Losing sight of human resources development will cost us our place on the board

What has happened to human resources (HR) development? From our experience with our MSc for senior practitioners, it seems to have suffered the same fate as the promised shoes for the cobbler’s children.

Nine months ago, we were lauded by many – including the Financial Times – when we launched a product aimed at supporting the translation of HR experts into business HR experts. This, the FT identified, was one of the great differentiators that positioned some HR functions on business boards and left other functions behind. Our friends at Personnel Today felt that this was such a significant need in their senior readership that they ran a bursary competition for one reader to study for the new qualification (see picture) – yet we can’t run the programme due to insufficient numbers.

As someone with a consumer background, my first question was: what’s wrong with the product? It offered credit for professional qualification, an action learning rather than a classroom approach to development – both business and functional – and a strategic project with clear business deliverables that would add value to a sponsoring organisation. Priced at the same level as similar senior products in other areas which sell well, it was positioned as an opportunity to work collaboratively with other peers alongside the Henley team. If you measure this product against what HR professionals say they want, then it met the requirements, delivered by a business school ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as being among the world’s top 10 MBA schools.

So is there a deeper issue that senior HR professionals are facing? At board level, the key deliverable is business (or in public/third sectors, operational) understanding the output being a functional agenda aligned to and supportive of the wider organisational goals. I have always argued that, in the most effective HR functions, the senior professionals have got there through using the experience gained from such things as postings outside of the function, completing MBAs and attending general management programmes at top business schools. This experience takes time to acquire, requires investment, and involves taking professional risks.

In talking with people across the function about this situation, I find that there are some very mixed messages out there. This type of development is appealing, a formal qualification from a top school is valued, a strategic project where value is given back immediately is seen as a core requirement, and the ability to work with a peer group from across a wide range of sectors is very attractive. But, when it comes down to it, it seems many HR professionals are unwilling to commit to the time involved to get the experience needed, or their organisations don’t see the value. This is really disappointing: regardless of whether there is a qualification involved or not, senior management development in any function takes time.

Experienced HR practitioners are exceptionally good at identifying internal talent which can then be developed and grown into the leaders of the future. They are great at spotting and championing solutions for others, yet seem unable or unwilling to embrace such solutions for themselves. Masters in consulting, coaching and the rest thrive at this level – but these are for many ‘exit’ qualifications from practising HR into becoming consultants in HR and HR-related issues. There is a plethora of qualification programmes out there – but most are for those who are new or nearly new to the function.

So, how much do we value the intensity of personal and professional development that comes from signing up for a substantial longer-term and more time-intensive learning experience? In the age of these networking conferences where we get the answer to the big questions in a day, it is tempting to reject more traditional methods. Yet substance comes from reflection, interaction, challenge and time spent connecting new knowledge and insights to current problems – and it is substance that will put us on the board.

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