Readers’ Choice winner 2023: Queen’s University IRC

Alison Darling of Queen’s University IRC — a 2023 winner of the Readers’ Choice Awards for HR — spoke with Canadian HR Reporter about how the school has become a standout in the area of continuing education, newer skills being pursued by HR leaders and professionals, and how their courses stay relevant and topical.

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Sarah Dobson  00:38:49

Hi there. I'm Sarah Dobson managing editor for Canadian HR reporter. And joining me today is Alison Darling. She is the Director of Professional Programs at Queen's University IRC. The University is a Reader's Choice winner for 2023. So welcome.

Alison Darling  00:39:05

Thank you, Sarah. It's great to be here.

Sarah Dobson  00:39:07

Yeah. So we're looking forward to hearing more about your programs, and obviously, success in this area. So to begin, can you talk a bit about how Queens has become such a standout in the area of continuing education?

Alison Darling  00:39:20

Yeah, absolutely. So Queens IRC was founded back in 1937. So last year, we celebrated our 85th anniversary. So we've definitely been around in the space for a long time. And you might say, we were kind of a pioneer in the space of certainly labor relations and human resources training. And then building on that, obviously, Queen's University's insanely strong reputation for, you know, research and teaching excellence. So those are kind of the pillars, I suppose, to our success. But from that, but we've really built and evolved, you know, we haven't stayed still, obviously, the past 85 years, we are always looking to continually grow. Our programs are taught by real life, practitioners in the field. So we have our facilitators are leaders in the content that we're teaching. And the IRC team itself is a team of very dedicated professionals. So when people come to us, for our programs, they know that they're going to get that I suppose, fantastic service, right from start to finish both pre program and during the program as well. So people come to us because they know what they're going to get with our programs. And like I've said, we are constantly evolving ways that we do that is at the end of all of our programs, we receive feedback from our participants about how we, you know, we can improve it in areas that we can continue to grow in. So we engage our clients throughout the process to ensure that we are continuing to meet their needs. We're also a thought leader in the areas of labor relations, human resources and organizational design. So if you go to our website, you'll see there are 1000s of articles on there, again, written by researchers written by practitioners in the field. But people can come and get those additional resources from us to support them in the challenges that they're having in the workplace. From a technical point of view, again, we're always evolving here, as the same as everyone else. During the pandemic, we had to move to the virtual environment. So that enabled us to launch what we call studio IRC or our virtual classroom, which we're continuing to run in addition to the in person programs that we're now back running. And again, kind of a bit of a pioneer in the space of executive education or professional development with our digital badging. So now, when participants come to our programs, they get digital credentials that they can share with their networks online. Another area I would say, that we're being particularly sought after right now is customized training, you know, the areas I don't need to tell anyone in the industry, you know, the disruption that we've experienced, and the challenges that have come up. So we're working with a lot of organizations now in the customized training space. And that's an area that's grown almost 40% in the past year. And that's another way that we support clients to make sure that you know, what we are doing really meets their their individual needs.

Sarah Dobson  00:42:18

Very impressive. Definitely a lot going on there. Great to hear. Well, can you talk a bit more about some of the newer skills that are being pursued by HR professionals and leaders?

Alison Darling  00:42:29

So I mean, we, I think we're using terms of vocabulary now that we wouldn't really have thought about a few years ago, you know, we've got hybrid workforce, we've got the war on talent kind of terms such as this. So these are certainly skills that people are looking for. So in the areas of talent management, you know, how can we support again, that the employee journey, how can we support creating a learning culture for organizations so that we're becoming more skills based, as opposed to people, you know, coming in maybe with kind of an education based background, so really, that the way of work is changing? So how we've responded to that our talent management program has just relaunched, which really focuses on that, again, you know, how can you manage talent, right from the recruitment pipeline, into you know, the end of the employees journey, for example, and again, how do you create a learning culture, hybrid work? How do you manage your team when you know, some are in the office, some working remote? And how do you keep employees engaged in that environment? So those are definitely areas where we're hearing a lot So, of people wanting support in those areas, you know, on the labor relations front in particular, you know, people are now doing virtual bargaining or how do you conduct investigations when employees are working remotely. So, mastering fact finding investigations program is another program that's had a significant overhaul, as has our labor relations Foundations program as well. So what we're seeing, again, is not just you know, people are looking for different content, but but our participants are also changing, you know, we're having employees come in earlier in their employee lifecycle, so the average age of our classroom might be getting younger. So how do you support people from, you know, early in earlier in their career than we might have typically looked at, in the past, and, of course, you know, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is a huge, huge topic for organizations right now. So we're embedding EDI content into more and more of our programs, to make sure that that those skills are being passed on as well. And again, not to, I'm sure, there will be a point in the future when we stop talking about the pandemic, but during the pandemic, you know, the window into an employee's life was completely opened, everyone's working from home. So you had parents that were also homeschooling, you had pets that were involved, you know, there may have been elder care as well. And so the pandemic really opened, I think that, you know, like I said, the window on an employee, as a whole that and that whole employees now coming to work. So how are we supporting employees with their mental health? How are we supporting that whole employee? And what skills do leaders need now to be able to support employees in that way, as well? So I would say that the way that people are showing up to work is different, which I think is is wonderful. And as leaders now we need to make sure that we're equipped so that we can support our employees, not just, you know, with their work, but potentially beyond that as well.

Sarah Dobson  00:45:36

Well, absolutely very impressive. Well, given your 85 year history, you obviously know the importance of continually evolving. How does Queen's make sure its courses in content stay relevant and topical?

Alison Darling  00:45:47

Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, our slogan for our 85th anniversary was 85 years of lifelong learning. So you're right. It's not just, you know, what we're imparting to people, but ourselves as an organization as well, we need to continue to learn and evolve. So ways that we do that, as I explained, you know, a little bit earlier on we we survey all of our participants at the end of every program to find out, you know, how did the program resonate? Where could we continue to improve? So that's constant feedback that we're getting from our participants, every few years as well, we run bigger surveys, which is called at the state of HR in the state of LR. So these are much longer surveys that go out to, to past participants to find out, you know, what, what is the situation in their organization right now? Where are the skills gaps? And how can we continue to support that? And what potential areas of growth can we have to support those those skills deficits as well, as I mentioned, you know, we've updated the curriculum not just on talent management and labor relations, in fact finding but we've just relaunched our leading Human Resources Program. And again, this program has been completely overhauled to help current HR leaders and professionals, you know, again, to equip them with the skills that they need when dealing with their organization. So we are constantly looking to, to update curriculum to launch new programs, other areas, you know, that, you know, not just getting feedback directly from our participants, but also, you know, what, what is the market telling us? So we sponsor conferences, we go out to conferences, you know, such as the HR leaders summit we were at in November, last year in Toronto, we're off to Sherman next week, down in Las Vegas. So you know, that we wanting to keep an eye and really keep ourselves engaged with what is happening in the market. What are the leaders in other areas telling us to make sure that yes, our programs continue to grow and evolve that way?

Sarah Dobson  00:47:46

Absolutely. Makes a lot of sense. Well, and so looking ahead for the next year, I want new developments to screens have planned for its offerings.

Alison Darling  00:47:56

Absolutely. So in addition to embedding EDI content and our current programs, we are launching a new program in equity, diversity and inclusion. So that will be coming in spring 2024. And this will be an entire program, you know, to support leaders in making sure their organizations are equitable, and that diversity and inclusion are really at the forefront of thinking. We're also about to begin a full curriculum review. So in addition to you know, looking at individual programs, we offer for certificates here at the IRC in labor relations, human resources and organizational design. So how to each of our individual components building to each other so that those taking certificates can kind of see the progression of their education journey and so that we can make sure that the content is supporting their journey and supporting the other programs. We're also about to launch over the summer at a new participant portal. So this will be a new house for our virtual classroom, it will also give participants access to digital course materials. So as you can imagine, you know, professional development can be a very resource heavy education. So if we're printing binders, and we're taking those two programs, so what we've been hearing from our participants, and again, with Queens scoring very highly in the Times Higher Education has sustainability rankings, you know, we need to be more mindful of what we're doing to the environment. So our new participant portal will provide digital content, as opposed to us having to print off resources. So if it's in with the UN Sustainable goals, you know, where Queens is going as an institution, but also what our participants are asking for us. We're also looking to see further international partnerships that we can develop. So currently, we have partners down in the Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago, in Bermuda in the Bahamas, where we work with organizations there and take programming to participants in those locations. So we're looking okay, where can we further expand globally? And what partners can we develop? So those are the key things I would say for the next year, a couple of years. But those are the things that we have coming up on the horizon, again, to keep us evolving as an organization.

Sarah Dobson  00:50:15

Great. Well, thanks for sharing I'm sure there's a lot more we could cover. But that's that's perfect encapsulation of your impressive range of offerings and in a variety of formats, which is also important. So it's obviously having a big impact on a lot of HR professionals and leaders and thank you again for your time.

Alison Darling  00:50:35

Thank you, Sarah. It's been a pleasure to talk with you.

Sarah Dobson  00:50:38

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