Reflections on HR Certification vs. Competence

The Society for Human Resource Management's certification announcement raises a simple but important question: What is the role of certification (vs. competence) in the development of a field?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014
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Many, if not most, professions have some type of certification protocol. Attorneys pass a bar exam; psychologists are licensed after passing a standardized exam; "certified" public accountants pass a knowledge exam, etc. In all these cases, these licensing exams determine the extent to which an individual grasps the basic knowledge in the profession.

Certification focuses on knowing the basics and earning the legitimacy to practice. Certification does not mean competence. Many attorneys, psychologists, accountants and others have become certified, but it does not mean that they are competent enough to be effective practitioners. focuses on the past, not the future; on mastering ideas, not application of ideas; on joining a profession, not succeeding in the profession.

HR certification ensures that HR professionals know the body of knowledge (theory and research) that underlies HR. It does not imply that they are competent in HR. They could be both incompetent and uncertified; they could be certified, but not competent; not certified but competent; or both certified and competent.  

There are efforts to determine the competencies for effective HR professionals. Through the University of Michigan, the RBL Group, and partners throughout the world, we (Ulrich pictured at left, Brockbank at right) have spent 25 years studying (theory, research and practice) competencies for effective HR professionals. Essential to this long-term study are some underlying assumptions:

1.     HR competencies are determined less by self-report and more by how those competencies are perceived by others.  Competencies impact both the overall reputation or perception of the HR professional and the performance of the business. Leadership studies moved away from self-report as the way to determine leadership effectiveness over 40 years ago with the advent of 360 measures. Likewise, HR competencies should be assessed not only by the HR professional but by those who observe the HR professional. In addition, these competencies should be seen as predictors of important personal and organizational outcomes. We have found some very important differences between how HR professionals define their competencies and rate themselves versus how those who observe their work do. We have also found very important differences in how HR competencies affect both the perception of HR personal effectiveness and the impact on business results.

2.     There are global HR competencies, but they also may vary by geography, level in the organization, role in the organization, gender, time in role, etc. To fully determine competencies and their impact, one needs data from multiple sources.

3.     There are exceptional HR professional groups around the world, each working to determine how to help HR professionals be effective. Convinced that partnering  with these groups furthers the profession, we have collaborated with more than 15 HR professional associations since 1987 to define both the overall global HR competencies and unique local requirements for effective HR. In an increasingly complex and global world, collaboration should be the norm instead of the imposition of one set of expectations from one country to the rest of the world.

4.     HR certifications can be relatively standardized exams determining mastery of the body of knowledge in the field. HR competencies, meanwhile, should be evolving models, since the competencies for HR professionals change as business requirements change. For example, in the last five years, there has been an abundance of work on HR analytics, scorecards, the cloud and data. Underlying these HR skill areas are competencies related to sourcing, interpreting, translating and using information for improved decision making. In our 25 years, we have identified about 140 specific competencies every four to five years that HR professionals should master to be effective. These 140 competencies, representing the "be, know and do" of HR, come from regional partners who survey thought leaders in their region and come to a consensus about what determines effective HR professionals. Every five years, we change about 40 to 50 of these items, based on the input of the consortium of HR professional groups. HR competencies evolve and their study should focus forward based on global requirements.

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5.     We assert that HR competencies do not exist for their own sake. Rather, HR competencies exist to enhance business performance. A major problem with most competency models is that they ask the question, "What are the competencies of HR professionals?" This is the wrong question. The question should be, "What are the competencies of HR professionals that have the greatest impact on business performance?" Our statistical analysis of our data over the past 25 years has addressed both of these questions in detail. However, our unique and important contribution is our examination of the business performance question. 

So, the answer to the appropriate question, "What do I have to be, know and do to be an effective HR professional?" is much more than asking HR professionals what they think. It requires partnership of HR- professional associations around the world, focusing on outcomes of HR skills, aligning competencies to current and future business conditions, tailoring competencies to specific situations and identifying the competencies that matter most for business performance. We believe this competency logic is much further along than the basic and historical view of certification.


Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and partner at the RBL Group. He writes, studies and advises organizations on HR, talent, leadership, culture and change. Wayne Brockbank is a clinical professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He studies and consults in the areas of organizational strategy, corporate culture and business-focused HR strategies.


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