HR Certifications Technology Gap

May 1, 2000
Whether you’re looking to upgrade your résumé or broaden your background,certificate programs in human resources are widely available. But do they offerthe in-depth background you need to demonstrate technology skills?

The answer is no. And the problem is acute because corporations are turningto more sophisticated human resource information systems (HRIS) from companieslike PeopleSoft, SAP, and Oracle to handle everything from benefitsadministration to payroll processing. With human resources working its way everdeeper into strategic decision making, a familiarity with such systems and theissues that surround them is becoming crucial.

Workforce talked to certification-granting organizations to learn what theirintentions were with regard to technological competency in this rapidly evolvingfield. Some believe that technology certification is best left in the hands ofspecialists. Others are bringing technology standards into their programs,though the problems involved in doing so are legion. And one new certificationprogram specifically addresses the no-man’s land between IT and management,such as the case of the HR manager who never asked for but nonetheless receivedan oversight role in upgrading his or her company’s HR systems.

It’s a mixed picture, and no wonder, for the growth of technology in theworkplace has almost inevitably made demonstrating competence a hit-or-missaffair. Cornelia Cont, director of the Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI),notes that when it comes to technology, most professionals have to learn as theygo. "Knowledge of human resource management systems is commonly provided bytraining in the workplace," Cont adds, "supplied by vendors providingclasses on specific tools. Hands-on experience on the job continues to be amajor teaching tool."

What’s missing in HR certification, then, is a bridge to technology for thenonspecialist. For on the other side of things, IT professionals have numerousoptions for systems certification. Microsoft has been a leader in certificationthrough its Microsoft Certified Professional programs, which provide credentialsfor systems engineers, administrators, trainers, and Web-site developers. Andprograms such as those from Enterprise Certified Corp. and the Institute forTechnology Training and Excellence are beginning to offer certificates based oncross-platform training, working with systems from a wide variety ofmanufacturers and developers.

In contrast, most HR certifications attest to a nontechnological body ofknowledge that makes up the core competencies of HR. HRCI’s certificateprograms, for example, include the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) andSenior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certificates, both of whichaddress generalist information in HR.

If technology receives short shrift from HRCI, it’s because itscertifications were never intended to be specific on the level of individualsystems or software programs. "The PHR is basically set up for policyimplementers, the ones who put into effect decisions that have been reachedhigher up the management chain," says Cont. "Whereas the SPHR is forthe people who formulate those policies." The SPHR exam contains morescenarios, for example, that test the applicant’s ability to apply knowledgein specific, real-world situations. That’s crucial stuff for managers, but itdoesn’t address the issues involved in daily contact with complex systems.

For that reason, HRCI is conducting an analysis to determine which technologyitems could be added to the mix, and in what proportion. The Institute hasre-evaluated its offerings every five years in the past, but the pace will soonincrease to every two years because of the rate of technological change. Planscall for HRCI’s new survey to go to 6,000 randomly chosen HR professionals whoare certified as PHR or SPHR, asking what knowledge they need to meet theresponsibilities in their areas of expertise.

Those responsibilities are changing as fast as the computers that make itpossible to manage them because HR is moving up the corporate ladder. "Thebig issue facing HR today," says PeopleSoft’s Row Henson, "is thatHR professionals need to think more strategically. I think that over the last 30years the human resource function has evolved from being a data collector andrecord keeper to measuring the impact of people. You have to be a human capitalstrategist to attract and retain people."

Henson doesn’t downplay the value of HR certification programs, whetherthey are generalist in nature like the PHR and SPHR or more specialized, likethe certifications offered by the American Compensation Association (ACA), whichare specifically tuned to areas like compensation and benefits. But she believesthat HR professionals must become more analytical and technical in their skills.

Like most other systems vendors, PeopleSoft, which Henson serves as vicepresident for global HRMS strategy, offers its own training options. Theseinclude classes, CD-ROM-based training, and interactive sessions over theInternet, all providing software-specific skills. But whatever the venue, theskills involved are crucial. Says Henson: "The great HR professional cannotbe afraid of technology."

A generalist’s required knowledge increasingly involves technical skills

In many HR training programs, though, technology is the dog that didn’tbark. The International Personnel Management Association, for example, offers anHR certification program that it introduced in 1999. IPMA represents governmentemployees at the federal, state, and local levels. Its human resource competencymodel lists 22 competencies that focus on a matrix of behavioral skills ratherthan technical expertise. Among these broadly stated competencies areunderstanding the business process, communicating well, using consultation andnegotiating skills, and understanding team behavior. Only one of thecompetencies is technology-specific: applying information technology to humanresource management.

According to Sarah Shiffert, senior director of association services at IPMA,the association believes that technology skills should be taught by morespecialized organizations. "We’ve located computers in our competencymodel by adding the information technology component. But we don’t explicitlyteach technical skills here; these can be taught via other venues, and we candirect people to them. We’re careful to assume a background in HR laws andpolicy, which is essential to doing the job, and we teach to thosecompetencies." That background is taught in 40 hours of course work thatlays the groundwork for the exam.

Most certifying organizations agree that technology has transformed HR; thereal question is what the proper response should be. The American CompensationAssociation offers two certificates: the Certified Compensation Professional (CCP)and Certified Benefits Professional (CBP), both of which draw on a tightlyfocused knowledge core that is tested in a series of nine examinations.

Common to both certificates are basic accounting and finance principles,quantitative methods, and total compensation management, but at that point thecertificates diverge into electives chosen by their relevance to either subject.A benefits professional can study retirement plans, benefits issues inacquisitions and mergers, or health-care and insurance plans. A compensationspecialist chooses among executive compensation design principles, variablecompensation methods, sales compensation, and more.

Like HRCI, ACA revises its courses on a regular basis, and for good reason,according to executive director Anne Ruddy. "I came from a company where myhealth-care choices were all made available over the Internet," Ruddy says."I completed the forms online; I enrolled online. And the company had a lotof glitches the first year they did that because people didn’t understand whatthey were supposed to do. That in microcosm is what’s happening throughout HRas technology proliferates and job descriptions adjust."

But ACA’s changing awareness of technology goes beyond certificate courserevision. Among its programs is a symposium for picking the right vendor fortechnology. Another is a series of workshops to be held at the next ACA annualconference. Topics for the latter include sales compensation in the era ofe-commerce, acquisition impact on information technology, and uses of technologyin transforming the employee benefits field. All these projects are attempts toslow the technology train just long enough for lagging professionals to get onboard.

"Educational materials or personnel manuals or benefits information --all these are now being distributed over the Internet," Ruddy adds,"but in many cases companies are not considering the impact of this changeon the organization. We have to help these organizations do a better job ofimplementing the e-version of what everyone is used to doing in person."Especially in the benefits field, technology is running rampant, with a widevariety of software systems for managing money, presenting enrollmentstrategies, and analyzing health-care options.

Is certification really complete if it doesn’t address technology?

All these changes make for problems for certifying organizations; how do youkeep up with a field that presents so many choices in hardware and software?That’s an issue the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans hasconsidered carefully. IFEBP runs the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS)program, which provides another set of credentials in its niche within HR.

With a curriculum developed by the Wharton School, a division of theUniversity of Pennsylvania, the CEBS program consists of 10 college-levelcourses covering health and welfare, retirement, compensation, and numerousother HR issues relating to benefits. All 10 examinations must be completed toreceive the CEBS designation, which has been granted to more than 8,000graduates since 1976. Two of the 10 courses contain technology-specificinformation on information management, technology applications, outsourcing, andlegal issues surrounding new technologies.

But while he acknowledges that folding in more technology is inevitable,Daniel W. Graham, senior director of the CEBS program, believes that certificateprograms are properly designed to retain generalist agendas. In fact, Grahamquestions whether there is any alternative. "Students are going into theworkplace, where all kinds of applications are available on various kinds ofhardware. Our job is to teach broad principles and concepts in the employeebenefits field. We can supplement an applicant’s academic background, but wecan’t be job-specific."

That conundrum is why the International Association for Human ResourceInformation Management (IHRIM) is developing a new kind of certificate program,one that acknowledges the uncomfortable middle ground in which many HR peoplefind themselves. "Certification isn’t up to speed with technology,"says Lynne Mealy, former president of IHRIM and now the organization’s chiefknowledge officer. "You may use systems in your daily work, but you don’tthink of yourself as a systems professional. You’re a benefits professional, acompensation professional, or what have you. The systems side has been left onthe sidelines."

IHRIM intends to present a hybrid program that will blend both the technicaland functional side of human resources into a comprehensive certification. Whileacknowledging that training students on specific software isn’t feasible, theorganization will focus on core skills in human resource management systems. Itsfirst program will be presented at this year’s Society for Human ResourceManagement conference, in late June at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Thethree-day course will include an overview of HR systems, fundamentals of projectmanagement, vendor selection, and implementation.

Mealy sees no overlap between the IHRIM offering and existing certificateprograms; in fact, its course will be co-sponsored by SHRM, the organizationwithin which HRCI resides. "If you receive a PHR or one of the ACAcertifications, you’ve received the basics. But now you find yourself, much toyour surprise, managing HR systems. You might have gone in as an HR director,and now you’re told that the company needs to purchase a new human resourcemanagement system. Our certificate program is aimed at people like this, whohave a general HR background and now need to master the technical aspects of thejob."

Technology has become essential to the HR curriculum

As IFEBP’s Daniel Graham notes, when we get down to the level of theindividual workstation, evolving technology makes setting standards problematic.But to at least one expert, the problem itself attests to the growth of HR.David Ulrich is a human resources specialist and professor of business at theUniversity of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He agrees that it’s not possible to teachto a specific set of software tools without losing perspective.

"This is survival of the fittest," Ulrich says. "Imagine fourrestaurants opening on a street corner. In a year, two new ones take the placeof the two that failed. That’s where we are right now. Everybody knows we’regoing to have HR software to do staffing; everybody knows we’ll have HRsoftware to do training. Nobody knows where the standards will be yet because wehaven’t had time to find them. You can expect consolidation among softwaredevelopers that will eventually set broad standards for HR."

Those standards cannot come too soon. Certifications, after all, are ameasure of potential and competency. And while more comprehensive degreeprograms in business administration or human resources are widely available,many professionals can’t make the time commitment needed to take advantage ofthem. That leaves HR specialists looking for reliable ways to validate theircredentials. As systems standards coalesce, the pressure on certificationprograms to include technology in their curricula can only intensify.

Workforce, May 2000, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 72-80-- Subscribenow!