Scholar Urges HR to Work With Schools

September 19, 2007
America brings unrivaled strengths to the global marketplace, including its penchant for innovation and its entrepreneurial and competitive spirit, according to Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School.

But Porter is concerned that the U.S. is failing in human capital development.

“Our system is not cranking out the quality of people we need,” Porter said at the first National Summit on American Competitiveness in Washington on Tuesday, September 18. “Education is fundamental.”

The Harvard scholar urges human resource leaders to help ensure that schools are producing students with the background that business needs.

“The HR function needs to stretch its boundaries into the educational system itself,” he said in an interview after participating in a panel at the event, which was sponsored by the Department of Commerce and featured executives, academicians and government officials.

As an example, he pointed to hundreds of Massachusetts health care device companies that came together to identify critical skills and work with colleges and universities to develop them.

The traditional approach in which education is under the aegis of the government while business is the domain of the private sector doesn’t work today, Porter said.

“It’s got to be a collaborative process,” he said. “In the course of a few years, you can have a really big impact.”

The education-business partnership in San Diego takes the form of High Tech High, a group of charter schools developed in part by working with community businesses, according to Gary Jacobs, chairman of the board of trustees.

The curriculum targets skills that companies indicate they need, including communication, teamwork and problem solving. The emphasis is on applying knowledge rather than grinding through textbooks, Jacobs said.

Students have to find original source materials for courses through their own research. They also spend time outside the classroom at local companies.

The country’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart, seeks many of the same skills that are being taught in the San Diego charter schools.

John Menzer, Wal-Mart vice chairman and chief administrative officer, told the Washington conference that the giant retailer wants its employees to demonstrate a focus on the customer, problem-solving aptitude, a can-do style and the ability to “think outside the box.”

Those traits are becoming more important as Wal-Mart enters online shopping and executes complex inventory logistics. Menzer said the company values training and development, with 76 percent of its store managers rising from the ranks of associate.

“Keeping that pipeline full of talent is the major focus we have at Wal-Mart,” he said. “There are opportunities to grow a career at Wal-Mart.”

What’s good for an individual retailer when it comes to fostering talent is also good for an entire state. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says that foreign automakers and defense companies have recently established operations there.

“All of this [economic development] hinges on the quality of our workforce,” he said. “We have started introducing lifelong learning in Mississippi.”

Barbour hopes that the effort will keep enticing businesses as Canton, Mississippi, competes against Canton, China.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.