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," she says.
"If you want to move up, an MBA will give you credibility with others in the organisati