Next Gen HR: The Key to Keeping Up with Change May Be Counterintuitive

July 17, 2017

Next Gen HR: The Key to Keeping Up with Change May Be Counterintuitive

A previous blog described the incessant change that we all experience and three qualities that can better prepare existing HR professionals to be effective in this ever-changing, dynamic environment: resilience, learning agility, and anticipating change, and they need to be incorporated into development programs, internships, practical experiences, and hiring profiles. For college students considering an HR career, there is another type of preparation that they should consider, and it may be somewhat counterintuitive.

With the accelerating cost of higher education (college tuition has risen 1,200 percent since 1978) the prevailing wisdom has been that students focus on technical knowledge and practical job-ready skills as the best preparation for their professional life. Any course of study that failed to teach a marketable skill was simply a waste of time and money. This was the preferred path for doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants and even HR professionals. There is an increasing amount of functional HR knowledge (e.g., compensation, compliance, and benefits) required today, but also required are data, research, analytical, and consulting skills. Surely, taking as many courses in these in-depth subjects is the best possible preparation. Or is it? Is this the best path today for prospective HR professionals?

 HR needs cross-functional buddies and mentors to break out of its own silo.

Consider the following data points.

  • The half-life of knowledge in many disciplines is 4 to 6 years, which means that a good percentage of technical information learned is near-obsolete upon graduation.
  • 64 percent of the new jobs being generated in the last decade are from small businesses.
  • The average tenure for people staying in jobs is 4.4 years.
  • The average number of jobs held by Millennials in their careers will be 12 to 15.

We are always changing and adapting to new situations, environments, business needs, and insights, so the best preparation should focus more on this adjustment and continual learning process than specific bodies of knowledge and formal practices—soon to be out of date.

Journalist Fareed Zakaria argues persuasively that the best preparation for today’s world is a liberal arts education—one that blends the humanities, math, and science, and teaches students to write, speak, learn, and think critically. Zakaria believes that a system that fosters love of learning and exploration, while providing a framework for logical and disciplined thinking in a fast-changing world, is the best preparation for both life and work. College administrators have long agreed, despite public opinion that the marketable track is vastly preferable.

Zakaria also states that most value and innovation come from the collision of different disciplines, stating, “Today, value lies in the combination of engineering, arts, and the sciences, as it has for centuries.” In is not about in-depth knowledge in one area or discipline; it is about the connections and frontiers shared by the disciplines. Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space and pioneering leader for girls becoming more involved in science, had a joint degree from Stanford in physics and English. HR professionals today must not only understand the business better than ever before, but also the perspective of all the different groups, departments, and functions. HR needs cross-functional buddies and mentors to break out of its own silo. Where can this interdisciplinary approach be learned and appreciated more than from a liberal arts education?

The most valuable quality that HR professionals can possess today is that of Specific Generalist. While this may not sound appealing, it represents exactly the match of skills needed now. They need to be generalist enough to be able to see the bigger picture, look for connections, be flexible and resilient, always learning, able to anticipate change, and have the social skills to influence colleagues. And they need to be specific enough to learn new skills readily, adapt to different situations, be credible with colleagues, drive the business forward, and implement change. For HR professionals today, trust, value, and credibility come not from what you know but how you respond, adapt, grow and contribute.

There is a difference between getting a job and doing a job. A liberal arts interdisciplinary education provides the right mindset, models, and meta-skills for doing HR work in the future. Unfortunately, most hiring decisions are often based on a tally of qualifications that are simple to count. It is easy to point to specific HR courses and certificates, even if they represent yesterday’s knowledge. Instead, potential HR professionals should seek out cross-functional assignments, internships, non-profit activities and a variety of work that cuts across boundaries. These are the best preparation for a mercurial but exciting future.

The Authors: 

David Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems and former chief learning officer at the Human Capital Institute. The courses he has developed and taught for HCI have been taken by thousands of HR professionals around the world. Dave has spent more than 25 years in the training industry, working with large global organizations to improve the knowledge, skills, and performance of their people. Major clients include FedEx, IBM, DuPont, Microsoft, SAP, American Express, PwC, Ford, Prudential, Apple, Scripps Healthcare, and Allstate. He has written more than 40 articles on talent management, analytics, strategic human resources, learning systems, high-performance cultures, and leadership. He has also spoken at a variety of national and global tale and leadership conferences. David is the author of Fearless HR: Driving Business Results. He can be reached at