AHRI’s continuing credibility gap

In the inaugural issue of Human Resources magazine, we put the spotlight on AHRI and examined the organisation’s ability to meet the needs of the HR profession. Craig Donaldson revisits the issue and looks at whether AHRI has picked up its game

In the inaugural issue of Human Resources magazine, we put the spotlight on AHRI and examined the organisations ability to meet the needs of the HR profession. Craig Donaldson revisits the issue and looks at whether AHRI has picked up its game

At the end of 1999, the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) was in dire financial straits and its credibility as a professional institution for HR professionals was in tatters.

AHRI had been losing money for three years and was placed into voluntary administration. Confidence in the organisation hit rock bottom on Christmas Eve 1999, when AHRI sent a letter to its 14,500 members, asking for a special $150 levy to help the organisation overcome its financial problems.

In February 2000, the Institute’s fortunes changed when Deakin Australia came to its rescue, paying an undisclosed sum for the ailing Institute. At the time, there was much conjecture as to why AHRI ended up in such financial trouble. The consensus was that the Institute became too ambitious and expanded too rapidly.

“It was apparent that the senior management and directors of the old organisation were not in receipt of sufficient financial information to understand the financial viability of the organisation,” said Robert Thomason, former executive director of AHRI.

Deakin Australia issued a statement on 14 February 2000 in which it explained that: “When AHRI’s financial difficulties became apparent, we did not hesitate to explore how we could help to secure its future. Deakin Australia obviously has some commercial objectives in acquiring AHRI, but it is also committed to ensuring the organisation survives and prospers for the benefit of all members.”

Deakin subsequently acquired the rights to the Institute’s educational programs, and the media statement also assured members that, under Deakin’s management, it was business as usual. When Deakin Australia began discussions about buying AHRI, the then directors and regional presidents of AHRI felt it was untenable for the Institute to be in private hands indefinitely. In AHRI’s proposal to the receivers, it was suggested that Deakin Australia manage AHRI for five years, and then offer it back to members on a number of conditions.

Serious about senior HR professionals?

Many HR directors believe AHRI has made progress in a number of areas, but say it still lacks the vital credibility a professional association needs, especially among more senior and influential circles. A number of both formal and informal networking and professional development groups for senior HR professionals have sprung up as a result. One such group is the Australian Senior Human Resources Roundtable (ASHRR), a Sydney University linked forum of more than 50 senior HR managers from leading private and public sector organisations.

John Dyer, past chairman of ASHRR and group general manager of HR for CSR Limited, believes AHRI has not met the needs of senior HR professionals. “It could be that they just haven’t really attempted to target the heads of HR in the top companies and create a forum just for them,” he says. Many ASHRR members feel that “AHRI doesn’t really meet their needs. The proportion of members in AHRI that are consultants selling products is too great, and they have different objectives. Many AHRI members are also young, entry-level HR practitioners. As such, the Institute isn’t a useful forum for HR directors when it comes to comparing notes on relevant issues,” he adds.

Alec Bashinsky, Deloitte’s national partner for people and performance, agrees. He believes AHRI has improved dramatically over the past 12 months, and that Jo Mithen, executive director for AHRI, is fairly proactive in bringing the broader HR community together.

However, he doesn’t see AHRI gaining any traction or providing specific networking opportunities at the top end of the town. “My view is that they do not cater to that, and I don’t see them catering to that full stop,” he says. “AHRI remains too ‘lunch speaker’ driven. They still focus on presenting development programs and have too many consultants presenting, who actually don’t have a track record of successful implementation, but they know the strategy of how it is done.”

One HR director, who preferred to remain anonymous, voiced similar frustrations about being sold to by the many consultants at AHRI events. “AHRI is overrun with them,” he said. “It’s meant to be a member’s organisation, but it becomes irrelevant because of its member base. HR directors are the influencers of the next generation, but AHRI’s membership is largely lower level HR practitioners and consultants.

“So we tend to talk to each other about the issues that matter. Most HR directors have nothing to do with AHRI. Over the years they’ve questioned the value of membership, so they drop out. Some continue just for the professional affiliation, while others hope for a speaking spot at an AHRI lunch. But for the most part, AHRI tends to provide junior level, basic and rudimentary information.”

Robyn Katz, general manager of TalkPoint, a privately owned professional networking forum for HR functional leaders with more than 130 members across Sydney and Melbourne, also found many senior HR professionals were missing a suitable avenue to talk with each other.

“The organisation that purports to represent the human resources profession, namely AHRI, has been driven by people who are consultants or academics or frankly, with respect, not all that contemporary,”she says. Katz also acknowledges that, “AHRI’s intentions haven’t been bad, but are limited by their attempt to be all things to all people.”

She also notes that many HR managers don’t go to AHRI events because they realise they are in the minority and consultants are in the majority. “If I’m a vendor and I go along to an AHRI event, my main agenda is going to be how I can get a sale. Now if I’m one of hundreds of other people doing that and the poor unsuspecting, relatively new mid-level manager turns up, he gets pounced on. So the more seasoned HR manager has learned very quickly that it’s essentially a vendor fest,” Katz says.

A reflection of the profession?

Another common criticism of AHRI is that the organisation is too inward looking, which is largely a reflection of the profession and its associated credibility problems in business, according to Roger Collins, professor of management at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM). “The biggest problem with AHRI is that it’s focusing on the HR profession, rather than the managers and leaders who really make the difference in business,” he says.

Engagement is driven by senior and line managers within an organisation, rather than the HR department, according to Collins. “So why are we putting so much effort into the HR team, when in fact if you really wanted leverage, you would put a lot more effort into your managers and leaders? The problem with AHRI is that, while it’s worthy, if we’re really trying to improve the organisational performance and the experiences of our people, that effort should be spent more on the managers and leaders themselves, rather than the HR team.”

If AHRI reflects the profession, Collins says, there’s a danger that it will be too inward looking. “The HR profession is too incestuous. At the high level, you have to be multi-disciplined and functional, rather than just straight HR … I think AHRI’s got to broaden out and create more heterogeneity in some of those senior forums.”

Regaining lost credibility

AHRI lost a great deal of credibility over the years, but many practitioners acknowledge the Institute has taken a number of steps in the right direction more recently. There remains a long way to go, however, if AHRI is truly to become an association that represents members at all levels – especially senior ones, according to Katz.

“They’ve lost a lot of credibility over the past years, and unfortunately people remember where you went wrong more than they do when you try to make good. AHRI is making a lot of effort, but some of the fundamentals are flawed. I believe AHRI can continue to service those on the first few rungs of their HR career, the consultant and vendor, as well as academics and the public sector – essentially delivering on their operational learning and information needs.”

Another HR director, who preferred not to be named, believes AHRI has done a “very good job at improving publicity for the HR profession, but is still off the pace in terms of being taken seriously by experienced members. It needs to emphasise and be more specific how HR can contribute to the overall success of companies.”

Part of a community

Bashinsky believes there are relatively few options for senior HR practitioners when it comes to networking and professional development needs. “Many HR networking events are attended by the ‘transactional or policing’ HR practitioners who want to talk about HR admin, payroll, recruitment, OHS and so on,” he says.

“The smart, mid-level HR managers who have the potential to go on realise they’re not going to get the development or networking they need within organisations like AHRI. Smart ones will seek out the right networking contacts or try and get into forums where they can do more business-focused networking.” Bashinsky, who is a member of TalkPoint, says professionals with a similar focus can talk about their strategic HR understanding and issues such as influencing, changing or enhancing businesses agendas, for example.

A professional wants to be part of a community only if there’s value in identifying with that particular community, according to Katz. “TalkPoint’s original research showed how lonely it can be at the top, and a desire to belong to a meaningful professional community. What the HR function has had to date in AHRI is an association. A professional association doesn’t necessarily translate into something that feels like a community. AHRI has essentially been by default, its legacy and history, the professional association. Have they done a job in developing community? I don’t believe they have. Have they brought together umbrella exhibitions and conventions? Yes they have, but we wonder if those who attend say, ‘I’m proud to belong and pleased I turned up,’” she says.

Dyer says ASHRR has met with AHRI on a number of occasions to talk about working together. “I thought it would be a good idea to merge in some way, but I don’t think AHRI had expressed that much interest in it … I think it would be good to get together in some way and form a substantial professional body, that represents HR the way accountants, engineers, lawyers and other professions are represented by their member bodies,” Dyer says.

“There isn’t a body that truly represents HR as a professional body in Australia. While Deakin owns AHRI, I don’t think it can truly be that truly independent professional body. Deakin would need to let it go, and let it be formed again by the professionals who are in it.”

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