Schooled in HR

Strategy, change management, technology, employment law, social media just a few subjects that should be part of HR’s professional development
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/29/2012

We’ve heard it many times: “HR isn’t what it used to be.” And we see it in the workplace, with HR increasingly taking on a variety of responsibilities as it expands its role and reach.

Universities and colleges across Canada are tasked with providing the foundational skills and expertise for professionals to succeed, with their fingers on the pulse of the next wave of HR.

So where should HR professionals be focusing their professional development efforts?

In talking to instructors across the country, a number of common areas arise, including strategic goals, employment law and workplace research.

Strategic goals help with decision-making

As the role of the HR professional broadens and becomes more related to strategic goals, this will help with decision-making at any level of HR, says Mary Jo Ducharme, associate professor at the School of Human Resource Management at York University in Toronto.

“Even at the undergraduate level, we are now teaching students, not just in leadership, we’re teaching students right at the basic level that they need to be in tune with the strategy of the organization and all of their HR processes have to be in line with that strategy.”

That’s exciting because it’s about getting back to the basics, she says.

“The only way an HR professional can make decisions that they know are based in line with the strategy of an organization is by having a sound job analysis or competency model — whatever you want to call it.”

And that works well with employment law, which continues to be vital to HR’s expertise.

“If you’re linking everything to job analysis, you’ve got no worries in anything. You’re also going to have an increased sense of trust in your organization if everything is linked back to job analysis so you’re less likely to have legal issues... so what’s old is new,” says Ducharme.

And as its role expands, HR may be working more with other departments such as finance — but that shouldn’t be an immediate concern.

“What’s really important is they know their own trade really well, that’s the starting point, and then you can see where it fits into the bigger picture,” says Ducharme.

Another skill that’s really important is how to understand research, she says. That means having students read academic literature or meta-analysis that summarizes years of research on a topic and factors out statistical artifacts to provide a clear picture of relationships.

“I really want my undergraduate students and graduate students to understand how to read and use meta-analysis because those kinds of studies, I can confidently say, should be affecting HR professionals’ practices,” says Ducharme. “But it’s just not happening — most HR professionals don’t know how to do that and I think it’s a really important skill.”

Other areas of particular interest include telework and flexible work arrangements, which HR professionals need to understand how to integrate, she says. Evidence shows these approaches help boost performance and job satisfaction, while lowering turnover — yet the uptake has been really slow.

“It’s happening but also it’s going to happen more,” says Ducharme.

Focusing on bottlenecks

Richard Roy says HR needs to pay more attention to work structuring or re-engineering. That means focusing on bottlenecks or roadblocks in the work process, or duplications and red tape, says the instructor of HR management at the School of Business and Economics at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

“We work at making employees more efficient through training, a variety of things, performance management, but I think HR has lost sight of the work itself and how it’s structured,” he says. “This is an area for HR to really show itself and really make a difference in terms of performance and efficiency.”

Building on that is change management, says Roy, as too often HR relies on outside consultants.

“This is a skill that HR needs to develop and be more proactive with,” he says. “HR has to really pay attention to and learn to tap into what employees can offer. I don’t know that we’re particularly good at that.”

Diversity is also important, when it comes to gender, culture and age, says Roy. It’s about facilitating people to work together and learn from each other, passing on experiences and knowledge between generations.

Students struggle without proper guidance, coaching, teamwork and communication, he says, but with the right leadership and skills, they learn to work together — and that applies to the workplace as well.

Also of interest for HR is mutual-gains or interest-based bargaining, says Roy, with HR learning how to translate, both for employers and employees, mutual interests and convey how a successful, productive company leads to better job security and better pay.

“HR has a role there, to be able to bridge that with the parties to say, ‘Listen, it’s in our best interest that the company be successful or the department be efficient, so how do we work together on that?’”

Labour law issues come into play

Employment law is also receiving more attention, beyond business law areas such as contracts or establishing a legal entity, says Russel Summers, chair of the management department at the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University in Halifax.

“When people leave the MBA program, they’re going to go off and work in organizations and, relatively soon, find themselves in managerial positions and that means they’ve got to play by the rules of the game and it would be a good idea if they had a sense of what those rules are, and that’s where labour law issues, employment law issues, come into play.”

HR professionals also need to be familiar and comfortable with technology, according to Summers. For example, succession planning used to involve a file in a filing cabinet but now can be done through tracking software. Similarly, recruitment methods are being expanded through screening software along with sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

“It’s not so much that there’s newer areas — there’s newer techniques,” he says, adding social media is increasingly discussed during university courses.

“It doesn’t lend itself readily to an assignment or project but what you can get students to do is go out and check out, search down and report back on what they found about organizations doing those kinds of things.”

Recruitment challenges in spotlight in West

On the other side of the country, in Alberta, recruitment and retention are the biggest issues as employers experience growing pains and lower unemployment levels. HR professionals need to learn about where to find the right candidates, how to attract them and how to keep them, says Don Schepens, an HR instructor at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton.

“There’s a lot more pressure on hiring the right person for the job versus hiring anybody.”

Accompanying that is the need to work with recruitment magnets such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and learning how to drill down into the portals to find the right person for the job, he says.

And finally, employment law is increasingly important as people are a lot more litigious than they were 20 years ago, says Schepens.

“Nowadays, you’re probably going to wind up sued if you work in HR and it’ll be for either hiring somebody or firing somebody, so you better know the laws in both hands,” he says.

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