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Trail Blazers

A little known but highly regarded program at a public university in upstate New York has been minting sought-after HRIS experts for more than 20 years.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006
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In 1986, Michelle Tenzyk had no idea that her life would eventually veer into the realm of human resources. She just hoped to get her master's in business administration, figuring the advanced degree would fuel her far-reaching career goals.

So Tenzyk, who today serves as senior executive director of HR at New York-based Conde Nast Publications, publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, Details and other upscale magazines, applied to the M.B.A. program at the State University of New York-Albany (recently renamed the University at Albany as part of a systemwide rebranding campaign).

As fate would have it, only a year before Tenzyk enrolled, in 1985, Professor Hal Gueutal and a small band of colleagues in the business school launched a graduate program that was uniquely focused on human resource management and, of all things, technology. Specifically, second-year M.B.A. students could choose a new concentration, one that brought together academics, "real world" HR experience and hands-on work with human resource information systems and related technologies.

With its launch, the University at Albany's graduate HRIS program quickly blossomed into a successful, one-of-a-kind academic endeavor, especially if you judge it by the caliber and number of talented grads working for companies such as Conde Nast, SAP, Deloitte, Accenture, Hewitt Associates, The Cedar Group, Towers Perrin and many others in a variety of HR and HR-related careers.

"I was very fortunate being part of the program," says Tenzyk, who has worked in a variety of HR and IT positions in her career. "Almost 20 years ago, I stood out among the recent HR M.B.A. graduates because of my technology focus. It's really opened doors for me."

Tenzyk recalls, in fact, that she immediately realized the degree gave her immense cachet among employers. Out of 70 University at Albany M.B.A. graduates in 1987 (from the entire M.B.A. program), she received the first job offer with the highest starting salary, she says.

"Right there, you knew the program was special," says Tenzyk, who also received the sort of offers from Wall Street firms typically associated with Wharton School or Harvard Business School grads. "The program content quickly got the attention of the big companies."

According to Gueutal, the program began as -- and continues to be -- a powerful combination of course work, use of the most powerful HR systems available, including PeopleSoft (now part of Oracle), SAP and others, and year-long field projects that give students hands-on experience. Courses include Human Resource Management, Benefits and Compensation trends, Organizational Behavior and Design, and Training Development.

The field projects take place at companies ranging from members of the Fortune 500 to local nonprofits. For example, this year students are conducting projects at SAP America, Albany International, Trans-World Music and Living Resources, a local group home for the disabled.

So how did the idea of marrying HR and IT within an M.B.A. program come about?

"We needed to have a distinctive niche, to try and be on the leading edge," Gueutal says. "At the time, we were doing some 'futuring,' looking ahead at what was happening in IT. Microcomputers were becoming widespread, so it seemed an opportunity for data analysis in HR."

Building a Reputation

In 1985, of course, the Internet was in its infancy. Yet, early "desktop" database applications such as Lotus and Knowledgeman were becoming user-friendly enough to allow for some rudimentary HR database design.

"Companies had started to design their own HR systems, using those early database tools," Gueutal says. "Forward-looking HR folks could get a PC, a copy of Lotus and do some basic HR reporting."

Gueutal and his colleagues created a curriculum designed to meet the needs of incoming graduate students, with a focus on the job market. At the same time, they realized that with HR becoming connected to technology, companies looking to build HR systems (or consultancies looking to help them do it) with this new, emerging desktop technology needed people who could take on the challenge.

"With the desktop computer, a real shift in technology occurred," Gueutal says.

He adds that one of the first things the new students did in the first class was disassemble a PC, to see what was actually inside.

"Early on, we really were doing all the technology ourselves, but as time progressed, we started forming partnerships with PeopleSoft and other companies," he says. Next, a partner at Deloitte, which had hired a few early graduates, asked what they could do to help the new program grow.

"These firms needed people with both IT and HR knowledge," he adds. "They would hire an IT person, but what they really needed was an HR person who knew something about IT." For example, the typical IT person would have no idea what COBRA was all about, which proved problematic in creating and implementing new, emerging HR systems.

Following its early success, Gueutal says, the program continued to build a reputation as ahead of the pack. For example, the program "was into" Microsoft Windows fairly early.

"We began to develop more of a focus on technology, but we always keep a balance between IT and HR content knowledge," Gueutal says. "The third piece, which is relatively new, is change management. Those are the program's three cornerstones." He adds that the program's coursework breaks down into 50 percent HR, 25 percent IT and 25 percent change management.

"Our graduates are technically sophisticated HR people," Gueutal says, adding that many grads go into consulting, especially systems implementation. "Their passion is HR, and they are hired because of their HR skills. But they also have a major leg up because of their experience with technology."

One of those passionate HR grads, Roy Wood, is vice president for global strategy and new products at SAP, the German maker of enterprise-resource planning systems. Wood, who graduated in 1994, says SAP has hired nearly 20 grads from the Albany program during the last 10 years -- a pretty high percentage, considering that each class has only 13 to 20 students. In Wood's case, he benefited from good timing, as well as a desire to improve his career opportunities.

"I entered the program at the perfect time," he says. "HR was being seen as more strategic, and technology was coming into play. Companies could no longer ignore the HR aspects of a business."

Upon graduation, Wood joined Pricewaterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) as an HR consultant, and quickly began installing a compensation system at Smith Barney. At the time, SAP had just begun building its HR product, and Wood -- on assignment in Germany for Pricewaterhouse -- soon joined SAP as part of its HR product-development team.

"Today, my job has me going into many countries, but to some extent, I am still living in the HR world," he says.

Seeing the Big Picture

Wood, who remains in close contact with Gueutal, says Albany's program has taken a substantial leap forward in recent years. While the core curriculum hasn't changed much, the team exercises and the focus on data represent a new emphasis within the program.

"The students today take a more holistic view; they don't think in an HR vacuum," he says. "They see the HR data and how it's used. And they have the analyzing skills you need to perform today."

Jim Pascarell, a consultant with The Cedar Group in Boston and a 1994 graduate, says he was deciding between law school and an M.B.A. when literature about the Albany program caught his attention.

"I made the right choice," says Pascarell, who worked for AT&T in his first post-Albany job.

Pascarell wanted to work in a company setting, unlike the vast majority of his peers (there were 18 in his class), who wanted to go into consulting work.

"I was in the minority," he says. "But things were unbelievable back then. Each of us had three to four job offers."

Although the coursework was important, Pascarell says learning about the functional aspects of HR made the program really click for him--that and the technology, of course.

"You can see the big picture, everything that goes into HR," he says. "You learn how all the entities within an organization are so linked into HR."

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The first four years of his postgraduate career were heavily focused on helping HR professionals become comfortable with technology, showing them efficiencies that new technology could bring, he adds.

"I was more of a psychologist than anything else," he says.

Today, comfort level is no longer a hurdle, as technology is practically "second nature" to the HR executives he meets and works with, says Pascarell.

David Bach, a senior manager for Deloitte Consulting in Boston, went straight from graduation in 1997 to his current employer. According to Bach, the main difference between the Albany M.B.A. program and other M.B.A. programs is twofold: One is the strong relationship Gueutal has built with several large companies, both in working with the program and in hiring graduates. The other is its hands-on focus.

"I joined Deloitte as an experienced PeopleSoft user -- I had knowledge no other M.B.A. had," says Bach, who came from a sales-and-marketing background before entering the Albany program. "It really blew their minds. There are 16 national schools as part of the Deloitte hiring policy, and you had Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth . . . and then you have these Albany people."

Gueutal says that if there is a comparable e-HR program anywhere in the country, he hasn't seen it.

"There are schools with a course or two in e-HR, but not a focus or specialization," he says. "There is a lot of desire in some business schools to increase technology, but in our case, there are not that many HR faculty who specialize in technology."

Albany's job-placement numbers are impressive: Gueutal says the program had 100 percent job placement for a number of years. That has dropped a little bit of late, mainly because of geographic constraints or visa-related difficulties among some non-American graduates.

The Latest Crop

Today, most of the program's incoming students don't have HR backgrounds. Gueutal says nurses, schoolteachers and even a lawyer were among recent graduates.

Jennifer Monteverd, who will graduate in the spring, says she specifically chose Albany for its HRIS program, not just to get an M.B.A. (students can't technically move into the HRIS concentration until their second year). She had several years of work experience, but wanted to get into HR.

"I wasn't technical at all, and this is the perfect combination of HR and technology," she says. While going through a management development program at a bank, she saw how HR connected to everything she personally found interesting about business.

"I looked at the program, and it was just right for me," says Monteverd, who is completing an internship at GE, which offered her a job. She ultimately accepted an offer from Deloitte's New York City office upon graduating, although she will work from Albany.

Second-year student Sharla Aiken, who has a master's degree in social work, wanted more management experience, so she enrolled.

"With the HRIS concentration, you feel like the second year is a completely different experience, a different program, from year one," she says. "The HRIS faculty is so supportive, and that surprised me. Being from a social-work background, I thought business people would not be as helpful as others, but it turned out not to be true."

Aiken says her hands-on PeopleSoft experience has been especially helpful.

"That puts us ahead of the other M.B.A. grads, even the ones in HR concentrations," she says.

Chris Catalano, who initially had no intention of going into the HRIS concentration upon arriving at Albany, says he feels lucky to have made the move.

"It turned out to be a great decision, and I already have a job offer," says Catalano, who will join a New York-based financial firm, Ixis Capital Markets, as a compensation analyst upon graduation. He worked as a summer intern at Ixis in 2005, and then did his field project with the firm.

As for Conde Nast's Tenzyk, the Albany program will always remain special to her, mainly because without it, she figures she would never have enjoyed the success that she has.

"With that M.B.A., the options and career choices are wide open," she says. "When I think of my role here at Conde Nast, it's the biggest job in my career, with tremendous responsibility. And even though I no longer have oversight for systems work, I can still evaluate an HR system, 20 years later. There's no doubt that the people in the Albany program have set themselves apart."

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