Human resource management is seemingly one of the least loved business functions, but it is becoming increasingly powerful and thus popular, prompting business schools to roll out specialist MSc programs to train the HR leaders of the future.
Several mega trends have made human resources (HR) a standout function in the past few years. Widespread allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace have had companies scrutinizing their organizational culture. Employers can gather unprecedented amount of data on workers far beyond personal details, which is both a gold mine and potential minefield. Brexit has created confusion for HR teams and employees, with people hesitant to look for new jobs until they have a better sense of what the future holds.
But for HR leaders, the future is now. Aspiring human resource managers need to learn what impact new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) can have on HR practices.
“AI promises to streamline talent recruitment and selection by relying more on the analytical processing of huge amounts of data,” says Nick Ellis, director of the HRM Pathway on the Masters in Management program at Durham University Business School.
This is reflected in the teaching of the pathway at the UK’s Durham, which from this year will be called the MSc in Human Resource Management. “Students learn how companies such as the Marriott hotel chain use a chatbot for initial interactions with job candidates, or how Google uses AI to sift the superb candidates from the merely great,” says Ellis.
He adds that students also discuss possible adverse employee reactions to the use of data-based algorithms to make decisions. “We address questions associated with fairness and other ethical and legal constraints,” says Ellis. “Being aware of how AI is impacting HR whilst understanding the strategic trade-offs between alternative courses of action enables students to make sound judgments and develop their management skills.”
The fact that the work is so much more exciting and intellectually stimulating may be one reason why Durham expects a 50 percent growth in student applications for the next intake.
The University of Exeter Business School has seen heady growth in applications year-over-year for the past seven years for the MSc in Human Resource Management. The school expects to welcome 80 students in September 2019, up from 19 back in 2013.
“The HR profession is growing and thriving,” says Stephen Taylor, senior lecturer in human resource management at Exeter. “This is particularly the case internationally, as economies around the world develop and move into a more advanced state of industrialisation. The more skilled the jobs an employer is looking to fill, and the more competitive markets become, the bigger the demand for experienced and well-qualified HR people.”
Exeter’s graduates go on to hugely varied roles, from generalist HR jobs to consultancy firms to family businesses. “Most continue developing their careers in local organizations after they graduate,” says Taylor. “We have recent graduates working in HR in the Civil Service, the NHS, large consultancies like PwC, and Flybe. One of our first cohort is the HR manager at the Royal Ballet School.”
Thomas Calvard, lecturer in human resource management at the University of Edinburgh Business School, also reports bright job prospects for graduates of the Scottish school’s MSc in Human Resource Management. “HR is present in so many industries and environments,” he says. “We have students who have gone on to have established careers setting up HR functions and policies in dynamic tech startups.
“Many of our alumni have become HR generalists for multinationals, harmonizing international pay and career structures for operations in many countries,” he adds.
“Students have embarked on very diverse careers and roles, ranging from helping banks achieve cultural compatibility in mergers and acquisitions to working in HR for non-profit and humanitarian sectors with volunteer workforces in cross-cultural environments.”
Diversity and inclusion have been another influence on the design of courses, following a string of scandals at corporations sparked by the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement. “Diversity and learning how to foster an inclusive company are key challenges for future HR managers,” says Dirk Buyens, professor of human resources management at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. “The world around us is becoming much more diverse, and businesses need to reflect this.”
“The best talent wants to work in a multicultural and diverse environment, and the benefits to this are enormous,” he adds. “HR managers need to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to diversity as well as tech.”
HR also does have the irresistible cachet of being concerned with the complexity and creativity of human beings — something which businesses ignore at their peril, says Edinburgh’s Calvard. At the Rotterdam School of Management, students on the MSc Human Resource Management learn to think critically and creatively.
Academic director Anne Nederveen-Pieterse says: “The students who choose the RSM HR program are those who want to understand more about how people make a difference in organisations, and how we can manage people to create a positive working environment as well as sustainable business performance.
“There are programs which focus more on ‘hard’ business such as finance or accounting – which attract more students – but we find that students who choose the MSc HRM thrive in the smaller group environment, where they can go in-depth to understand more about people issues,” Nederveen-Pieterse adds.
The future looks bright for HR managers with both hard and soft skills, as the profession is made more powerful and thrilling by a confluence of technological, economic and social changes.
Back at Edinburgh, Calvard says that technology, diversity, change management and ethics will be the priority for HR moving forward as these themes profoundly affect the industry. “The same priorities — inclusion, data analytics, strategy and sustainability — are starting to slowly take form for the next generation,” he says.
“However, it’s important to remember that some of the fundamental human elements of HR do remain the same, such as pay/reward, motivation, health, employment and sustainable economic/business growth.”