What can academics bring to the HR profession?

Amanda Woodard


written on September 21, 2016

HR research can help to define the profession’s expertise, says senior lecturer and newly certified HR practitioner Dr John Molineux (FCPHR).

What can academics bring to the HR profession? That’s the question that John Molineux asked himself as a senior lecturer at Deakin University, where he moved to following a long career in human resources.

“If academics are doing work that influences thinking around HR practice, then that is worth considering in terms of the understanding and knowledge that feeds back into the profession. It’s another way of ensuring high standards of expertise,” he says.

Currently teaching human resource management and leadership to MBA students at the Melbourne Burwood campus, Molineux says that his students have a varying degree of knowledge about HR. Some have worked in engineering or IT, for example, and wouldn’t have practised any HR before being thrown into a people management role.

“Once you start managing people, then you realise how much you don’t know,” says Molineux. But increasing knowledge and expertise in HR is essential, he believes, no matter who is taking on people management tasks or where they are coming from.

Molineux teaches some of the complex areas of strategic HR, about how to get the best out of people and the qualities that make for good leadership. He acknowledges that management and leadership styles can vary enormously. “You can be a charismatic leader who is inspiring, but you can also be a leader behind the scenes, encouraging and supporting people as a coach and mentor. Often this approach is more sustainable.”

Leading by example

Besides training a new generation of leaders in HR, Molineux’s commitment to the future of HR extends well beyond his 35-year career as HR director, manager, practitioner and strategist in several organisations.

As a member of AHRI’s Victorian State Council, he was responsible for co-ordinating the diversity and work-life balance network. More recently, he has been helping assess HR practitioners’ work for achieving professional certification as a member of the National Certification Council (NCC).

“It’s been really exciting to see some of the high-level work that senior HR people have been doing in organisations,” he says. “One example was a major international project that saved a huge amount of money, based on assessment of people capability within the organisation.”

Prior to accepting the role on the NCC, Molineux wanted to complete the Senior Leaders Pathway towards professional certification himself.

“If I am going to show leadership in HR, then I thought I should do the program, even though I am no longer in an operational HR role.” For Molineux, professional certification is the capstone piece of the jigsaw in a career that began as a payroll clerk in the 1970s.

“I didn’t know back then that HR was for me – but it didn’t take long to discover that I really loved it.” Joining the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) as a personnel manager was one of his best moves, with lots of staff to organise, and studying in the evenings to complete his business degree in personnel management.

Between 1999 and 2002, he managed a large cultural change project at the ATO that taught him how HR systems could be used in a strategic way to influence employee behaviour and, ultimately, change the culture of an organisation. It was this subject that he would go on to explore further in his PhD, completed in 2005.

On the path

Embarking on the senior certification pathway, Molineux submitted a case study on his work with AHRI on a project around positive psychology and experience of work for HR professionals.

His research took the form of a diary study whereby human resources practitioners recorded what they were doing over a 10-day period and how they were feeling about that work. Follow-up interviews informed an AHRI member survey. A third step was a workshop presented at AHRI’s national convention in 2015, which revealed the research findings and ideas about how HR practitioners can be more effective and really enjoy their work.

Molineux’s research also explored the effects of different kinds of stress. Time pressure, he found, was more stressful than creative pressure.

Creative pressure is more satisfying than time pressure. So our lesson to HR was to create efficiencies in transactional work, or allocate specific time for it or make it more fun, so you can get onto the more creative and interesting work,” he says.

How you deal with stress is important and people who had strategies to cope with less interesting tasks enjoyed work more. Exercise, meditation and debriefing with a mentor or colleague were some of the recommended recovery activities for stress.

Reflecting on the senior certification pathway, Molineux says that in terms of professional development, the AHRI model of excellence was a useful tool to think about his own capabilities and how they applied to the project.

Good with people

Turning to HR’s reputation today, Molineux says the perception is variable. “Those who are doing it well, have a strong understanding of how strategic it can be. But in many organisations it is still only transactional work.”

In part, organisations are responsible, often choosing internal candidates who are perceived as ‘good with people’, but who lack professional expertise.

“Unless they have studied HR in depth or gained professional knowledge, such as by attending AHRI conventions, it’s not going to be enough,” says Molineux. Part of the problem he acknowledges, is that a number of HR practitioners are quite happy to stick with the lower-level transactional stuff.

“It is complex and challenging tasks that we are talking about. You have to understand the operational side of the business. You need to be an expert in HR systems and strategy, people capability and performance management.”

Molineux is in no doubt about how that will be achieved.

“We need to cause disruption within the HR profession. Firstly, by training new talent coming in to think differently about the HR role, but also disturbing what is going on there at the moment, so that it becomes a crisis that HR can’t avoid. HR practitioners need to make a decision: if they want to advance their career, they need to expand their capabilities and skills.”

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