Ever since the days of the industrial sweatshops in the late 19th century people have been trained in the skills of personnel management. More than 100 years ago there were 'welfare secretaries' who worked with employers to oversee staffing matters. Today qualifications provided by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) are considered as 'must haves', with more than 12,000 people a year studying for its professional qualifications, either directly or through 300 CIPD-approved providers of learning.
The courses cover a range of traditional HR disciplines from coaching, HR management, psychology of management, employment law, organisational development, recruitment and selection. Yet there is a feeling trainees are left with skill gaps when it comes to the basic commercial aspects of the business they work in.
Peter Scraton is group HR director at semi-conductor manufacturer e2v and gained experience in HR and operations at Heinz, PepsiCo and O2. As former director of European manufacturing for Heinz, his role was purely operational. "The CIPD must take a bigger step towards integrating its very good courses with the realities of business," he says. "When working in a company you must be streetwise and able to apply the theory. Some HR professionals can be process-obsessed, regardless of what is going on in the business."
Observers claim this has always been a problem. During the 1960s and 1970s personnel managers were trained in understanding collective bargaining and how to implement employment legislation during an era of powerful trade unions. The 1980s saw changes to trade union legislation and the HR role became more administrative. New skills to do with conflict resolution and negotiations had to be learned and courses appeared covering payroll and record-keeping. Among the qualifications to emerge were NVQs and BTECs in personnel administration.
Since the election of a Labour government in 1997 industrial relations has moved up the HR agenda again and employment legislation has poured out of the European Union. Training has had to evolve, but there remains concern that HR professionals cannot think strategically because they lack broader business knowledge.
"People who immerse themselves in HR qualifications must also understand how other functions within the business work," says Peter Reilly, director of HR research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies.
Nick Holley, executive director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School, says HR professionals can suffer from 'initiative-itus'. They want to introduce more and more ideas without considering what people elsewhere in the organisation will have to stop doing to comply: "It might mean they won't be talking to customers as much," says Holley. "HR qualifications have a place, but they are not the differentiator when it comes to what makes a great strategic HR professional."
Indeed, many HRDs have reached the top without ticking too many industry training boxes (see case studies). Instead they have demonstrated that their broader experience in different operations roles is more valuable. So is the criticism that CIPD qualifications - and those offered by other training companies - are too focused on the core HR function really justified?
HR understands business
Andrew Spencer, head of CIPD training, says the perception that HR professionals do not understand business is an outdated stereotype. He cites CIPD qualifications such as the Certificate in Business Awareness and Advanced Professional Study, which introduces people to a range of business skills, as an example of how things have changed. "The CIPD is also offering training on strategic leadership for senior HR professionals," he points out. "HR professionals at director level want to develop their own training agenda and identify their own skill gaps so we are acting as a facilitator. It might be that someone needs help understanding the financial aspects of their company."
Other training suppliers have come out fighting too. Capita Learning and Development focuses on HR training and employment law but does have a course called HR as a Business Partner. Capita says this course teaches people how to persuade other functions to partner with HR and how to add value to an organisation.
Sheila Cameron, chair of the Open University's MSc in HR management course, says the OU's programme is aimed at experienced professionals and is a close relative of its MBA. HR students can also choose from the MBA suite of courses where they study alongside managers from other functions.
Workforce expert Kenexa is also bridging the gap between theoretical qualifications and the commercial world with a course called HR Unplugged. It includes five modules: people applications; business-driven human capital management; HR proving added value; delivering successful HR solutions; and organisational development. "Our workshops are more business-focused than the CIPD courses," says consulting director Dave Millner. "We find HRDs appreciate that they need a commercial mindset and a grasp of real business issues."
Action is also being taken in the public sector. Kelly Sandiford, manager for people management at The Improvement and Development Agency, says HR teams do need a better understanding of how their role relates to the service local people receive. "For example, HR has a direct impact on refuse collection," she points out. "It is involved in training, recruitment, skills development and business processes that should improve services. Our training can help HR people understand the influence their role has and the context in which they are working."
But despite the work going on to plug commercial skill gaps, there is a view that training companies should do more. At people development business Hemsley Fraser, director Wendy Brooks believes most HR qualifications are still failing to prepare HR people for the job of HR director. "There is still too much focus on the functional specialisms such as compensation, employment law and performance management," she says. "What is missing is knowledge of how to problem-solve when a business is changing."
Of course, there are plenty of HR directors who have earned professional qualifications and appreciate the benefits. Mark Thompson is head of HR and business improvement at top 50 law firm Cobbetts. He holds a masters degree in human resources development and diplomas in training management and company direction. He is also a fellow of the CIPD. "A great HR director typically combines professional qualifications with knowledge and skills gained through on-the-job experience," he says. "HR qualifications provide a basic grounding but when moving up to director level personal qualities and effective business judgment become increasingly important."
Another fellow of the CIPD is Capgemini Global Oursourcing's head of HR, Robert Ingram, who started his working life as a general management trainee in the NHS. He achieved CIPD and NHS management qualifications before joining IBM as an HR manager. He says exams should be more of a background achievement. "If you cannot connect everything you do to the core objectives of the business and make a contribution to its financial position, its growth and its reputation, you won't survive long," he says. "The CIPD courses are great to help people get a grip of best practice but I would like to see the institute get more involved in executive courses like MBAs."
Ingram is not alone in saying that an MBA can be a more relevant qualification for HR professionals. Jonathan Trevor, a lecturer in HR at the Centre for International Human Resource Management at the Cambridge Judge Business School, says more HR leaders are completing MBAs for a generalist management education. "There is also increasing take-up of tailored executive courses focused on HR leadership," he says. "Unfortunately no HR qualifications are valued at a strategic level in business. Financial and accountancy exams have more credibility. An MBA or being a chartered accountant will serve you better than any CIPD training."
- "Qualifications are only a guide to how good someone is"
Carol Madeley HR director, Autoglass
Autoglass managing director Nigel Doggett says any HR director must have a genuine interest in the business. Without this they will lack the vision needed to contribute fully to the corporate strategy. "A great HR director will lead by example, be decisive and not be afraid to take risks," says Doggett. "They must not wrapped up in rules and policy."
The vehicle glass repair company's HR director is Carol Madeley, who has been with the company since 1997. She has not come through the CIPD qualification route, but joined Ford Motor Company straight from Sheffield University in 1980. This first job with such a strong brand helped her win posts at Xerox and then within retail.
"My experience has proved more important than qualifications because I learned on the job with employers that were big academy companies," she says. "But times have changed and I do encourage my HR team to study with the CIPD." She adds that qualifications are only a guide to how good someone is. She says HR staff must understand how different functions of the business operate and have a grasp of how the company makes its money.
- "I want my managers to be commercially focused"
Sheryl Hope HR director, BGL Group
It is 10 years since Sheryl Hope, HR director at insurance broker BGL Group, completed stage one of her CIPD course while holding junior HR posts at National Magazines. She completed her CIPD training during nine years with Budgens supermarket where she rose to HR business partner before moving to Somerfield as head of employee relations and central HR. She joined BGL in 2004. "You need a good grounding in HR to progress but stripes have to be earned elsewhere to be seen as a really good strategic HR person," she says. "I want my HR managers to be commercially focused and good at change management."
She despairs sometimes when recruiting HR managers. "I ask them what the business drivers are at their current employer and they cannot tell me."
BGL is launching a training programme to show staff how the company makes its money and Hope is convinced the HR team will find the process useful. "They must know how the business is performing and its challenges," she stresses. "We can point out how many policies must be sold to pay for a new HR initiative. This will help them to put what they do into a commercial context."
BGL Group's chief executive, Peter Winslow, says: "A director with a broad business background is infinitely more valuable than one who has existed within the confines of the world of HR."
- "This is not a company that hangs its hat on HR qualifications"
Donna Miller, HR director Enterprise Rent-A-Car
A degree in marketing from San Diego University was enough to get Donna Miller a job as a management trainee in operations at Enterprise Rent-A-Car 18 years ago. She moved to an HR position in the training and recruitment team within four months and gradually moved through the HR ranks in different US locations. She came to Europe as corporate HR manager in 2000 and was made HR director two years later.
"At Enterprise you make progress in strategic roles through performance. This is not a company that hangs its hat on HR qualifications," she says. "I have one guy going through the CIPD process but it was his choice. I told him he will not get a promotion or more money when he qualifies, but hopefully he will learn things that will help him perform better."
She adds that HR professionals must know how their business operates to ultimately become an HR director and have the ear of the managing director. "HR wants to sit at the top table but often it doesn't speak the language of business," she says. "You can have all the HR qualifications in the world but you have to be able to get down and dirty with the financial numbers."
Her boss, senior vice president Jim Burrell, says his HR director must be entrepreneurial. "Qualifications point the way, but those specific to HR do not necessarily dictate a person's ability to do the job."
- "To be a good HR director you need good judgment"
Matthew Brearley UK HR director, Vodafone
Vodafone's UK HR director, Matthew Brearley, says qualifications are the last thing he considers when recruiting."I look at the person and their attitude," he says. "The key ingredient to success is the basic talent of the individual."
Brearley started his career as a graduate trainee at Exxon Mobil, with a degree in mechanical engineering. Over six years he gained experience in general management positions before joining Associated British Foods as an internal change consultant. He only entered HR in the early 1990s when asked to lead the HR function for B&Q Warehouse. "The MD didn't want someone from the personnel world because he was creating a different culture. I rose to the post of HR director during a seven-year stint." Brearley went on to head up HR at Marks and Spencer before joining Vodafone in 2004.
So did he miss out by not studying for HR-specific qualifications? "Maybe some aspects of the CIPD training would have been beneficial," he says. He believes what distinguishes someone at strategic HR director level is being able to draw on the expertise around them. "To be a good HR director you need good judgment and to be able to draw on the knowledge in your team."