The human resources function has gone through a dramatic shift in recent years, with HR executives no longer so administrative and operationally-focused. They’re now expected to contribute to strategic decision-making in the boardroom, lead diversity and inclusion efforts, along with the shift to hybrid working and people analytics, a new frontier.
HR is a growth area for business schools, which are responding to the market’s call by specializing in this dynamic function, launching a huge variety of executive education options in human resources management in recent years.
One such institution is Vlerick Business School in Belgium, which offers a number of popular courses in HR for executives, including the Strategic HRM program. Other course options include the Effective HR Business Partnering course at the UK’s Henley Business School and the Digital Transformation in HR program at the London School of Economics.
“We’ve certainly seen a growth in the demand for HR executive courses because of the increased digitalization in the HR function,” says Dirk Buyens, Professor of Human Resources Management and Director of Open Executive Programs at Vlerick.
“The importance of HR has grown and it now sits at board-level. Covid-19 has also accelerated the growth of these programs – we now have 40 participants this year compared with 25 in previous years.”
The workload for HR has dramatically increased over the past year, given the increase in remote working that’s triggered a greater focus on employee wellbeing along with new rules and regulations for time off and sick leave.
“The future of work is going to be a hybrid mix of office and home-based working,” says Buyens, but this creates risks such as teams and processes disintegrating. “HR professionals have to ensure that all employees have clarity and do not feel disadvantaged,” he says, adding that his course tackles how to address the stresses of hybrid working.
Diversity and inclusion: the dynamic nature of the HR function
The HR function has risen in prominence in other ways, and this has influenced the curriculum of many HR-oriented executive courses. HR practitioners have been at the heart of recent efforts to improve organizational culture and promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace, for example.
“Diversity and inclusion are incredibly important topics for HR departments,” says Buyens. The Vlerick program opens minds to the complexities of the issue, and sparks discussion and deepens understanding of how to address it through the HR function.
It does this by going through examples and case studies of how companies create initiatives to create more inclusive workforces that also benefit the organizations. “Many companies have huge issues with diversity, in terms of race or gender representation, or neurodiversity,” Buyens says.
“Ensuring that a company has as much diversity as possible is important to ensure customers’ voices are heard,” he continues. “It’s important for company branding too – no one wants to work for a company that is not diverse, especially younger generations.”
Jai Arya, Head of Executive Education at National University of Singapore Business School, also emphasizes diversity and inclusion in his HR courses. “Embracing diversity entails not only being aware and accepting the existence of diversity but also understanding the complexities and challenges of diversity,” he says.
“We believe HR professionals should be at the forefront,” he says. “Thus, we focus a lot on the importance of professionally managing diversity and leveraging diversity to drive organizational performance.”
The new frontier of HR
NUS puts on the five-day long Strategic Human Resource Management program for executives. It seeks to help operations-focused HR leaders become better business partners. They need to understand the business and strategy, as well as appreciate financial results and market trends, says Arya.
“HR plays an important role in organizational performance,” he adds. “For corporations to optimize in areas such as talent acquisition, talent management, skills development and succession planning, senior HR managers need to be business partners with a seat on the executive committee.”
The course also helps learners understand the importance of data quality and provides analytical skills. Employers are tapping into people analytics, but this is considered to be both a goldmine and a minefield, with fraught risks from employee trust to data breaches.
NUS is helping executives to navigate this new frontier of HR. “While technology has enabled HR professionals to generate and use data to make evidence-based decisions, which are more objective and accurate, there are also risks — and the need to protect data from potential cyber-attacks and abuse,” says Lowe Joo Yong, Senior Lecturer in Management and Organizations at NUS.
He helps participants to balance both the “benefits and potential pitfalls” of data analytics.
Vlerick’s Buyens points out that people analytics are still in their infancy in the HR function, so this is a potentially important component of executive education. “The HR function does not typically have data miners, or tech-focused people in the department, making it more difficult to interpret and analyze data,” he says.