HR Leadership Column Sad -- But Not Surprising -- Breakup

There's plenty of disappointment to go around in the wake of the divorce between the Society for Human Resource Management and the Human Resource Certification Institute over certification programs.

Monday, June 9, 2014
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Many people have contacted me to ask what I think about the Society for Human Resource Management's announcement that it's getting into the certification business. Specifically, it's developing a new HR certification program that will be based on the competencies required to be an effective HR professional.

The HR Certification Institute was surprised by the announcement, as were its members and volunteer leaders.

I'm asked what I think because I was SHRM's CEO and also sat on the HRCI board. SHRM and HRCI are part of my history.

That's why I'm deeply disappointed that the two appear to be going their separate ways. But I'm not surprised. I believe that, when the decision was made more than 30 years ago by SHRM to create a legally separate certification organization, it became inevitable that the two organizations would someday go their separate ways. It appears that day has come.

Some have suggested that SHRM's entry into the certification business is driven by money. I think that's partly true, because although SHRM is a non-profit, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be run like any good business. I'm sure SHRM's investment to research, develop and administer a certification program has and will continue to be significant, and I would hope it's being done with an eye toward achieving a return. For the majority of members, this is a good thing: non-dues income helps SHRM keep the dues low.

Of course, SHRM didn't have to set up a separate organization to create an HR certification program. There are lots of well-respected certification programs that integrate parts of membership organizations. Consider the CCP (Certified Compensation Professional) exam from WorldatWork, the CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance) from the American Society for Training and Development (now ATD), or even the CPA exam provided by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Just as others have done, SHRM could have created a governance structure that offered the proper separation between test preparation and test creation.

But it didn't. Instead, it created a separate organization with a separate board of directors, financial statement, budget, staff, and ultimately, strategy. And although the organizations are legally separate, SHRM and HRCI have overlapping constituencies and missions. As they both grew, the separate governance structures became a formula for trouble.

During the 20-plus years I was at SHRM, finding agreement between the two on strategic direction wasn't always easy. Who was responsible for being the voice of the profession when articulating what one needed to know or do to be effective as an HR professional? Should there be additional certifications offered? If so, what voice did SHRM have in decisions on allocation of resources to serve the professional if a new certification was to be launched? If HRCI decided on a new credential, did that mean SHRM had to provide educational tools to support the certification? What if SHRM had other priorities?

This was especially problematic since most HR professionals viewed SHRM and HRCI as one organization. HR professionals would expect and assume SHRM would help them become prepared for a new certification exam. SHRM would regularly field complaints about exam conditions or difficulty in getting approval for recertification credit -- which SHRM had no control over; HRCI, meanwhile, would get calls complaining about educational materials to prepare for the certification exam -- a SHRM product.

Each year, both boards would have new members as terms ended or began, and the newly constituted boards would sometimes choose new strategic directions that were at cross-purposes, or served as a distraction to each other's mission. Joint board meetings would be held to try to achieve some strategic alignment, but it was never easy. Over the years, there were occasional discussions of adjusting their governance structures of the two organizations to improve strategic alignment, but no significant changes were ever made. The organizations remain separate.

The SHRM announcement leads me to believe that the challenge of trying to maintain strategic alignment has simply become too difficult, and too much of a distraction. Like a marriage that has gone through years of counseling, a decision has been made that divorce is the only path.

While it may simplify things for SHRM, and eventually HRCI, it's going to cause a lot of confusion for the profession.

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And that really breaks my heart.

With time, I'm confident the confusion will be cleared up. SHRM will provide more information about its new certification, most likely in conjunction with its annual conference this month. It will certainly provide greater detail on the differences between the exams offered by HRCI and, eventually, SHRM.

HRCI certification will still be valuable, regardless of SHRM's move, since 130,000 certified professionals won't simply walk away from a respected credential that they fought hard to obtain. For those trying to decide whether to go ahead and take the HRCI exam now, or wait for SHRM, I encourage you to move forward -- sit for the HRCI exam. Never delay your own professional development.

For those worried about recertification, I expect that professional development undertaken for recertification under HRCI will likely count towards recertification under SHRM's new credential, although the weighting may be different. Time will tell.

So, while I think SHRM's announcement creates some confusion in the short term, more guidance will be provided from SHRM and HRCI to help HR professionals decide on their best path forward.

I'm disappointed that HR professionals have to wait for more information and answers, and I'm disappointed in SHRM for the way it handled its seemingly abrupt decision to enter the certification business.

SHRM's own competency model identifies consultation, communication and relationship management as core competencies for HR professionals. Everything about how this decision and announcement was made suggests that SHRM has some competency building of its own to do.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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