How much business knowledge should be expected from fledgling HR professionals? (Analysis)

Most think CHRP certification should involve business knowledge but others think HR should stay true to itself
By Claude Balthazard
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2008

The issue of how much business knowledge an HR practitioner should have is a question the profession has been dealing with for a long time. And, while just about everyone would agree some business knowledge or acumen is a good thing — and essential at the management level — what should we expect at the point of entry into the profession?

HR’s self-professed knowledge gap: Business

In the most recent Pulse Survey, a clear opinion surfaced for most questions. For instance, 78.8 per cent of respondents feel the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) certification process should include some kind of business knowledge requirement and 56.2 per cent see it as the biggest knowledge gap for HR professionals.

A majority of respondents feel business knowledge and business acumen are necessary skills for HR professionals and the certification process should reflect this in some way. Seven out of 10 respondents (70.7 per cent) feel the CHRP should have a formal business education requirement.

But if you look beyond this general agreement among respondents, there are many interesting opinions about business knowledge and HR professionals.

Some are concerned these requirements make sense for more established professionals, but it would be difficult to expect such achievements from those just embarking on their careers. The argument here is most business knowledge or acumen is acquired post-designation (for those who choose to pursue the CHRP).

Again, as with previous surveys, the comments reflect differing views as to the positioning of the CHRP designation — some see it as a relatively junior, entry-level designation whereas others see it as a designation reflecting a more accomplished level of professional capability.

Many think general business knowledge is a good thing, but specific knowledge about the industry and about the organization’s business is even more important. This, of course, would make such knowledge more difficult to assess as part of the certification process.

Business knowledge versus business acumen

Then there are those who distinguish between business knowledge and business acumen — business knowledge is what someone learns at school, while business acumen is what someone learns from experience. Many believe more academic requirements are not needed. Then again, there are a few respondents who believe HR professionals should really have an academic background equivalent to an MBA.

It is interesting to note the academic or coursework requirement is one of the areas that differs across provinces — Quebec and Ontario are the only ones that have established coursework requirements.

Some say business acumen is important, but not necessarily something that should be made a requirement.

The idea is that business acumen may well distinguish those professionals who move on to more senior roles from those who do not, but that is something the corporate environment will take care of. More than a few respondents attribute their career success to their business knowledge or acumen.

‘HR is HR’

Then again, there is a minority who say “HR is HR.” I take this kind of comment to mean the value of HR professionals is in their knowledge of HR and as the profession strays from this core area it moves into areas where its competencies may be less distinctive.

Some note it is important for HR “not to lose itself” in business and not to lose sight of its core area of competence. A variant on this argument is the idea not all HR practitioners need strong business skills and the profession should also have room for these individuals. Another angle on this argument, expressed by respondents, is there are many HR specialists who simply don’t need broad-based business skills.

New professionals better equipped

Some point out the business knowledge problem is not what it used to be. A number of respondents note more and more entrants come into the HR profession with much better business backgrounds than their predecessors. In a way, the certification requirements are lagging behind what has already been happening in HR programs at colleges and universities across the country.

All in all, however, most respondents seem to feel some foundational preparation in business is important. Different professionals may take this foundation different places, but without this basic preparation HR professionals are just not getting a good start in the business world and their ability to fully leverage their HR knowledge will be limited.

Claude Balthazard is director of HR excellence at the Toronto-based Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). He can be reached at (416) 923-2324 or or visit

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