AHRI on bridging the credibility gap

Craig Donaldson spoke with Jo Mithen, executive director of AHRI, about some key developments at the Institute since 2000

Craig Donaldson spoke with Jo Mithen, executive director of AHRI, about some key developments at the Institute since 2000

Deakin University bought AHRI in 2000 because the Institute was in financial trouble. What is the situation now?

Since that time, we’ve been managed as a wholly owned not for profit subsidiary of Deakin University, so we’re a non-profit making entity. We don’t turn a profit and we don’t return a dividend to the university, but we are financially independent from the university and wholly self-sustaining. Significant funds have been reinvested in the Institute and the profession over that period of time, which have been generated by the organisation, not from Deakin. There is an unfortunate misconception out there that Deakin bought AHRI to make money, and that has certainly not been the case.

Where do you believe AHRI management went wrong in the past?

I believe absolutely in the opportunities the HR profession has in this country. My predecessors also believed in that opportunity, but perhaps thought the market was more mature than it was, and invested a little too heavily in a few projects that the profession wasn’t quite ready for. My sense is, frankly, they tried to do too much too quickly, and spent too much money attempting to do that. I also feel there was a dysfunctional relationship between the board and senior management. Unfortunately, that’s not a situation that’s reserved for AHRI – that’s happened in many organisations over the last few years ... It was ultimately fatal to the organisation.

Deakin said it would hand AHRI back to the profession after five years, as long as certain conditions have been met. Where is this at?

That process is well and truly under way. It’s a little bit unfortunate this article is coming out at the moment, because there’s plans to announce that restructure within the next few months. We’ve been working on this issue for five years … and I’m happy to be able to report that will in fact take place in the next few months.

One of those conditions for handing the Institute back to the profession was that its members actually want it back. Is this the case?

That’s a fairly complicated question, because we’re not actually going to go to a member vote. We’ve made assumptions about that, and any concerns about that particular issue have already been resolved with elected officials. Deakin is simply going to hand it back to the members, and we’re putting things in place to ensure that it will continue to be managed professionally.

A number of HR professionals have expressed concerns over the number of HR consultants that make up AHRIs membership, and even claim that its more of an association for HR consultants because it provides an avenue for them to sell to HR professionals. How do you respond to this?

I’d agree with this on occasions, particularly at state run events. We have different structures in terms of what’s being offered at different levels. Many of our state run events have a lot of consultants attend them, because they see them as a prime networking opportunity. Depending on the event you go to, you may find, more or less, consultants present. And it is a frustration for practitioners to have so many consultants at these events. It’s very difficult to keep them away … I think it’s just a reflection of the profession. Its not necessarily an indictment on AHRI – we just mirror what the profession looks like.

A common criticism of AHRI is that it is good for providing information and services for lower level HR professionals, but struggles to provide the same for senior HR professionals. How would you respond to this?

We run a whole series of senior master classes for our senior HR practitioners around conference times and at other times we have international experts visiting. I don’t advertise those things, and generally they’re provided to the people who are known to me and the Institute and to those who have made an effort. For those who don’t get in contact with us or don’t express any interest in what we’re up to with events, they’ve found other avenues to update themselves.

We’re not the only provider of HR information, and we don’t want to be seen as that. We have to cater to the 10,000 people we have in the middle, and there’s probably another 2,000 who probably sit in the more senior ranks, who we provide for in different ways. We can’t be all things to all people. We don’t compete with organisations. In every capital city there’s a separate senior HR forum, and we don’t attempt to compete with those groups who meet monthly or quarterly to discuss issues.

Robert Thomason, AHRIs former executive director, predicted AHRIs membership would exceed 20,000 by 2003. Why hasnt this happened?

Our membership hasn’t exceeded 20,000 for a number of reasons. We have 25,000 people who come to us for services regularly, but a lot of our stakeholders choose not to become members. That is disappointing, but that’s the way it is. Our financial membership is now 12,000, and I guess the reason it hasn’t hit 20,000 is perhaps because that was a bit ambitious at the time.

Sometimes people transition out of HR, or within their HR career move into line management positions and back again. What we find is that once they find they’re no longer in a specific HR role, they might leave the Institute for that period of time. We have a lot of people come back when they assume HR roles again … It’s a shame they don’t maintain their membership, but I guess in that situation you could understand it.

Another reason why people don’t become a member is because it’s not compulsory for practice. You find a difference, for example, with CPA Australia. They have a retention rate in the order of 96 per cent for their membership, as I understand it. While it’s not compulsory for practice, it’s certainly regarded as an industry standard. That’s not yet the case with HR management here, or in any country in the world. I think that’s a contributing factor as well.

AHRI has suffered with serious credibility issues in the past. What sort of steps is AHRI taking to ensure that the Institute regains that lost credibility?

It’s just the steady and consistent running of the organisation. We’re receiving considerable government funding to run programs, along with the fact that senior government ministers speak to our members and use us as a forum and a platform to approach different people. I know you’ve spoken to senior people who believe we’re not doing enough in that space. I would suggest if you opened up the AHRI convention program, you’ll see a whole range of people, from Kevin Brown at Qantas to Paul Birch at Siemens – there’s a whole bunch of seniors who are in contact with us regularly and provide us with support. If you look at our AHRI awards, we’ve got people on the judging panel like Brett Wright from St.George Bank and Andrea Grant from Telstra. We’ve got a good smattering of senior people that are quite public in what we do.

There’s also a whole range of senior people behind the scenes who assist us in a range of projects. For example, we’ve received two Australian Research Council linkage grants in the last 12 months to conduct HR research. This is the first time HR research is being conducted through the linkage grants and supported by the Federal Government. The total value of those projects is in excess of $1 million over three years. I think things like that speak for themselves.

Theres been talk that you may move on from the position of executive director of AHRI soon. Do you have any such plans?

The issue with the restructure of the organisation is looming. I guess that marks the end of a chapter in AHRI … There’s still a lot of detail to be worked out around that. For example, we will be appointing a national president. There will be quite a change on that front. Am I looking to move on? I guess I would classify myself as one of those passive jobseekers, like probably 98 per cent of the market. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and I’m confident I have a job here as long as I need it.

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