An ESRC funded research project has revealed that HR practitioners are weakest at finance and data analysis, and strongest at keeping up with HR best practice. The study asked a representative sample of nine hundred and eighty three members of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) about their skills and abilities.

It revealed that practitioners in both the UK and Hong Kong shared key strengths and weaknesses. In both economies the vast majority of practitioners say they are able to keep up with HR best practice, manage HR administration and understand ethics. This “ethical” role for HR is certainly part of its public face in the UK. When high profile problems emerge in large public institutions the media frequently point the finger at HR professionals and ask them why they didn’t stand up to a “culture of cronyism” in places like the BBC; or challenge poor management decisions on staffing issues, such as those at Staffordshire Hospital.

Slightly more HR practitioners in Hong Kong claim to understand ethics compared with the UK counterparts (UK = 78.2%/HK = 79.7%). When questioned about their day to day roles, and putting in to practice their theoretical knowledge the picture was slightly different. Similar numbers of respondents in the UK and HK said that ethical practice and integrity were a part of their role. Despite this fewer practitioners in Hong Kong claimed that their roles required that they had the courage to challenge either established practices or the views of middle managers – seen by many UK HR professionals as a key part of their ethical role.

The similarities between practitioners in Hong Kong and the UK were not confined to their strengths. In both economies HR people professed least competence with data, financial information and budgeting. Fewer than half of Hong Kong HR professionals claimed to understand financial information (43%) compared with just over half of UK participants (55%).  Slightly more respondents in both economies said that they were able to manage the HR budget (UK = 61%/HK = 56%).  Despite Hong Kong participants lack of confidence in relation to financial information, many more participants claimed to understand data analysis, with 61% of Hong Kong HR professionals claiming this skill, compared with 53% in the UK.

With many commentators bemoaning the lack of numeracy skills in HR, and others suggesting that high performing businesses require numerate HR professionals it is perhaps surprising that such a large proportion of HR professionals still claim not to understand financial information, data or even how to manage a HR budget. Part of the explanation for this could be the increasing influence of information technology on HR practices. Here, the relevant technology can range from simple spreadsheets to all-encompassing and integrated human resource information systems (HRIS) to web-enabled applications (E-HR) and systems covering all HR functions, processes and strategies.

Indeed, some mainstream accounts of ICT outsourcing suggest that technological advances have potential to remove the transactional/operational elements of HR even though behind these processes lie major substantive and ethical issues. One key origin of expert HR knowledge, in this respect, concerns the practitioner’s authority to advise the line manager on aspects of employment law that impact the employment contract. This part of the HR knowledge base has particular ramifications for ICT in the sense that the development of HRIS has tended to concur with developments externally, especially in the legislative field.

For instance, the introduction of the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) scheme in Hong Kong, in 2000, led to the major technological challenge of how to incorporate and parallel the resulting pension and retirement arrangements into existing schemes (interview data). Similar ICT challenges arise now with the portability of the MPF scheme which allows employees to select their own pension provision rather than accept their employer’s preferred choice. It is noteworthy that in both of these significant examples HR technology has progressed through being able to accommodate changes in law and legislation rather than necessarily being the main driver of HRIS itself.

One of the most important skills of HR practitioners, in this regard, is to describe in detail what they require from technology. Just as in some cases they need to liaise with financial or legal experts in their organization. As one of our Hong Kong respondents explained, this is important because “although ICT specialists may have all the appropriate technical skills they may not be able to ask the appropriate questions about HR. At the same time since ICT developers know the limits of the technology they need to communicate this to the user who may not always appreciate this. The two perspectives therefore somehow need to merge, ICT experts need to understand and solve the expectations of HR and to educate user to adjust their expectation to realize the limits of technology”.

Along similar relational lines, the project to make east/west comparisons of HR competencies and practices has shown large overlaps between the skills and experience of HR practitioners in the UK and Hong Kong. This suggests a professional skill set that transcends national boundaries and cultural contexts. This suggests that greater sharing of practice between HR practitioners and between the institutes that accredit and train them is likely in the future.

Article by Dr Sophie Gamwell, Leadership, work and organisation, Middlesex University in London