College: The Perfect Place for HR to Reshape the Future

Mark Fogel Audacious Ideas, Change Management, HR, Mark Fogel

Colleges may just be the place for HR to reshape its future. As a part-time grad professor at Adelphi University, I get to play a small part in changing the HR narrative with MBA students every semester. I teach the one required HR course in the MBA curriculum twice a year and an additional elective on occasion. I believe it is an important endeavor as a former senior level practitioner to give back to our next generation entering the workforce.

Most of my students are majoring in finance or accounting. A few are HR or I.O. Psych majors. Very few, if any, understand what HR is or should be. We do a couple of exercises the first two weeks of class, peeling back misconceptions of what HR’s role is perceived to be and what it should be in organizations. It is amazing how 22 and 23 year olds already have a negative perception of the function. Some of the biases are based on first hand experiences. What I like to call soundbites of HR experiences. A poorly conducted on-boarding, a lousy recruitment process experience, an apathetic response to a question or email. Grains of sand in the hour glass accumulating into a negative perception.

Many of the students base their responses on hearsay or rumors they hear from colleagues or friends. The proverbial ‘don’t go to HR they won’t help’, ‘they don’t know what they are doing’, or even ‘you can’t trust them’. I then spend the next few weeks breaking down perceptions and examining what it could or should be. This is integrated with learning about all the different aspects of HR from strategy to recruitment to legal and so on. It is balanced discussion in my acknowledging the good with the bad and occasionally true and disappointing stories taken from the current news in the media. Our latest discussion was on Wells Fargo and asking where was HR while this was going on.

So, the real challenge is not just reversing perceptions, it’s in creating excitement about the function to engage students to enter the field. Unfortunately, this type of learning just isn’t occurring  at colleges across the country. It is alarming the lack of individuals interested in the field today. Some argue it’s the perception. Others the compensation. Many just point to the practicality of spending 10-12 years toiling on administrative work before they reach a level that allows for strategic input, higher compensation, and a level of respect.

There are a few folks out there trying to change this.A series of off the grid meetings—originally inspired by Scott Pitasky (the current CHRO at Starbucks), and spurred on by a small group of senior HR folks at some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley, who just said it’s time to do something about it—were held back in 2011 and 2012 to get at the core of the future role of HR and what needs to be done to achieve a successful transformation. These meetings led to SHRM and the SHRM Foundation getting involved and providing infrastructure and funding. Scott, along with Jeff Pon, the CHRO and Strategy head at SHRM, Debra Engel, the former head of HR at 3M and a major broker in these early discussions, and a few senior-level folks from top colleges chewed over the discussion at a breakfast in Scottsdale four years ago.

I was fortunate to have attended one of these meetings as well as the original meeting  in Arizona when Scott pitched it to SHRM “TO DO SOMETHING.”

Because of these early meetings, SHRM and the Foundation are currently working on a major project behind the curtains to try to reverse this. It is referred to publicly as SHAPING THE FUTURE. They have a few respected players working on it too. Folks like Jon Boudreau, the noted professor at USC, are in the center of the research project. But it’s just that right now: mostly “research.” There has been some traction with goals and actions that need further work, however the actions it needs to inspire and activate the masses to follow need to be shared with a wider audience and in real-time. Not just the chosen few at big corporations that have money to help sponsor the research. We appreciate their time, effort, and money. THAT’S NOT THE ISSUE, IT’S THE PROCESS to get to NEXT in HR. A main pain point in this work is getting students at our colleges inspired to work in the field while still in school, instead of as a default career that they fall into as I did 20 years ago.

I consider myself the eternal optimist in the HR space. I believe it can still happen in the future. To do so there needs to be a plan that can be activated. It needs to start well before students enter the workforce. We need to start with colleges, well before our next generation choose their vocations. We need to inspire students to see the opportunities in a career in HR. We need to set an example. We need to be the example.

I am trying to do that. I need some more volunteers. Universities are a great starting point.  I hope more folks step forward. We can be the grains of sand that lead to critical mass. Otherwise, the future of HR will be no more than political rhetoric. Lots of great ideas that never see the light of day.