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Growing with the business

HR professionals are heading back to the classroom as their work roles become ever more dynamic

The role of the HR department has evolved dramatically in recent years. Whereas HR professionals used to be seen as providing a supportive role within an organisation, they are increasingly being expected to adopt a much more strategic position. As a result, they are becoming more of a part of the decision-making process.

“HR professionals used to be perceived as just helping with personnel records, payroll and other paperwork,” says Dr Catherine Ng, programme director of the MSc in Management (Human Resource Management) in the department of management and marketing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Faculty of Business. “In a knowledge society, employees are intellectual assets to organisations. The better that organisations recruit, train, groom, motivate and retain talented individuals, the more competitive they are.”

With the issue of corporate social responsibility becoming increasingly important in recent years, organisations also need to make sure that their employees behave in a way that is not only ethical, but socially responsible. This job often falls to HR professionals.

“This is both the right thing to do and one of the factors that contributes to organisational stability and success,” Ng says. “HR professionals are now part of strategic management teams and play a key role in charting organisations’ future directions.”

In order to keep abreast of the latest HR developments, many mid-career professionals opt for a trip back to the classroom to make sure their knowledge and skills are of the level required by forward-thinking organisations.

“Students of the HR management [HRM] programmes at PolyU do not come for just technical knowledge, such as database management. They expect a lot more,” Ng says. “They want new perspectives for analysing issues and problems. They need theoretical frameworks and practical skills for understanding fast-paced changes, people psychology, team dynamics and organisational systems. They need critical-thinking and communication skills. As such, HRM programmes are continuously updated to meet students’ learning needs.”

Students enrolled on PolyU’s MSc in Management (Human Resources Management) programme are required to take both core courses and electives. With their electives, students can focus on one or more of their particular areas of concern.

“HR professionals who aim to further their knowledge in specific areas such as pay and compensation and employee relations would benefit from those specialised electives,” Ng says. “But our programme also offers electives such as conflict management and negotiation, managing change, and managing diversity. Students are expected to keep abreast of the latest issues, keep an open mind, think critically, and make reasonable decisions according to what resources are available and when.”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) has been running an MSc in Strategic Human Resources Management (MScSHRM) programme since 2002. An executive-level programme, it aims to develop a strategic Asia-Pacific focus within the context of globalisation and comprises three elements: strategies, globalisation and ethics.

Professor Alicia Leung, director of the MScSHRM programme, says that while the traditional role of an HR manager focused on recruitment, compensation, payrolls and benefits, they now need to move beyond backroom and support functions.

“As strategic partners, HR managers need to be able to contribute to the bottom line by acting strategically and advising top management,” Leung says. “In the future, human resources policies and principles will have to be in line with the company’s strategies for future development. We want [HR managers] to become strategic partners that are able to sit in the boardroom and participate in business decisions.”

Leung says that the MScSHRM programme has been designed to provide HR professionals with the skills, knowledge, abilities and ethical mindset they need to interact successfully at the highest levels of business within an international context. It is targeted at executives, especially upwardly mobile managers, HR consultants and entrepreneurs within Greater China, and is taught on a part-time basis.

One of the programme’s more interesting courses covers industrial-organisational psychology. “HKBU is the only university in Hong Kong to offer this course, which teaches students how to create a working environment conducive to helping employees do the right thing,” Leung says. “We help them to improve their working attitudes and motivations to enhance their psychological and physical well-being – for example, to increase their job satisfaction and reduce turnover.”

Another course, HR measurement, helps HR practitioners get a better picture of the effectiveness of the HR function. “This course teaches ways and means to measure outcomes,” Leung says. “HR itself cannot be measured, so we teach participants how to audit HR activities and functions through measurement to improve the organisation’s overall effectiveness.”

Not everyone working in HR has the time, or the need, to pursue a degree programme. Sometimes a short course – lasting a few days, weeks or months – offers a more cost-effective return on investment.

To this end, the Executive Education division of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM-EE) – part of the Australian School of Business – offers a number of executive short courses that provide participants with access to the latest international research and cutting-edge thinking on key business issues.

“A new type of HR professional has begun to emerge,” says Caroline Trotman, executive director of AGSM-EE. “With organisations seeking to become more agile, global and efficient, HR is changing how and what it delivers. Choppy economic growth over recent years has been accompanied by a focus on building talent in particular regions and countries. This has resulted in the need to understand global outlooks, trends and issues.”

The HR department, she adds, is playing an increasingly important role in organisational decision-making. “Not only do HR professionals need to be aware of how their organisation is positioning itself, but given their intimate knowledge of the human-capital input, they have become part of the core business team shaping and delivering on the organisation’s strategic direction. The HR professional is emerging as a key business leader with the necessary commercial, strategic and innovation capabilities,” she says.

Because of these changes in the relationship between the HR department and the rest of the organisation, the course content of HR programmes offered at AGSM-EE has evolved over the years.

“We are offering programmes targeted at developing the capabilities for this new human resources agenda and leadership model. Human resources leaders must make strategic choices based on the organisation’s direction, including transforming their own function so that it delivers against organisational objectives,” she says.

“We look at these strategic choices through examples of best practice, the latest research, and how organisational development principles and practices can be leveraged to impact and embed human resource transformation as well as organisational-change programmes. Participants on our programmes develop human resources leadership and commercial capabilities so they can re-charter their function and shape and deliver strategy that goes to the bottom line.”

She adds that development programmes have shifted from technical or operational training to strategic HR. “They now include relationship and internal-consulting skills, strategy development, strategy execution, a greater focus on engagement, and managing change,” she says.

AGSM-EE recently launched “The New HR” programme, which is aimed at senior HR professionals who want to understand how they can operate more efficiently in the changing HR environment. The programme is taught by Professor William Rothwell and Roland Sullivan, two of the world’s leading experts on HR, talent and organisational development.

“[The New HR] is a six-day programme taught in blocks of two over three months,” Trotman says. “In addition to face-to-face learning, participants have the unique opportunity to carry out a strategic challenge back at their organisation while being mentored by our programme leaders. The objective of the programme is to build the participant’s HR leadership and business capabilities as well as a workplace programme that will bring about long-lasting change and value for the participant’s organisation.”

AGSM-EE offers another programme called “Effective People Manager” to help HR professionals develop the skills to engage in empowering conversations. “In HR, this sits at the very centre of leading high-performing teams and organisations. One by one, these conversations can improve productivity and relationships between managers and direct reports, between peers, and just as importantly, with external clients,” Trotman says.

However, change – even when it’s for the better – never comes easily. To tackle this issue, Trotman says that the main AGSM body has developed the Graduate Certificate in Change Management to help HR professionals deal with this issue. The programme should be of particular interest to HR professionals looking for practical tools for managing people though change and overcoming resistance.

“A focus of the programme is to develop the confidence and skills to become a successful agent of change,” Trotman says.