With the possibility that a piece of academic HRD research may gain significant acclaim for its scholar, while at the same time having no impact on the world of the practitioner a strong one, what is the incentive to produce work designed to enable practitioners to meet real organisational problems? It is in creating this world that Bennis and O’Toole (2005), cited in Markides (2011) can argue that business schools have lost their way in the past 30 years by focusing too much on doing ‘scientific’ research that has no real practical value.According to Swanson (1997) theory, research, development and practice should go together to form a cycle that allows ideas to be gradually refined as they evolve from concepts into practices and from practices into concepts. This cycle allows for the different elements of the process of constructing HRD thought to be seen as completely interrelated. The union of the research and practitioner spaces also creates an impression of equilibrium between the two and suggests the need for all to inform each other so that the HRD profession as a whole can be enhanced.
What are then some of the specific challenges facing today’s HRD practitioner and to what extent can research be seen to be enabling them to be met. As HRD is still an emerging field it does lend itself to challenges associated with its lack of maturity. The following are challenges associated with the prospect of establishing HRD as a bona fide and credible professional field within the organisational setting. Kahnweiler (2009) has stated that HRD cannot be viewed as an established profession because there is no widely recognised body of accreditation or defined body of knowledge unique to HRD.While their research is based on the situation in the United States, Short et al’s (2009) proposal that the lack of formal barriers and educational requirements to becoming a HRD practitioner is problematic is also true of the situation in the UK.
In particular they draw attention to the possibility of a non-regulated workforce damaging the profession by a lack of ethical standards. This is a situation similar to that of the position with regards to ‘coaching’, where well-qualified and highly professional practitioners are placed alongside those with little or no real background in the practice.The resolving of this challenge will require the joint efforts of academic researchers and practitioners. HRD practitioners face any number of challenges in the current workplace but one of the most pressing is the speed of change. Organisations are constantly subject to external forces which require a rapid response in terms of strategy, new products, changing work patterns, globalisation and any number of other variables. Yet HRD researchers and practitioners are failing to adapt.What is required by HRD practitioners is research and theories that meet the needs of the future learning and development necessities of organisations.
What is required is for academic researchers to be able to anticipate what research practitioners will need now and in the coming years and to have the processes in place to get that research into the HRD community in an appropriate timeframe and in a manner that the findings are most likely to influence practitioner practices. Where are the ‘just in time’ products from HRD researchers designed to address the current and future issues of organisations?However HRD practitioners can be seen as equally failing to look to the future needs of their organisations. Many practitioners are still relying on developmental approaches that are out of date and unable to meet the new strategies and business models of their organisations. The CIPD’s recent survey, A Barometer of HR Trends and Prospects 2012 has suggested that HRD practitioners are missing huge opportunities to boost skills by relying on decades-old learning models.
The CIPD’s annual Learning and Talent Development survey found that the three most commonly used learning models (Myers-Briggs 1962; Belbin 1959; and Honey and Mumford’s 1974) are all more than 30 years old, and practitioners had ‘low awareness’ of more modern diagnostic tools from other disciplines. The challenge is for HRD practitioners to be more proactive in delivering new types of learning and development activities, with a better link to the needs of their organisations, but there appears to be little evidence to suggest that academic research can work to the timeframes necessary to keep the theory current with practice.Another challenge for the HRD practitioner is to establish themselves as having a significant role to play in the development of organisational strategy rather than just the delivery of learning and development activities. In order to do this HRD researchers and practitioners must develop a way of demonstrating how HRD can connect with the efficiency and productivity of the organisation (Swanson and Holton 1999). In relation to this is the very real practical challenge of how HRD practitioners can evidence the value of what they do in a manner that can be measured.
What are required from academic researchers here are methods of linking learning and development activities to performance improvement measurements. Such methodologies would greatly enable HRD practitioners to establish themselves as important professionals on an organisational strategic basis. HRD practitioners would then be able to design activities and conduct analysis within the organisation and attempt to identify the influences of their practices on organisational performance. As Preskill and Russ-Eft (2003) have suggested it is necessary for HRD practitioners to have valid measures of learning and development, with the resulting credible interpretations in order to become key influences on a strategic level.Another challenge is that HRD practitioners need to focus more on providing their organisations with solutions to real problems, as opposed to considering the problems of HRD methodologies and delivery, “self-referential abstract theory that is divorced from its practical implications serves no social purpose” (Yorks, 2005, p.112). This appears to be problematic for the academic HRD researchers, and thus the enabling of practitioners, as much of the published research seems to concentrate on issues within the HRD community, defining HRD; direction of HRD etc rather than those that would matter to other organisational stakeholders.Stone and Deadrick suggested that researchers should be asking themselves the question “Does our research make an important contribution to an applied problem?” (2008 p.
101). Unless more focus is put on dealing with real problems those stakeholders within organisations with these problems to solve will not be looking to the HRD practitioner for assistance as they don’t appear to have anything useful to contribute.But where the HRD practitioner can supply “robust answers to problems grounded in well thought out and rigorous theories tested in the crucibles of research and practice can go far in helping HRD practitioners in both worlds make their case with powerful stakeholders” (York, 2005 p.112). The challenge for HRD practitioners is to move beyond the confines of HRD, even HRM, and to see their abilities as contributing to organisational solutions in partnership with other stakeholders.
To be enabled in doing this it will also require HRD researchers to produce work that reflects the modern organisation and not allow HRD research to remain in a silo.In conclusion the extent to which academic research enables practitioners to meet today’s HRD challenges are difficult to assess. HRD research can appear to be rather inwardly directed more concerned with discussing the problems of HRD rather than those of modern organisations. As the discipline has matured the work of HRD researchers has been moved out of the management or HRM journals into more specialist HRD publications such as; Human Resource Development International; Human Resource Development Quarterly; and Human Resource Development Review. This can lead to academic research into HRD becoming something of an exercise in ‘preaching to the choir’. The result being that HRD does not gain the understanding or impact that it perhaps deserves.
McGoldrick, citing Jacobs (2000), does not see this as an issue and indeed states, “the emergence of HRD-related journals has presented an opportunity to define the field on basis of theory and practice. Yorks, citing Torraco, pointed to the belief that despite the acknowledgement of the issue of the research – practice link being one of the most significant challenges for HRD “the gap between research and practice has been widening, not closing…and successfully bridging this gap goes to the heart of our Academy’s commitment to improving practice through sound theory and research” (2005, p.111). While accepting that there is a need to ‘bridge’ the gap between research and practice it should also be acknowledged that they are two different things and it is for the benefit of the HRD profession that they remain so.
As Yorks states, “the tension between the worlds of theory and practice can work to the advantage of both.” (2005, p.112).HRD is a relatively young discipline and there are significant challenges to its future.
Failing to acknowledge these challenges will run the risk of marginalising HRD within organisations and seeing the advancements made since the days of the ‘training department’ being lost. Unless HRD practitioners with the assistance of academic researchers can provide a professional service that is more focused on delivering business outcomes in a measurable and time critical way and supported by a stronger theoretical basis HRD risks being side-lined within the organisation.