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Kate Russell

Russell HR Consulting


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The HR Headmistress: Is it time to change the way we train HR pros?


There has always been debate about the best way to train entry-level workers in the necessary skills for any given occupation.

Historically, there have been three ways of learning a trade. These are:
  • qualification by experience, which is gained over time
  • a mix of experience and study carried out while working
  • intensive study, followed by work.
In recent years, the trend has been to encourage young people towards the latter path – that is, to go to university in order to acquire formal skills.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, meanwhile, regularly expresses concern that HR is not taken seriously within organisations; that HR people are not communicated with as fully as they should be and that the function is often not represented at board level, which means that it is not involved in strategic decision-making.
In an effort to address these worries, there has been a shift towards encouraging new entrants to the profession to qualify at graduate level. While there may be a number of occupations that require formal qualifications as a starting point, I question the need for it within an HR context – although a degree may prove useful at a later stage.
Self-help author and motivational speaker Anthony Robbins tells us, on the other hand, that we lead the life that we have chosen. In principle, there’s a good deal of truth in that.
Basic practical knowledge
So if HR is still wondering why it’s not always as recognised and valued a discipline as it would like to be, it is important to take a long hard look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And one question that must be asked is ‘Is getting a degree the best way to train HR entrants and help them find their first job?’
Having provided work experience for a number of delightful young HR hopefuls over a period of time, I have been surprised (shocked actually) at the lack of basic practical knowledge of all manner of day-to-day issues. One graduate with a 2.1 didn’t even know the five fair reasons for dismissal, for instance.
In addition, a lot of HR graduates don’t seem aware that operations managers use what amounts to a different language, dwell in a different culture and are motivated by different considerations.
Quite often their priorities are simply not HR’s priorities. Without an understanding of the way in which operational people think, the two functions are likely to clash – and if that is the case, there is a considerable risk that HR will be seen as the less important country cousin.
This means that developing an operational sixth sense is essential if HR professionals are to add value to business. But it’s extremely difficult to instil this by training alone.
At Russell HR Consulting, we are attempting to develop the skills and aptitudes of our incoming consultants by putting them on a year-long work-based training and mentoring programme based around active-reflective techniques.
When trainees are able to work within our processes in practical terms, we’ll be happy to sponsor them through taking CIPD qualifications and start helping them to develop specialist expertise.
Adding value
This kind of experiential learning is more in-depth and provides people with an appreciation of the realities of the commercial world, while supplementary academic study will extend their knowledge, stretch their thinking and hone their skills.
Trainees are taught a range of things, starting with writing in a bid to raise standards. Because clear, accurate and elegant communication is so important to us, they start their year by working through a reading programme of Jane Austin, Barbara Pym, Graham Greene and others.
They are also required to write a minimum of 300 words on any given topic every day. Their on-the-job learning takes a variety of formats, however. For example, trainees:
  • Carry out research and give presentations to us in response to particular questions
  • Accompany us on visits during which we explain what we’re doing, why we’re giving the advice that we are, why it’s being given in a certain way and what tactics we’re using to get where we want to be
  • Write up the visit in order to capture the experience and discuss it with us a few days later in order to help fix their knowledge.
More formal training is likewise provided. Some of this is classroom-based, but there is also a rolling programme of employment law webinars that run throughout the year.
As time progresses, we ask the trainees to tell us what advice they would give in a particular set of circumstances and why, and they’re also required to run short training sessions. After each activity, we ask them to reflect on what they’ve learned.
This process works for us and, ultimately, provides value to clients. But if HR professionals are to add value to their organisations too, they must spend time reviewing their learning vehicles and related content.
Developing credibility
In January 2012, one of HR’s gurus, Dave Ulrich, wrote: “In a constantly changing world, there has never been a greater need to identify what HR professionals must be, know, do and deliver to contribute more fully to their organisations.” It’s difficult to disagree with that.
But paraphrasing Ulrich, I believe that, to be truly effective, HR professionals must now have considerable knowledge of the external business environment and be able to interpret it for internal use.
They must also have a practical understanding of their organisation’s end-users and build up the necessary resources to meet customers’ needs effectively.
Today it is all about developing credibility by being able to demonstrate good business acumen, deliver on promises and influence others through clear, consistent and effective communications.
HR professionals seek to raise their organisation’s game by both providing expert advice and facilitating and improving its skills and business processes. But to achieve this, it is crucial to re-evaluate HR’s educational processes too.
My preference is to move away from the theoretical in the first instance towards a more practical, holistic approach, with the aim of creating a deeper understanding of key business issues such as the damage done to profit margins if an employee is performing poorly.
It is about combining expert knowledge with sensible and timely tactics for executing ideas as well as an ability to communicate effectively in business language. Only then, will people be ready to start gaining specialist knowledge – but not before.
Kate Russell is head of HR services and employment law training provider, Russell HR Consulting.

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