Practice Makes Proficient: Developing Business Acumen

Today’s profession is not your parents’ HR

By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP August 8, 2019

When I started in HR, opportunities for HR professionals to contribute to business were limited. In many companies, HR reported to the accounting department, not to the CEO. Even the college where I got my master's degree in HR management in 1990 still called its HR department "personnel." Employees and managers saw HR as a service function, limited to hiring, firing and administering benefits.

The HR world is very different today, as businesses realize that their people differentiate them from their competition.

To be effective as people experts, however, HR professionals have to expand their understanding of and capabilities in business. This makes the SHRM-defined competency Business Acumen the most critical for them to develop. Unless HR understands an organization's business, as well as its people, it can't provide the leadership and support necessary for all to succeed.

When I talk to HR colleagues about business acumen, they usually agree that it is important, but they struggle to develop it themselves and in their staff. The C-suite often doesn't support or provide what is needed for HR growth in this competency. Managers outside HR may not want to share information or resources.

So how can we as HR pros develop business acumen? As with all competency development, it takes activity and practice. To get opportunities in business, HR must use other competencies, including Relationship Management and Consultation, to work with executives and managers to learn about business functions.

Today's HR professional must understand how business works to participate fully in leading organizations forward. Only by having a high level of proficiency in business acumen can HR help the organization understand its people and help its people understand their organization.

Approaches to Developing Proficiency in Business Acumen

On the job:

  • Attend management meetings that discuss business planning, and take notes. Later, ask business leaders questions to gain understanding of business issues.
  • Help your employees or co-workers understand how what they do affects the bottom line and organizational success.
  • Set individual or department goals that are clearly aligned with the organization's strategic and business goals.
  • Schedule meetings with managers in other departments to ask them about what their departments do and how HR can support their goals.
  • Volunteer to be in an organizational task group to solve a significant business problem.
  • Work with recruiting or IT to research, plan and initiate campaigns to recruit new employees using social media. Think about incorporating augmented reality and video.
  • Start a business-related book discussion group with employees from across the organization.
  • Participate in a temporary assignment in a department or work group outside HR.
  • Research trends in your organization's industry and evaluate how your business will be affected. Share your thoughts with managers outside HR and ask for their thoughts.
  • Focus on presenting ideas and solutions from a business perspective rather than from an HR perspective (e.g., cite results and return on investment, not personalities or connections between employee behavior and business success).

Coaching and mentoring:

  • Evaluate your weakest area in business and seek a mentor who is an expert in that area to coach you.
  • Pick your strongest area of business knowledge and volunteer to coach someone in that discipline.
  • Become a volunteer judge or advisor for organizations that help students network with local business leaders and develop business skills (e.g., DECA).


Professional and community activities:

  • Attend events and meetings of chambers of commerce and other business groups.
  • Volunteer or join the board of a nonprofit to contribute your HR business knowledge and learn from other business volunteers.
  • Join and participate in groups relating to small business on social media sites such as LinkedIn.
  • Network online with other HR professionals using the SHRM Connect platform.
  • Volunteer to assist with student chapters of business and HR organizations (see Rasmussen College's list of top professional associations for business students).
  • Participate in external forums that discuss current government and regulatory issues and future trends, and think about how this information affects your work. Get involved with organizations, such as the Advocacy Team, that are active in such matters in your industry.


Reading and research:

  • Read books to deepen your business knowledge:
    • Developing Business Acumen (SHRM Competency Series: Making an Impact in Small Business HR) (SHRM, 2017) by Jennifer Currence.
    • Leading Your Business Forward: Aligning Goals, People, and Systems for Sustainable Success (McGraw-Hill, 2013) by John M. Pyecha and Shane A. Yount, with Anna Versteeg, Seth Davies and Linda Segall.
    • Cracking the IT Code: Technology Management for Non-Technology Managers (Indie Books International, 2015) by Anthony L. Butler.
    • Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die (Wiley, 2016) by Eric Siegel.
    • Business Literacy Survival Guide for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2011) by Regan W. Garey.
    • HBR's 10 Must Reads 2016: The Definitive Management Ideas of the Year from Harvard Business Review (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).

  • Subscribe to magazines in areas related to your business or industry. Here are some with free subscriptions.
  • Listen to TED Talks on business subjects.
  • Read SHRM special reports and expert views to find out what thought leaders are saying about how to be successful in HR.

Educational activities:

  • Look for interactive opportunities in areas of business where your needs are greatest. Plan how you will apply what you learn.
  • Pursue a formal degree in business or business subjects, offered by many colleges and universities.
  • Consider a certificate (versus a degree) in financial management.
  • Explore finance and accounting courses designed for nonfinancial managers (e.g., from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School).
  • Explore courses that help nontechnical managers understand technology (e.g., from companies such as Decoded).
  • Check out courses in business operations, logistics and supply chain management (e.g., from associations such as APICS).
  • Check out online courses in metrics, analytics and business indicators (e.g., from Duke University).
  • Attend American Management Association programs.
  • Attend American Marketing Association programs.
  • Check out free, online marketing courses (see WordStream's list).
  • Attend SHRM conferences and events and online learning programs.


Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession, including A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017).

For more information on SHRM Certification, and to register for the exam, please visit our website.

Already SHRM-certified? Be sure to maintain your credential by recertifying. Learn more about recertification activities here.



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