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HR Technology: Teaching Tech

Teaching Tech

The study of human resource technology has grown vital for today’s students.

San Jose State University, the largest public university in California’s Silicon Valley, has offered an undergraduate elective in HRIS -- human resource information systems -- for 15 years. But because university administrators have struggled to hire tenure-track professors qualified to teach the course, they rely mainly on adjunct faculty. For various reasons, the course is not scheduled to be taught this fall, for the first time in years. It might be offered again, but for now faculty members are deliberating on how to incorporate some of its content into other HR courses.

“The HRIS course content has not been consistent or rigorous,” says professor William Y. Jiang, chair of the Department of Organization and Management in the College of Business, with 300 undergraduate students in its HR concentration. “Students should be more familiar with technology in general, and our students need computer skills,” he says. “But there is no absolute agreement on what should be in the course.”

Teaching the Teachers

Like San Jose State, HR faculties across the nation are wrestling with how to prepare students for using HR technology in the workplace. They recognize that HR students must be educated in technology, whether the focus is a specific HR system, databases in general, e-recruiting and other e-HR processes, Web 2.0 applications, or related topics such as metrics, workforce analytics and strategic HR. Yet the number of HRIS courses is limited.

The heart of the HR teaching profession is in the right place, but most professors do not have the knowledge to teach the courses. Like the HR profession, the HR academic profession has historically attracted people with varying degrees of technophobia.

“Most faculty members [who] teach HR aren’t trained in this area,” says Hal Gueutal, an associate professor of management in the School of Business at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. He is co-founder and program director of the nation’s only MBA program with a specialization in HR information technology.

HR professors who most understand the importance of technology usually have professional experience in HR. Dennis J. Garritan, Ph.D., SPHR, a former chief human capital officer for the San Francisco-based investment company Charles Schwab who created a graduate program at New York University, says HR students at all levels must get more training in technology and related topics such as analytics. As chair of leadership and human capital management programs, Garritan directs a new master’s program to do this.

“Our curriculum has had information technology as a required course since the program’s inception almost three years ago,” Garritan says. “I have strong feelings about the value of technology, including the use of business intelligence to create a powerful HR dashboard and how the technology surrounding social networking is changing the way HR does business.”

Reformulating Learning

Improving HR tech curricula requires strong, consistent course offerings and better-trained instructors. In the fall 2005 issue of the Journal of Information Systems Education, William J. Jones, a doctoral student in marketing at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and Robert C. Hoell, SPHR, an assistant professor of HR and labor relations at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, reported finding 43 course descriptions that included HRIS.

They searched the web for class descriptions, finding 22 undergraduate and 21 graduate courses. In 34 instances, HRIS was taught as a separate course; in nine, it was included in another course. Content varied widely. Hoell recently gathered information for a second study but has not analyzed it. His hunch: Not much has changed.

In 2003, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) polled more than 1,100 respondents, including undergraduates, faculty members, HR professionals and senior HR professionals, to learn what topics each group thought should be included in curricula. Members of all groups agreed that an undergraduate course in HRIS was lower in priority, ranking it no higher than 10 out of 14 topics. Among those deemed more important were employment law, performance management, compensation, workforce planning and training.

Debra Cohen, SPHR, chief knowledge officer for SHRM and co-author of the 2003 report HR Education: SHRM Undergraduate HR Curriculum Study, plans to replicate the study this year, but she does not expect dramatically different results. She notes that although an HRIS course was not valued highly relative to other topics, there was a sense that HRIS skills and knowledge are useful; nearly 70 percent of respondents ranked them as valuable.

Most highly valued topics are often enabled by technology, Cohen adds. “Technology is critically important to really measure your employee population through data analysis and apply that to a strategy,” she says.

Technology has become so useful that in a new SHRM publication, Human Resource Curriculum Guidebook and Templates for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs, the organization identifies HRIS and metrics among 13 areas HR students should master.

A great HR program at any level needs to have these topics, Cohen says. “We don’t say HRIS has to be a full course, but it has to be part of the curriculum.”

Real-World Advantage

Many HR professionals recognize that students need to understand the role technology plays in automating HR services and in supporting the strategic aspects of human capital management, such as recruiting, talent management and training.

Even entry-level professionals can benefit, says Ian Ziskin, chief HR and administrative officer at Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles. “While being an expert is not required, being a good consumer of technical support and an effective strategist about the foundational elements of HR-related systems, processes and tools is valuable.”

Cara A. Rucinski, scheduled to graduate this spring with an MBA in HRIS from SUNY-Albany, maintains that “students who study HR and do not receive training in the technology that supports the HR function are at a disadvantage.” A director of training for a restaurant management group before graduate school, she adds, “It is likely that the use of technology and information systems will be included in the daily tasks of any HR-related position.”

Embracing the Trinity

Faculties wrestle with whether to teach separate tech courses or to include tech sections in courses for each practice area, such as recruiting and performance management.

Incorporate HRIS concepts into each HR course, advises Lisa M. Plantamura, an assistant professor of business at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J. A former part-time professor, she started working in HRIS on mainframes in the 1970s and is the rare teacher with corporate experience in HR and information technology. “I use every chance I get to talk about implications of HR technology,” she says. “If I’m talking about compensation and the process for giving increases, I will include discussion on automating that process and discuss budgeting scenario analysis.”

Plantamura teaches how HR technology provides data for strategic decision-making. She is developing a graduate course that will blend strategy, technology and metrics. She says the closely related topics of project management and change management also get short shrift.

Garritan finds HR curricula too restricted by traditional silos. “Even for an undergraduate, the minimum requirements to enter the profession or grad school should be to understand the trinity -- finance, strategy and technology,” Garritan says. “It would be great if undergraduate HR [courses] integrated the trinity rather than treating them as separate entities.”

Michael D. Bedell, an associate professor at California State University in Bakersfield, agrees in principle but has not found silos easy to break down. Professors there tried offering a strategic HR course with modules on each practice area, such as recruiting, yet ultimately turned back to the functional silos to provide more depth.

He says the experiment did lead to better-defined functional courses and a stronger link between functions and technology. The university’s HR majors are required to take a semester HRIS course. The undergraduate HR program graduates about 30 each year.

Bedell teaches students about a specific HR system because California’s state university system adopted PeopleSoft as its HR management system years ago and makes it available for teaching. Oracle, PeopleSoft (now Oracle) and SAP have college programs to help universities, business schools and HR programs use their products.

However, Bedell finds it unnecessary to teach a specific HRIS. “You talk about strategic things, the data and how to make decisions. Students have to understand databases. If you can query in Microsoft Access, you can query anywhere. And whether you use a system or not, you have to make strategic decisions. HR systems are the glue, the information that helps you make decisions.”

Siobhan O’Hara, PHR, a 2007 graduate of the SUNY-Albany HRIS MBA program now working for global consulting firm Towers Perrin in Stamford, Conn., says understanding databases remains key: “It is more important that students have hands-on experience learning the power of databases than to master a specific HRIS or HR process application, since databases support all aspects of HR -- from analyzing the results of a grass-roots survey to calculating turnover. Colleges should teach HR students how this technology can be used to support various HR processes.”

Understanding databases is also important for using metrics and workforce analytics, says Mark Huselid, a professor in the department of HR management in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick. “We try to teach our [graduate] students skepticism,” he says. “Just because there is a data field doesn’t mean it is accurate, fresh or appropriate.”

Growing Academic Support

HR technology does not have an academic ecosystem as other disciplines do -- professors committed to advancing a body of knowledge through research; doctoral students working as research assistants; and discipline-specific academic associations, conferences and research journals.

In her 27-year career, Stone has advised only three doctoral students who chose HR technology as a specialty. Not long ago, she had difficulty getting e-HR research published in HR journals. When she submitted articles for peer review, “They didn’t even know what we were talking about,” she says.

However, Stone says she sees some signs of change: “The research is starting to come out, and the conferences. There should be a journal of e-HR, but there isn’t yet.”

Jiang says it can’t happen soon enough: Students need basic knowledge of HRIS, he says, “and how HR technologies can automate or replace the traditional paper trail.”

The author is contributing editor for technology at HR Magazine.


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