HR professionals are finding it difficult to break through the glass ceiling
blocking their route to the boardroom. Lack of experience and inappropriate
qualifications are often cited as reasons. So what should practitioners do to
give themselves the best chance of succeeding? Francis Beckett sets the scene
Of all the subjects you can study at business school, human resources had
the rockiest time in the last 25 years. In the 1970s, an MA in one of three topics
– industrial relations, personnel or organisational behaviour – from Warwick
University or the London School of Economics, was regarded as a highly
prestigious business degree.
They are now more often all referred to as human resources qualifications.
The change of name was partly a means of raising the status by making it
sound closer to the heart of business concerns. But to many the human resources
label reflects a philosophy that people are just another resource, like desks
or computers. Personnel or industrial relations dealt with people; HR only
deals with units of resource, they say.
Nor has the new name pushed HR to the top of the academic food chain. Today,
experts in HR still struggle to reach the highest peak in business unless they
have broader skills too, says Peter Rafferty, MBA director at Vlerick Leuven
Gent School of Business in Belgium.
"Without a good grounding in all aspects of business they will hit a
glass ceiling," he says. "They will have missed out on the hard
skills like finance and marketing, and are not credible at board level."
So for budding HR professionals, he advises an MBA with a specialism in
human resources, such as the degree his school offers in association with
Cranfield School of Management in Britain and EM Lyon in France. "We give
them all they need to start to manage a business," he claims.
Dr Debra Cohen, director of research at the Society for Human Resource
Management (SHRM) in the US, and teacher of HR at George Washington
University’s School of Business and Public Management highlights the problem.
Cohen made what, in retrospect, she thinks was a mistake: she did a specialist
MA in HR instead of an MBA. "I had to go back, get a PhD and do other
things, to see how it all fitted in with other aspects of the business,"
"If you want to move up, an MBA will give you credibility with others
in the organisation" she says. But the specialist qualification still has
its defenders – not surprisingly, from Warwick Business School. Dr Helen
Newell, who teaches what Warwick still defiantly calls ‘industrial relations
and personnel management’, accepts that HR professionals need to understand the
rest of the business, though she’s not sold on an MBA as the means to that end.
But she thinks the knowledge gap that needs to be bridged is in the rest of
the organisation, not in the HR department. It’s other specialists who need
more understanding of HR. "We should have specialist options in MBA
courses for those who will not be HR professionals, so they understand why HR
matters," she says.
"We teach too much about technology and systems and too little about
people. The exchange of information is suffering because of e-mail which means
that people do not talk to each other any more. Companies need to get back their
people skills. In a perfect world, an HR professional would have both an MBA
and a specialist qualification."
So what is it best to study – a specific HR degree, or an MBA?
"Both," says Lisbeth Claus, Associate Professor of International HR
and Cross Cultural Management at the Monterey Institute of International
Studies’ Graduate School of International Business in California.
"To get ahead in HR, HR qualifications are a condition, but not
sufficient. Without business knowledge, it is difficult to add value to the
company in an HR function. HR professionals must know how to manage
At Monterey they offer something unusual: not a specialist HR MBA, but an
MBA with an international HR track. Students take 20 of their 64 MBA credits in
the international HR speciality. Companies need HR specialists; but HR
specialists need to understand the rest of the company’s functions, says Claus.
"A company’s strategy is implemented by people. Managing human capital
is essential to achieving a company’s strategic objectives. Looking at the
successful global HR practitioners – those that have reached the top of the
organisation – they often have an MBA [in the US] and are multilingual [except
in the US]."
An MBA specifically for HR does not seem like a good idea to her. "Why
isolate HR even more from the business side?" she says.
But professional bodies, like the SHRM in the US and the Chartered Institute
for Personnel Development (CIPD) in the UK, still have their own
qualifications, and in recent years they have broadened their curricula to
include more about other aspects of the business. Despite the best efforts of
the SHRM and CIPD, their qualifications are still seen in some circles as too
narrow for the truly ambitious corporate climber.
"At SHRM," says Dr Cohen, "we look for strategies to bring
business acumen into HR. And if you don’t have an MBA or an advanced degree,
the qualification is excellent."
CIPD’s director of membership and education, Judy Whittaker, insists:
"Anyone working in international HR should have demonstrated competence in
this area by completing their qualification. Certainly this would be the case
for anyone completing the CIPD professional qualification. An MBA is not
necessary if they have completed a comprehensive HR qualification."
Perhaps. But predictably, few business schools agree. Their typical view is
that an MBA – with perhaps an elective in HR – is the best way for the HR
specialist to make him or herself promotable. Concentrating on HR itself is
largely frowned upon, whether you do it by taking a professional qualification
from the CIPD or the SHRM, or you take a specialist MBA in HR. Until this year,
City University Business School in London was one of the few which had a
specialist HR MBA, in which about 60 per cent of the course was HR. City found
there was no longer enough demand, and has abandoned the course.
This leaves only three specialist HR MBAs in the UK, at Exeter and
Sunderland universities and at the Liverpool Institute of Public Administration
and Management. Manchester Metropolitan University will start one in 2003. In
the US, Claus is not aware of a single one.
The problem is that people expect everything of the HR specialist: a deep
specialist knowledge of their own area which no one else can match, but also an
understanding of everything else about the business.
As Michael Pitfield, director of corporate relations at Henley Management
College, puts it: "HR professionals are expected to be experts on
international culture, know about legal changes at national and international
level, and manage complex outsourcing projects. Yet at the same time, we also
hear of HR professionals not being taken seriously. Issues such as succession
planning, hiring new board members, integrating the culture of a merged organisation,
and evaluating group training needs, are often taken out of the hands of the HR
department and given to external consultants or non-executive directors."
This much is clear: to get ahead in HR, more than an HR qualification is
required; you have something special to offer. "You bring to the table an
understanding of the importance of human capital," as Debra Cohen puts it,
but that is not enough. Julianne Jammers, Director of MBA Marketing and Career
Services at the Swiss business school IMD, spelled out what else is required.
"You must be able to align your human talent across the organisation.
You must be able to get your CEO to buy into this, and to do so you must be
able to speak the language. You must be able to understand the strategy and the
structure of the organisation."
The HR specialist needs not only to know all about HR, but to know all about
everyone else’s job too.
Richard Hill is Head of Company
Professional Development at Rolls-Royce – which isn’t the car maker of
yesteryear, but one of the world’s leading engineering companies. He was an HR
specialist, but had not taken the CIPD qualification, before he took his MBA at
Loughborough Business School 10 years ago. He studied part-time over three
years, and specialised in international comparative management.
The MBA helped him to move to an international HR role at head
of Rolls-Royce’s international training and development.
He sees the MBA as useful but not vital. "For the
individual, part of the solution to professional development might be an MBA,
but the MBA is not a panacea," he says.
"It gave me the confidence to handle business language. It
enabled me to participate actively in command business discussion, as opposed
to acting in a support role. It gave me international industrial maturity."
In his present job, he is developing the Rolls-Royce corporate
learning system based on a faculty approach. HR is one of those faculties, and
the programme gives HR practitioners an international perspective.
The Society of Human Resources Management
To see their directory of HR graduate programmes in the United States, log
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
Association of MBAs
European Foundation for Management Development
The International Association for Management Education
Henley Management Centre
Warwick Business School
De Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School
Monterey Institute of International Studies
EM Lyon e-mail