Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organization at Cranfield School of Management thinks so—in fact, she thinks HR is going to be more important than ever before.
“Many existing approaches to HR are predicated on a traditional model of full-time, permanent employment with one employer,” Clare explains. “Whereas, in more recent times, we’ve seen a whole variety of changes taking place in the way in which people engage with organizations.”
The widespread availability of technology to businesses means that many processes are now being automated, a matter of concern for many workers.
However, the growth of tech in our daily lives also means that careers are becoming more flexible—indeed, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the UK estimate that over two million people worked remotely at least one day a week in 2018—and this brings a new raft of challenges for employers.
“Where many jobs that are perhaps more ‘standard’ have been taken over by technology, it is important that we get maximum value out of the things that we need people to do—things that can’t be done by other means,” says Clare.
Evidently, HR management will play a big role in shaping the future of work, and the future of working conditions for a lot of people. Change-makers like Microsoft need brilliant HR thinkers to forge ahead in industry, and Cranfield School of Management is aiming to provide them.
“Very often, people, and not just MBA students, don’t necessarily understand the complexity of doing this job well,” says Clare.
“It isn’t necessarily about developing a great set of policies and procedures—it’s what you need to do to release the creativity of the people who work for you, or to achieve a high level of engagement, where your workers are prepared to go the extra mile for their organization.”
One of the challenges of maximizing value for employers in this environment, however, is that flexibility doesn't end at how we work, but who we work for.
“In many countries, there are growing numbers of people who are multiple job holders,” Clare points out. “There sometimes may be conflict between these responsibilities—you can’t take things for granted in the same way as before.”
Part of HR professionals' roles in the future of work will be to work out how to manage a workforce that may not be united under one office roof, or one employer.
“Who’s responsible for the development of the workforce if they’re self-employed?” Clare asks. “Might organizations wish to offer their workers support, or is it something that the individual is responsible for?”
One high-profile case in the tech industry recently highlighted the prescience of this dilemma for HR experts. In September, Microsoft announced that it will require companies that supply its subcontractors to give those workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave—a benefit which is usually reserved for full-time, permanent employees.
Creating value-driven strategy
For Clare, this kind of precedent-setting behavior is one of the markers of a shift in focus for HR.
To prepare students for these changes, the MBA at Cranfield offers an in-depth elective module for students to really sink their teeth into these kinds of strategic issues.
In ‘Strategic Human Resource Management in the 21st Century’, taught by Clare’s colleague Professor Frank Horwitz, students look at such topics as organizational crisis and how to manage a global workforce.
The key things that make HR teaching at Cranfield School of Management special when it comes to learning about these kinds of issues, Clare says, is the expertise and point of view of the faculty.
“We have a group of researchers that sit under the ‘Changing World of Work’ banner, and we have a number of us who work in this field,” she explains.
“We will still cover the traditional areas, but we take the lens of how the environment in which businesses are operating has changed, and the deliberate choices they have made.”
For enterprising MBAs, there’s no doubt that a career in HR can be a way to make your mark in the future of work.
“There are two main resources that companies have,” Clare says: “Their people and their capital. Finance and HR are managing those two main resources.
“HR people need both general business knowledge and specific knowledge, and to understand the idea of values and principles leading how they will engage the people who work for them in the future.”