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An MBA is critical for HR leaders

On the first day of my MBA program, I was pleasantly surprised to meet several other classmates with an HR or recruitment background. I thought I would be the only HR person crazy enough to want to pursue an MBA! In fact, 12% of this year’s incoming part-time MBA class at HKUST are in General Management/HR functions.* This seemed like a really high percentage of the overall class, so I decided to interview a few of my peers to get an understanding of what drove them to pursue an MBA.

As I mentioned in a previous article, today’s HR professionals are expected to do more and more. HR is increasingly seen as a true partner to their business. With technology reducing or eliminating many of the mundane, administrative aspects of HR, HR professionals have more time to be strategic and innovative. Particularly in Hong Kong where the HR function has historically been viewed as administrative "personnel," the function is slowly undergoing a transformation. Can an MBA help equip us with the skills we need to make that transition?

Why pursue an MBA?

I decided to pursue my MBA because as a new small business owner, I realized that it would be beneficial to have broader knowledge about how companies run – areas such as finance, accounting, marketing and operations. In addition, when I worked at a small company, I had in-depth exposure to these areas, but I felt I couldn’t add as much value as I wanted to. An MBA provides a broad based business education that can complement my HR expertise. As Vishnu Suresh (HKU, Class of 2018) says, having an MBA “doesn’t limit you.” In fact, an MBA helps you to pick up a range of new skills.

Why pursue an MBA instead of a Masters in HRM?

If you are considering an advanced degree but are unsure whether an MBA or a Masters in HRM would be more beneficial, firstly, consider your goals. Ms. Lau (HKUST, Class of 2020) chose an MBA over an advanced degree in HRM because she wanted to explore something new so that she could be ready for the “unexpected future.” Suresh felt that a Masters in HRM “lacked diversity – both professionally & culturally.”

Suresh mentioned that the MBA “classroom gives you a psychological safety net – a chance to try out new things.” Despite already having a Masters in HRM, Esther Chan (HKUST, Class of 2019) decided to pursue her MBA “because I realized when you get up to the management level you have to have oversight over many different aspects and should know the basic knowledge of the different main elements of the firm such as finance, operations process, accounting, etc. The real business needs a comprehensive, all-rounded person at the top since you have to make lots of considerations and view things from different angles for the company’s own sake.”

How does an MBA help an HR professional in the workplace?

It is often said that you do an MBA for the networking rather than the classroom learning. Although that is partly true, there are some valuable takeaways from coursework that can be immediately applied on the job. Suresh cited a specific example of a marketing case study that looked at customer segmentation. “Why not use this on our internal customers and how we look at different types of employees. Strategies that are used to attract or retain customers – Why not use these in talent acquisition?” Both Chan and Suresh said that their MBA education helped them to open their minds, understand and value different perspectives. “That is the best part of an MBA” Suresh said.

Can an MBA help HR to think more strategically or be more business savvy?

Human capital is a significant fixed cost to any organization and managing this cost effectively is critical to a company’s bottom line. In order for HR to make a contribution to these discussions, they must have a seat at the table. As Suresh says, “The strategic picture is what is missing from HR. HR needs the foresight to see where the business is going.” Chan agrees. In addition to her roles in HR, Chan worked in the CEO’s office of a unit of a large European bank. She said, “Actually the first topic the senior management discusses is revenue, then risk and then human capital. Engagement, retention, talent development, and hiring are always top topics we discuss.”

After working for several years in the CEO’s office, Chan recently transferred back to HR. The knowledge gained from her MBA helped her with the transition. Chan said, “If I hadn’t studied my MBA I may be upset if there are new initiatives, but with my MBA knowledge, I know how to view things from different perspectives and angles. So the MBA is very useful and in fact grooms us to have a big picture mindset.” 

Ms. Lau echoes the comments of Chan and Suresh. In her role at a Japanese bank, she said that “having business knowledge and business sense will become more and more important, especially when it goes to management and strategic roles. HR shall not be only telling the local requirement and market practice to the business, but also strategic advice with HR insight.”

How will innovation and technology impact HR’s role and how can an MBA prepare you for these changes?

I decided to pursue my MBA not only to have broader business knowledge and to better support my clients, but also to upskill myself as roles and industries change due to the impact of technology. Ms. Lau agrees, saying “Since a lot of routine and HR operation work will be replaced by a computer very soon, we should better prepare ourselves for this fast changing environment.” In his role at Jobable, Suresh uses both AI and machine learning to help clients solve their HR problems. Suresh likens this to storytelling, “data and people are both part of the story. You need to understand both sides.” HR will always be about people, but it is increasingly about data too.

HR will always be about people, but it is increasingly about data too.

Pursuing an MBA may not be an option for everyone: they are expensive and a big time commitment. Some may argue that advanced degrees are not necessary in the Human Resources field or that your time is better spent obtaining a professional certification. But for myself and an increasing number of senior HR professionals in Hong Kong (including those I interviewed for this article), adding an MBA to their academic arsenal is viewed as a competitive advantage in this increasingly strategic and technology-focused function. 

*According to statistics from the HKUST MBA program office.

Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.

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