HR Leads Business

Mar 26, 2019 | Mary Ellen Slayter

Aligning HR Business Education with Practice: A Conversation with Sandra Miles

While many people work in human resources, not many of them majored in it in college. Often, students who go into HR majored in related fields like management or business.

However, as the business environment becomes increasingly complex, HR processes and practices hold the key to an organization’s ability to survive and thrive, and specialized education training will become increasingly valuable.

The Human Resource Management degree program at Murray State University, run by Sandra Miles, Ph.D., SPHR, GPHR and an HCRI board member, demonstrates how a traditional four-year university can deliver the kind of HR-specific education to help professionals rise to those challenges. Her program is a pre-approved provider of recertification for professionals through HRCI.

I spoke with her about her experience starting the HR management program, the evolving role of continuing education for the HR industry and why it’s essential for HR professionals to re-credential and keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date.

What inspired you to create this program?

I started my career in the 1990s, and careers in HR were growing from administrative to strategic. When I first started at Murray State, they did not have a human resources management program, and I had a following of students who were very interested in human resources. The administrators were very receptive about a new program and were flexible with the courses I was allowed to offer, provided all would be aligned to AACSB standards.

My goal was to build a program around the professional body of HR knowledge to properly prepare students for the PHR exam. Using the HRCI HR Body of Knowledge to guide curriculum development, we developed required and elective HR course offerings to prepare our students for the professional certification exam. Earning both a bachelor’s degree and a professional certification is a key for students’ ability to find relevant employment after graduation.

The program had to be built around the AACSB-International accreditation since we are an AACSB accredited school. As such, it was necessary to ensure our program was grounded in the skills needed for the profession. One of the focuses of AACSB is to align business education to business practice, and HRCI provides the tools to ensure relevant HR knowledge is identified and assessed.

The process involved in the design of the program was to audit the existing program in accordance to our current offerings and the HRCI knowledge guide. To ensure coverage, we mapped the content and identified areas to be covered in each of the required courses, with reinforcement and supplemental material for electives. We also identified needs for flexibility to engage and address emerging topics critical to organizations and apply integrated practices (e.g. analytics, risk management, technology). We also incorporated the certification — first the PHR and then the APHR — for students, and have allowed elective college credit for studying and successful completion of the exam. We use the professional certification offerings to form both the base for our general program, but also the HRCI upSkillTM program to identify key trends in HR practice.

So essentially that process reflected what is now outlined in standard 8 of AACSB credentialing, which says that schools use well-documented, systematic processes for determining and revising degree program learning goals and design delivery and degree program curricula to achieve those learning objectives.

How is the role of continuing education for HR professionals evolving?

Universities have traditional academic programs and centers focused on adult education for workforce development and retooling — often termed continuing education in universities. Continuing education focuses on increasing knowledge and skills after graduation, and these programs are usually distinct parts of the university. There seems to be a shift to a more integrated model, especially in the business schools in accordance with the evolution of AACSB standards into a lifelong-learning focus.

As such, we at MSU are asking “How can we thrive as a hub for lifelong learning?” And with HRCI's growing suite of credentialing, that creates significant opportunities for doing just that. It allows our graduates to return to acquire professional recertification credits to brush up on cutting-edge practices, as well as offering new areas of specialization with opportunities for credentialing with HRCI’s upSkill. Continuing education also allows for hybrid offerings such as a three-day course offering, not usually found in traditional academic units. This continues the pathway for aligning HR education for HR professionals and provides opportunities for collaboration between professional certifications and academic programs. It's a nice way to draw a university's students back into the fold for continuing education and continuing the relationship through certification offerings long after the student has graduated.

Universities also need to rethink the way that they’re delivering curriculum and how people can continually upgrade their work skills at a faster-than-ever pace. The new order for work requires HR professionals to be nimble if HR is going to ensure a workforce that is able to adjust and position the organization for success. An example of how work is changing, and how HR needs to prepare, is artificial intelligence: When is it better than human decision making and when is it not? Which positions lend themselves to AI? How do you integrate that into the workspace? When is technology too much? Or when do you really need the human touch? People need education and training to be able to answer these questions, and need to learn how to manage the technology as opposed to allowing technology to manage to profession.

So there’s a lot of opportunities in that nontraditional student space for universities.

What’s next for your program?

I think there are several trends that are impacting HR higher education. Micro-credentials and specialized certifications are going to be a key area to grow in the more general management space. HR analytics, risk management, AI — those are all topics applicable to all managers. We need to make this shift in people's minds that these are not just HR issues, that all managers can benefit from some of these tools. I can see the integration of risk management and cybersecurity becoming a key knowledge component for all managers.

I also view professional credentialing as a means of providing our students with a competitive advantage, thereby distinguishing themselves from other college graduates. I address my HR class and say, "Look around you. Look at the person in front of you, behind you, all around you. Because you all have the same management classes, you all have a Murray State degree. What else are you bringing to the table that's going to help that employer move the dial and choose you?"

If you have a third-party credential that shows you have risk-management skills, what employer isn’t going to put a premium on that?

There is also a lot of discussion about grade inflation. But when you have a third party assessing competency, that signals more objectivity to employers.

Lifelong learning and demonstration of that learning is key to being effective in your profession and of value to the organization. One of the things that I tell my students is that “My degree is from 25 years ago. Look at how much HR has changed in that time. If I did nothing past that degree, what value would I add? I wouldn't be able to deliver the knowledge that students need to compete in today's marketplace.” And that's why the re-credentialing is so important.

In essence, integrating AACSB academic standards and professional HR standards from HRCI provides a framework for assurance of learning, and aligning HR education to HR practice is key to demonstrating AACSB standards. Our HR faculty are mostly certified at the SPHR level to demonstrate faculty competence with HRCI, as well as a venue for demonstrating student success.