Reflections on the Issue of HR Certification vs. HR Competencies

By Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank

SHRM’s recent certification announcement raises a relatively simple question but a more complex answer: What is the role of certification (vs. competence) in the development of a field?

Many, if not most, professions have some type of certification protocol. Attorneys pass a bar exam; psychologists are licensed after passing a standardized exam; “certified” public accountants (CPAs) pass a knowledge exam, etc. In all these cases, these licensing exams determine the extent to which an individual knows the basic knowledge in the profession.

Certification focuses on knowing the basics and the knowledge and earning the legitimacy to practice. However, certification does not mean competence.

Certification doesn’t guarantee competence

Many attorneys, psychologists, accountants, and others have become certified, but it does not mean that they are competent enough to be successful practitioners. Certification focuses on the past, not the future; on mastering ideas, not application of ideas; on joining a profession, not succeeding in the profession.

HR certification ensures that HR professionals know the body of knowledge (theory and research) that underlies HR. Certification does not imply that an individual is competent. HR professionals could be both incompetent and uncertified; they could be certified, but not competent; not certified but competent, or both certified and competent.

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There are efforts to determine the competences for effective HR professionals. Through the University of Michigan and the RBL Group (primarily with Professors Wayne Brockbank and Dave Ulrich), we have spent 25 years studying (theory, research, and practice) competencies for effective HR professionals.

5 underlying assumptions

Essential to this long term study are some underlying assumptions:

  1. HR competencies are determined less by self report and more by how those competencies are perceived by others and how they impact both the overall reputation or perception of the HR professional and the performance of the business. Leadership studies moved away from self report as the way to determine leadership effectiveness over 40 years ago with the advent of 360 measures. Likewise, HR competencies should be assessed not only by the HR professional but by those who observe the HR professional. In addition these competencies should be seen as predictors of important personal and organization outcomes. We have found some very important differences between how HR professional define their competencies and rate themselves vs. those who observe their work.
  2. There are global HR competencies, but they also may vary by geography, level in the organization, role in the organization, gender, time in role, etc. To fully determine competencies and their impact requires data from multiple sources.
  3. There are exceptional HR professional groups around the world, each working to determine how to help HR professionals be effective. We believe that partnership with these groups will further the profession. Since 1987, we have collaborated with over 15 HR professional associations to define both the overall global HR competencies and unique local requirements for effective HR. In an increasingly complex and global world, collaboration should be the norm more than imposition of one set of expectations from one country to the rest of the world.
  4. HR certifications can be relatively standardized exams determining mastery of the body of knowledge in the field. HR competencies should be evolving models since the competencies for HR professionals change as business requirements change. For example, in the last 5 years, there has been an abundance of work on HR analytics, scorecards, clouds, and data. Underlying these HR skill areas are competencies related to sourcing, interpreting, translating, and using information for improved decision-making. In our 25 years, we have identified about 140 specific competencies every 4 to 5 years that HR professionals should master to be effective. These 140 “be, know, and do” of HR come from regional partners who survey thought leaders in their region and come to a consensus about what determines effective HR professionals. Each 5 years, we change about 40 to 50 of these items, based on the input of the consortium of HR professional groups. HR competencies evolve and their study should focus forward based on global requirements.
  5. We assert that HR competencies do not exist for their own sake. Rather, HR competencies exist to enhance business performance. A major problem with most competency models is that they ask the question, “What are the competencies of HR professionals?” This is the wrong question. The question should be “What are the competencies of HR professionals that have greatest impact business performance? Our statistical analysis of our data over the past 25 years has addressed both of these questions in detail. However, our unique and important contribution is our examination of the latter, “What are the competencies of HR professionals that have greatest impact on business performance?”

Getting the right answer

So, the answer to the appropriate question, “What do I have to be, know, and do, to be an effective HR professional?” is much more than asking HR professionals what they think. It requires partnership of HR professional associations around the world, focusing on outcomes of HR skills, aligning competencies to current and future business conditions, tailoring competencies to specific situations and identifying the competencies that matter most for business performance.

This competency logic is much further along than the basics and historical view of certification.

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group (http://www.rbl.net) a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He studies how organizations build capabilities of leadership, speed, learning, accountability, and talent through leveraging human resources, and has published over 200 articles and book chapters, and over 25 books. His most recent book, with Wayne Brockbank, is the "HR From the Outside In." Dr. Wayne Brockbank is a Clinical Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and partner emeritus of The RBL Group. His research, consulting and teaching made important contributions to strategic human resource management strategy and implementation, and international business. He is also the author of four books including "The HR Value Proposition" with Dave Ulrich.

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