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Human Resources is likely not the first subject that comes to mind when you think of a business school education, but it's an increasingly important topic to understand in the business world.

While talent management is a top priority for business executives, only five percent of leaders rate their organization's current HR department as excellent. In order for future CHROs to be strategic arms of organizations, graduates making up the next generation of leaders need to be privy to new thinking in HR (particularly when it comes to how technology is changing talent management).

University at Albany's School of Business is at the forefront of producing those next gen leaders; it's the first school to offer a Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) concentration as part of its core MBA curriculum. We spoke with Professor Richard Johnson, HRIS program director, and Professor Janet Marler about why this program makes UAlbany's MBA curriculum unique, what new opportunities it's providing for graduates and how any high-level executive—from CEOs to CHROs—can benefit from the initiative.

How does the HRIS curriculum differ from traditional MBA programs?

Marler: The program has been around since the mid 1980s and it's the only program in the U.S. where you can earn an MBA with a concentration in HR management and HR information systems. People in the HR function are often criticized for not fully understanding the business side of things—students in this program earn an MBA along with that HR specialization.

Johnson: There are three pillars that classes cover: Electronic Human Resource Management (eHRM), Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS) and Change Management. We have classes that are HR-technology focused, as well as hands-on classes that teach how HR practices differ once you bring technology into the picture.

Why is the program focused on both HR and technology?

Marler: Technology is transforming the way HR management is practiced in organizations and we have a cadre of graduate students with HR skillsets that executives can recruit and benefit from … So few students have this knowledge, so they are a huge resource to companies.

Johnson: HR is often last to the table in the C-Suite, but the individuals coming out of this program are rethinking what HR is as a role. Over the next 20 years, HR roles are going to change; you're going to see people coming in who are tech specialists. The field is going to be transformed and those who understand the technology will be on the forefront of leading organizations through those changes.

How do you integrate new technologies and traditional human resources in the curriculum?

Johnson: Our students receive hands-on consulting experience as part of their program. Students have implemented HR technology for small businesses, tracked down job descriptions and personnel to ensure accurate transfer of data to a new system, and helped businesses select software.

What new opportunities does this program open for graduates?

Marler: One of the trends we are seeing in education is that companies want to hire people with specific knowledge and experience rather than having to invest in training. We provide that very specific area of training, so we become a source for companies who are looking for employees with this background.

Our students go on to work for major consulting firms including Deloitte, PwC, as well as regional companies, smaller consulting firms and major corporations in the New York area.

Johnson: Being part of an MBA program exposes our students to a broader set of organizational perspectives (e.g. marketing, finance, supply chain, accounting) than might be found in a traditional human resources program. In addition, in their field consulting experiences, the students often interact with employees from multiple departments, and see the potential impact of both HR and HRIS initiatives on the broader organization.

We believe that this helps our graduates start their career with a broader understanding of the organizational functions and how HR can support organizational strategy by becoming a stronger partner. The ability to think strategically and understand the broader organizational context is critical if those from HR are to have a larger voice at the executive level. Ultimately, HR’s voice is contingent upon them understanding what the firm does, not just how people are managed within the firm. 

Some students may be interested in talent management, but don't necessarily want roles explicitly in HR. How does an understanding of HR benefit business leaders in other roles?

Marler: Having a better understanding of HR can benefit business leaders in other roles by making them more effective at managing and leading their organization. With this knowledge, they'll know how to identify, attract, retain and motivate key talent for competitive advantage.