Master’s degree assists HR professionals with credibility, strategy: Academics

Post-graduate education gives professionals better understanding of big picture

HR professionals continue to struggle for credibility in the C-suite, according to Stephen Long, a professor at the faculty of management at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

They are often perceived as having support roles as opposed to roles that are revenue-generating or linked directly to an employer’s mission. Line managers often view them either as gatekeepers of important HR processes or blockers because they prevent managers from doing their jobs in areas such as production, marketing and accounting.

To deal with that, HR professionals need to understand the business really well, he says.

“Frankly, an MBA is a critical educational piece for someone who wants to go up in the HR function and to really have an impact on the organization,” says Long.

“Being exposed to the traditional business disciplines — strategy, marketing, accounting, operations... the ‘hard’ business issues — allows them to understand better the issues that the senior folks are dealing with and to talk their talk, and to frame the soft stuff that’s really so important inside the hard stuff.”

A master’s program in HR or industrial relations allows an HR professional to increase her expertise in a number of areas, says Terry Wagar, a professor of human resource management and industrial relations at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“In addition, an experienced HR professional’s learning is enhanced by an ability to relate the material to real world applications. Moreover, being in a program with other HR professionals expands one’s professional network and discussions both in class and away from the classroom.”

While a master’s degree is particularly beneficial to professionals with at least a moderate amount of experience, seasoned professionals at the vice-president level may also find the courses helpful, he says.

“I personally believe that a student will get more out of the program if they have at least some work experience, rather than entering the program directly from an undergraduate degree.”

Depending on the program, students can take courses from a variety of disciplines such as business, psychology, economics and law, says Wagar.

“With the increasing focus on evidence-based management and data analytics, developing a greater understanding of these issues is invaluable. Also, some programs allow (or) require students to complete a major research project or thesis and professionals can often do research, which benefits their learning as well as the organization.”

Understanding research

A lot of managers and HR managers know very little about how to technically do HR, or all the research that’s gone on in HR and organizational behaviour, so a graduate degree is an excellent way to gain a sense of HR research and evidence-based practice, says Mary Jo Ducharme, an associate professor and graduate program director at the School of HR Management at York University in Toronto.

“We’re realizing that one of the intangibles of organizational performance is people, so our information and our knowledge about how to do these things has lagged behind in our education,” she says.

“(We) try to teach our students how to be consumers of the research because there’s ongoing research in HR and HR professionals have a responsibility to know and understand what the recent best practices and evidence-based practices are.”

Too often, HR professionals are reliant on consultants and companies that are selling fads to make HR work, says Ducharme.

“What we want to do is change that, to have our graduates understand how to actually go back to the scientific research themselves, consume it and apply it.”

MBA versus MA?

While the MBA has had its critics when it comes to quality, that’s more directed at young graduates — the degree still has credibility, says Long.

“It’s better to go to the general area of business to once again increase your knowledge of business and to be able to speak with credibility and understanding the issues that line managers face. And the truth is that some of the specialties in HR have two courses out of 12 that are in the arena.

“That’s OK, but I would really urge HR professionals to get grounded in and to deal with the issue of credibility by line managers, and knowing and being trained about general business is a terrific way of doing that.”

Sometimes HR professionals have a narrow view of the requirements and legislation and they fail to see the whole picture, says Long.

“I would encourage folks to see that bigger picture, and the MBA is a way to expose them to that broader picture.”

But an MBA is more of a generalist degree and, depending on the program, the ability to specialize in HR and take several courses may be limited, says Wagar.

“A master’s in HR allows for considerably more specialization and the opportunity to study with students who have a similar interest in HR.”

However, HR professionals who are working or who want to work at a strategic level need to have at least a basic understanding of the other functional areas and their relationships with HR, says Wagar.

“Of course, this knowledge can be obtained in several ways. A student’s career objectives are important in deciding whether to take an MBA or a specialized master’s degree,” he says.

The outcome is what is important, according to Tracey Gurton, a full-time lecturer in organizational behaviour and management at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“No matter how they get the skills and knowledge required to rise to vice-president status and above (if that’s what is desired), HR folks need vertical and horizontal insight. This can come from an MBA with lots of experience, an MA with lots of experience or even a clever combination of liberal arts and executive development (and lots of experience).”

If HR professionals are to participate at the strategic level of a business, they need an understanding of business, she says.

“To contribute at the most senior level of decision-making means having a broad view of all organizational functions and how they integrate to fulfill a company’s purpose and achieve its vision. Such functions would not be limited to marketing, finance, sales, accounting, operations/logistics/supply chain, product or service differentiation and strategy. Add to that a solid grip on economics.”

However, a true HR leader also must be specialized enough in the key deliverables of HR to have earned the right to lead his team, “not simply sit at the big kid’s table asserting oneself at the proverbial 30,000-foot view,” says Gurton.

“Therefore, this requires a deep knowledge (and hopefully a humble level of experience) in the best practices of: recruitment and selection; performance management; total compensation; employee relations (labour relations in some cases); training and development; organizational development; employment law; and talent management. Add to that a laser focus on people metrics.”

No matter what path an HR practitioner takes, it’s the rest of the senior team that needs to commit to HR being a colleague rather than a subordinate, says Gurton.

“If that’s not the case, then not only is the career path of a particular HR manager in jeopardy, so is the potential future of the company.”

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