman (1999) looks at the history of HR education and demonstrates that at various stages in its development it has been criticised for being too theory based or too practice based, never seemingly striking an appropriate balance. This begs the question of what is an appropriate balance. It is debateable whether it is possible to get any agreement or consensus of opinion on this question. In 2005 an article published in the Harvard Business Review looked at how business schools had changed. Initially business schools were keen to recruit practitioners as lecturers. They valued their practical knowledge over the academic and created a technical vocational approach to education. Then something changed and Business Schools started to mimic research universities. Instead of treating management as a vocation they started to treat it as a science to be labelled and quantified generating a series of academic theories for managing organisations. Business Schools moved from being practice focused to theory focused changing the nature of business and management education. BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

4 Bennis and O Toole (2005) argue that management and business are not scientific disciplines to be confined to set models and formula, and whilst acknowledging the value of such research, argued that it was this scientific or theoretical knowledge that was taking priority and therefore undervaluing practice based knowledge and experience. This they felt was evidence that business schools were losing their way and they advocated a more balanced approach between the two types of knowledge. They refer to this balance as mutli-disciplinary approaches to business school education. The article demonstrated a swing from the perceived importance of practice to theory in business schools but argues that neither should take dominance. In complete contrast to management education there appears to be a desire for HR education to swing in the opposite direction away from theory and towards practice. This doesn t however address the concerns of Bennis and O Toole (2005) who argue management and business education needs to be more multi-disciplinary to be of value. Of particular interest is that the body of knowledge that appears to be most important for HR education is not HR experience. This therefore raises the question what needs to be in an HR qualification for it to be valued. CONTEMPORARY HR PRACTICE AND THE CIPD Many employers feel that university degrees should be developing their HR practitioners business acumen as they feel that day to day HR practice can be trained on the job at work. The significance of business knowledge for HR practitioners is supported by articles in some of the HR magazines and websites that are now advocating MBAs for HR professionals, (Personnel Today, April 2012, changeboard, March 2012). They argue that the MBA makes the HR professional an all round business manager that enables them to speak the same language and integrate and communicate with other occupations within the business environment. Whilst HR education has been criticised in the past for being too focused on theory but at other times too focused on practice (Kaufman, 1999), future criticisms are likely to be that it contains too much HR and not enough general business knowledge. This would therefore lead back to the debate regarding whether it is necessary for the CIPD to be the authority in HR education when in fact the focus appears to be on more business orientated knowledge rather than HR. If this is the case, then perhaps the future of professional education in the field of HR would be better driven by the Chartered Management Institute or the Institute of Directors rather than by the CIPD. Interestingly this would support the arguments of Bennis and O Toole (2005) that business schools need to move towards a more multi-disciplinary approach to education. Therefore, why should the CIPD be responsible for HR education when there are other more expert business professionals out there? What future exists for the HR degree and subsequently the HR lecturer? If HR practitioners and qualifications are becoming more business focused then surely the HR lecturer will be less in demand and will need to develop into other business disciplines to ensure their survival. BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

5 HR AS A PROFESSION This emphasis on the need for business knowledge has arisen through the constant state of change that the HR profession is in. The work of Ulrich (1997) and later Ulrich and Brockbank (2005) started the drive for HR to be more strategically involved in business decisions yet more than ten years on, articles and surveys are still being published arguing that HR does not have sufficient strategic capability within the work place. Lawler and Boudreau (2009: 22) identified that there is a consistent lack of progress in HR s strategic contribution and influence. Payne argues (2010: 10) that HR professionals' involvement at the strategic level is proceeding at a slow pace and a survey carried out by the Boston Consulting Group in September 2010 identified significant capability gaps in strategic business skills within the HR profession. It is possible that this continued capability gap is responsible for the poor perception of HR education. However, business strategy is not a new subject area for HR education. The business world and the economic environment including business strategy has long been taught within HR qualifications certainly as far back as This therefore suggests that there is a problem with HR education and what and how it is taught rather than what is being taught. It is possible that there is some truth to Schön s (1991) assertion that students are taught strategic models and frameworks but none of them very relevant for the types of strategic decision making they are faced with in organisations today. There is definitely a tendency to ensure students know the basics such as PESTLE, SWOT, Porter s 5 forces, the Boston Matrix Grid, Ansoff s matrix. The list of models and frameworks does tend to go on. However, the impact or the effectiveness of the learning and teaching may be less to do with the teaching practice and more to do with the assessment regime. Genuine strategic decision making skills are difficult to assess as by nature the approach taken would differ according to the situation. To design a template rubric for marking strategic decision making skills that was applicable in all situations would be very difficult to do. Therefore it is questionable to what extent it is possible to effectively assess strategic decision making skills. Therefore assessment tends to focus more on knowledge and students identifying pre-determined solutions to problems. It is arguable that genuine strategic decision making is not rewarded and as a result it is only that which is rewarded that gets done. However, even more importantly, educators need to understand how strategic business skills are being defined. It is possible that the concept is perceived differently from those in practice to those in education. The background of lecturing staff is therefore likely to have significant influence in what educational institutions define as strategic business skills. If lecturing staff come from an academic research background they may not have sufficient experience to know what strategic business skills look like in practice and if not it is difficult to see how they can genuinely help the students to develop them. Bennis and O Toole s (2005) article may have some relevance here with regards for the need for multidisciplinary approaches to education to ensure that neither theory nor practice outweigh each other to their exclusion and that we need to seek contributions from both types of knowledge specialists to get the full and balanced picture. BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

6 The fact that there is an ongoing debate regarding the extent to which HR professionals provide businesses with a credible strategic function demonstrates that the transformation of HR from an occupation to a strategic profession hasn t been successful. It could therefore be argued that HR education is not genuinely supporting the required transformation of the HR profession. As we have seen, there is still an ongoing debate regarding the value of theoretical knowledge within HR education. The professional body itself continues to fuel this debate by approving both an academic based route and a purely experience based route to membership. It is possible that the lack of a requirement to hold a licence to practice HR undermines the value or the significance of HR education. In order for HR education to be taken seriously it needs to be positioned by the professional body as an essential requirement for practice and professional development. Whilst requiring a licence to practice will not, on its own, change the perception of the profession or HR Education, it may be a step in the right direction to taking the value of education more seriously. It should also lead to some significant reforms within HR education. HR THEORY VS PRACTICE Armstrong (2000; 576) states, As theory, HRM has little or nothing to offer personnel professionals. He claims that theory just involves academics putting names or new names to existing activities. For Armstrong, it is the practice of the actual HR professional that is more significant and important than what the academics have to say. He argues that what the practitioner has been doing for years without the use of theory has been effective therefore he doesn t believe there is any need for HR theory? His argument that academic theory and research is of no value to the profession, fails to recognise the limitations of context-dependent experience. For example, somebody that has only worked in one organisation may not be able to use their knowledge so easily in another environment without the theoretical knowledge to help them relate and compare different contexts. Armstrong (2000) makes the assumption that HR practitioners are skilled enough to make sense of their situation, through reflection, but fails to consider that to make sense the practitioner needs conceptual knowledge gained through education. The advantage of the theoretical underpinning is that it can enable the practitioner to take more informed and calculated risks around decisions rather than on the basis of ad hoc judgements. These are skills necessary to move from an administrator to a strategist. In other words, contrary to Armstrong, it can be argued that theory is essential for sound professional judgement. For example, knowing and understanding psychology and theories of motivation will enable HR professionals to design and implement more effective reward strategies whilst anticipating and managing any resistance or potential risks. Much of the current literature into HR education focuses on the concept of core skills or core competences required for an HR practitioner (Dyer 1999, Barber 1999, Menci et al 2010). They therefore focus their attention on what knowledge should be taught to develop these core skills. Hempel (2004: 163) argues that traditional HR education has poorly prepared the HR profession and that more emphasis on technological understanding and mastery is needed. Whilst this may be the case, it is difficult to see how a practical focus on technology will help the HR professional with strategic decision making skills and business acumen. BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

7 One of the criticisms aimed at the CIPD professional qualification, that was in existence before changes were made in 2009, was that it was good at imparting knowledge but not at helping students to use that knowledge (CIPD 2012). The learning outcomes for the previous qualification were deliberately separated into what were referred to as knowledge indicators and operational indicators. Operational indicators defined what practitioners must be able to do and knowledge indicators defined what practitioners must be able to understand, explain and critically evaluate. It was significantly practice focused. THE HR CURRICULUM AND ITS DELIVERY Muller (2009) distinguishes between curricula that have contextual coherence and conceptual coherence. Contextual coherence curricula are based on practice and context specific outcomes. Curricula based on contextual coherence are segmented where each segment of the curricula can stand alone in its own right with little relationship or reliance on the conceptual understanding of previous segments. These curriculum are likely to be driven by the question what do practitioners in this field need to be able to do? and what do they need to know to do this? Most HR degrees are delivered on a modular basis and the sequencing of the modules can vary between education providers. Some are specifically referred to as core modules whilst others are optional. However it is often the case that each module stands alone in its own right. This is evident through the way different programmes of study can use the same modules as either core or optional. For example, a module in the HR programme that might be core could be an optional module in the MSc Marketing programme. The ease with which the modules can be picked up and placed in a different degree demonstrates their ability to stand alone. The commercial value of this to universities is clear and perhaps evidences how the marketisation of education is determining the approach to curriculum. Consequently, the HR curriculum generally tends to lack conceptual coherence and relies instead on contextual coherence. Its focus as such, is more practice than theory based, but the balance clearly is not right. Students find it difficult to relate learning and knowledge gained in one module to others. As a consequence they complete their degree with very segmented pockets of learning that they cannot fit together to create a more strategic overview. Students therefore end up with knowledge of various approaches, practices and models but are unable to progress this basic knowledge to create a new idea or a new way of working. It is this ability to take the core knowledge of models, theories and concepts and turn them into something insightful and innovative to address real problems in the work place that are the real skills these practitioners need. However, the problem that the contextually coherent curriculum creates is a restricted ability to use knowledge outside of the assessment and classroom practice in which it was learnt. Students fail to move beyond the basics and stick rigidly to the frameworks presented. Without a conceptually coherent curriculum there is no opportunity to move beyond this. Perhaps this is why Schön (1991) argues that the models and theories are of no use in the real world because the students are too busy trying to use them literally or in the manner that was appropriate for a classroom based exercise, rather than as might be more appropriate in the current real world situation. Ruona & Gilley (2009: 441) state a practitioner who does not enact the theory and evidence-based best practices of the profession would be far less effective than one who does. They further state: BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

8 Practice is increasingly criticized for not using theory to improve its effectiveness and for, in turn, producing shoddy interventions, fads, and unsubstantiated pseudotheories. On the other hand, practitioners continue to criticise scholars for being disconnected from their challenges, slow in producing theory and misdirected in the issues they chose to address (Ruona and Gilley, 2009:438) This accusation of fads and pseudo theories fits in with the concept that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is possible to gain some conceptual knowledge through everyday interaction, the internet, magazines and books. It is not limited to those who formally study. However those who study for a formal qualification should have access to the bigger picture, the history of concepts, where and why they have arisen and how they relate to other ideas. This is nice in theory but as has already been demonstrated contextually coherent curriculums may undermine this. A classic example of a little knowledge creating problems, or contextual coherent knowledge creating problems, is the tendency of organisations to consistently believe that money is a motivator in all circumstances. This is time and time again disproven by research and yet organisations spend large sums of money in the belief that this will make their staff perform better, when in reality it rarely does. HR PROFESSIONALS There is a general sense in the literature both from the academy and from business that HR curricula are not providing the quality HR professionals that society and the economy needs. This may be because the practitioners do not understand how to use their theoretical knowledge outside of the context dependent nature of the classroom. It may be because the business schools have got the balance of theoretical and practical experience wrong in the curricula, or it could be that the qualifications themselves are actually very good but it is the perception and attitude of practitioners towards them that undermines them and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy i.e. the belief that professionals have that they will gain nothing from the qualification (Heaton and Ackah 2007). Mental attitude towards qualification is a powerful force in determining what the end results will be. Yet if students are undertaking qualifications that other professionals keep telling them are no good, inevitably they will be no good as it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this then go back to the lack of serious commitment from the professional body itself to invest in education, the lack of licence to practice or could it be something else altogether impacting this perception? It may help to consider what drives somebody to be an HR professional to understand the lack of perceived value of HR education. An IRS survey (2011) revealed that 27% of HR professionals came into the profession accidentally i.e. their career in this field was not a deliberately planned objective. Similarly Tamkin, Reily and Hirsh (2006) found accident seemed to predominate the reason for moving into an HR career. Only one third of their respondents seemed to actively choose HR as a career and had given serious consideration to education and academic qualifications in the field. This phenomenon is not just UK specific as Claus and Collison (2005: 19) research into the profession worldwide states The entrance into the HR profession was either motivational or circumstantial People simply don t grow up aspiring to be an HR Professional. If HR professionals have fallen into this career then they are less likely to feel strongly affiliated with it and less inclined to have ambitions within it. Unlike other professions it is not something they have spent years of their life working towards through various qualifications. It is not perceived to be a significant achievement BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

9 to become an HR professional when it is often unplanned and can be so easy to do. Qualifications are not essential for entry into the profession, nor are they a major requirement for career moves and job offers. The perceived value of them may therefore be limited. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS BPP s Business School could have the answers to some of the problems identified. The MSc in Professional HR was launched in January It has a mixture of full time lecturers and part time HR consultants, as well as a full multi-disciplinary programme team, ranging from psychologists, accountants, experts in organisational behaviour, research specialists, marketing professionals and business lecturers. This must surely start to address the issues of real world Vs. academia by providing a balance between the two. However this delicate balance is easily impacted by staff mobility in and out of the organisation and the availability of relevant replacements when team members leave. In September 2012 BPP launched an MSc Management degree with specialist streams in different disciplines, one of which will be HR. This would put HR practitioners in the same classroom as accountants, marketing professionals and other business managers, thus giving a wider perspective and understanding of the issues and problems as they are perceived by other areas of business. Traditionally the majority of HR practitioners have studied only with other HR practitioners to get CIPD accredited qualifications. This creates a very narrow perspective and an HR centric viewpoint of the world. If the lecturers are also HR practitioners then the learning is further narrowed to specific functional way of thinking which perhaps does not match that of the wider business community. This may perhaps help explain why HR has not yet become an expert in strategic business management. Guile (IOE Lecture, 2011) refers to changes in organisations that evidence a move towards process management where companies are organised as interconnected departments or teams, as in a matrix type of organisation rather than a discipline orientated organisation. He argues that many professionals now work in multi-disciplined teams and have moved away from functional separation. This new type of programme that puts all disciplines together before specialising in the final part of the course is much more representative of the way organisations are now working and perhaps goes even further than BPP s MSc in Professional HR to addressing some of the key issues regarding HR education. It is clear from the discussion is that a gentle tweaking of modules on the HR curriculum in response to business leaders comments in a CIPD survey is not sufficient. The time has come for radical reform to make HR qualifications more valued to the business world and to practitioners themselves. Multi-discipline approaches would appear to be the answer. The integration of HR practitioner students with students from other disciplines on Masters programmes would be a more real world experience ensuring that strategic business skills and understanding are developed in a more business relevant way. The degree is not the place for practitioners to learn how to do operational HR tasks. This, it has been established, can be learnt on-the-job or via a training course. The value of the degree is to develop strategically minded HR professionals. MBAs with HR specialisms would perhaps be another model to adopt for the development of the HR practitioner. The time has come to stop isolating HR practitioners from other professionals through BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

10 segmented degrees and to deliver the education for the profession via multi-disciplinary lecturing teams that are not driven by their own research agendas, or the limitations of their own practice and with multi-disciplined cohorts. The mix of the students in the cohort should be as important as all other entry criteria to ensure a truly valuable learning experience. However, it is clear from the evidence that the role of the professional body is significant in determining the perception of the value of education. The issues identified throughout this paper are not ones that can be resolved by universities and training organisations alone. REFERENCES Armstrong, M. (2000) The name has changed but has the game remained the same? Employee Relations :593. Barber, A. (1999) Implications for the design of Human Resource Management Education, training, and certification, Human Resources Management, Summer Vol. 39 No. 2 Pp Bennis, W. and O Toole, J. (2005) How business schools lost their way. Harvard Business Review: online. Available at (Accessed on 21/8/12). Boston Consulting Group (2010) Creating People Advantage: How companies can adapt their HR practices for volatile times. BCG: online. Available at: (Accessed on 21/8/12). CIPD (2005) HR where is your career heading? CIPD: online. Available at (Accessed on 3/7/12). CIPD (2012) Transforming Membership CIPD: online. Available at (Accessed on 21/8/12) Claus, L. and Collison, J. (2005) the Maturing Profession of Human Resources: Worldwide and regional View Survey Report. Online accessed at (Accessed on 13/4/12). Gibb Dyer Jr, W. (1999) Training Human Resource champions for the Twenty-First century, Human Resource Management, Summer Vol. 38 No.2 pp Heaton, N. and Ackah, C. (2007) Changing HR careers: implications for management education. Journal of Management Development vol 26, No 10 pp Hempel, P. S. (2004) Preparing the HR Profession for Technology and Information Work, Human Resource Management, Summer/Fall Vol 43 Nos. 2 & 3 pp BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

11 IRS (2011): HR careers survey: qualifications versus business experience. IRS Employment Review. Online: IRS available at (Accessed on 13/4/12). Kaufman, B. (1999) Evolution and current status of university HR programs, Human Resource Management, Summer, vol 38, No 2 pp Mencl, J, Lester S, Bourne, K and Marant, C. (2010) Brick and mortar Education and Real world experience: assessing HRM Alumni Perceptions of their Early Professional Development. Journal of Human Resources Education, Volume 4, No. 2 Spring. pp MOL (2013) Ten reasons to chose MOL for your HR qualifications. Online available at (Accessed on 4/3/13) Muller, J. (2009) Forms of knowledge and curriculum coherence. Journal of Education and Work. Vol 22, No 3 pp Ruona, W.E.A, and Gilley, J.W. (2009) Practitioners in Applied Professions: A model applied to Human Resource development, Advances in Developing human Resources, 11(4) pp Schön, D. A. (1991) The reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in Action LONDON: Ashgate. Tamkin, P, Reilly, P and Hirsh, W. (2006). Managing and Developing HR Careers: Emerging Trends and Issues. Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development. Ulrich, D and Brockbank, W. (2005) The HR Value Proposition, Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA. AUTHOR Sarah Hamilton Sarah is the Assessment Enhancement Manager at BPP University College. She previously taught HRM and its associated specialisms across undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at BPP Business School. Sarah has a Masters degree in Higher and Professional Education and has been a qualified member of the CIPD for over 12 years. She is the HR trustee of a local youth charity in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and has extensive practical HR experience from within a variety of different sectors prior to joining BPP. BPP Business School Working Paper HR Education February

12 PUBLISHER BPP UNIVERSITY COLLEGE PLACE OF PUBLICATION LONDON BPP 2013 ISBN

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