Debra Cohen, Senior VP, Knowledge Development, Society for Human Resource Management
>See Cohen's bio
Facilitated by Lee Davidson and Christine Cuenin-Wilson, AACSB International
How has your passion for education—and your career experiences—influenced your decision to be part of AACSB's Business Practices Council?
Cohen: My passion for education is very tied to business broadly and Human Resources (HR) specifically. I spent 15 years as an academician—even doing a short stint as an interim associate dean. I understand the way academia works and yet have a stronger passion for connecting the worlds of academia and practice. It was the passion for connecting the two worlds that caused me to give up my tenured position and work for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). I have been employed by SHRM for 15 years and enjoy the deep connection to HR and, more important, those who hire other business professionals. I have stayed very connected to academia and feel that my role at SHRM has allowed me to focus on HR and business education in a way that I never could as a faculty member. And the BPC is a way for me to bring all my passions together. The way we approach business education must change, but the wheels to do so turn very slowly. Because of what we have learned through organizations like AACSB about education and practice, and the need to integrate the two, change may have a chance to take hold. One school or a few passionate educators are not likely to have the impact that a large nonprofit will have. The BPC, as a resource to AACSB, can help spark needed change, and this mission is what attracted me to the BPC.
What do you hope or envision the Business Practices Council can achieve that will support business school innovation and engagement?
Cohen: I view the BPC as a group that can advise AACSB on key issues, confirm some of their suppositions, and provide practical information about how business sees education that AACSB may not be seeing on the accreditation side of what they do. The BPC can point to innovations and talk about why they may be effective—or not. Not all innovation will take you down the path that a school or AACSB may want. Some innovation may actually miss the mark, and unless schools and AACSB can articulate clearly what they hope to gain or change in the intersection of business and academia, then the innovation will not achieve the outcomes sought. I envision a connection to business and a perspective far different from the usual academic perspective. To me, this means that the conversations of the BPC will be critical, and having AACSB “listening” will also be critical. AACSB as a nonprofit association has the ability to help academia as a whole—not just one or two or a handful of schools. At the most recent BPC meeting in February, eight AACSB staff and 10 BCP members participated. The AACSB staff spent a lot of time listening and participated in meaningful ways. They will go back and incorporate the ideas and explore the possibilities that make the most sense for the organization. They will be the ones to spark change and innovation, and they have the platform and resources to do so. Faculty or deans who listen to a presentation or read an article may be inspired to go back and try to innovate in their schools. And while this is a nice outcome, it will not prescribe whole-scale change the way an initiative of an association might facilitate needed change.
Are there any challenges facing global business today that could be better approached through a partnership with academe?
Cohen: I see two challenges for which partnerships may be helpful: research partnerships and understanding competencies that are needed by discipline.
Research partnerships might be an effective opportunity to explore. By this I mean conducting more directed research that is requested and useful to global businesses. Most faculty research the things they are interested in or for which they have data. Often this is on a narrow issue and may or may not be requested by or of interest to business. Business will often participate in research as a way to assist academicians and may find the results interesting but always useful. The more business and the academe truly partner to answer questions that will provide useful results beyond that which is interesting, the more important the results will be for both academe and practice.
The term competencies is used frequently in both popular press and in academic literature. Unfortunately, it is a term that is often used incorrectly or interpreted quite differently. This creates a challenge for universities in determining what to teach to help students be better prepared for employment—and it creates a challenge for business in knowing what to look for when selecting students who are graduating from business schools. Greater effort in defining what is meant by competencies, how they are incorporated into curriculum efforts, and determining whether they jive with what professional associations in each business discipline think may be helpful on a long-term basis.
What are the three most important things institutions must do now in order to remain relevant to industry—both now, and well into the future?
Cohen: Create and continue a meaningful dialogue and, more important, partnership with industry. Do this by discipline, geographic location, initiative, etc. The partnership must be ongoing, and the dialogue must produce something measurable, such as specific goals that are met and have return on the investment of time and money. Advisory boards may help with this; they must be structured and the participants engaged in a way that the dialogue and suggestions lead to needed outcomes.
Look to the future and not just to the present. Anticipate what the needs will be for your community or your stakeholders and strive to meet the needs. Be prospective in your view and not just reactive or retrospective. Listen to your students and business leaders about their experiences. An interesting dialogue is great and is one of the appealing things about business and academic interface, but unless there are actionable outcomes from the dialogue that are then acted on, there will be great frustration—particularly on the part of business. Search for actionable outcomes in multiple places—students, faculty, and business leaders.
Reevaluate the measures for tenure and promotion. Ensure that research is practical, not just scholarly. Reward a connection to business by the faculty, not just key publications. That which is rewarded gets done. If tenure is achieved by writing for certain publications and for narrow lists of journals, then faculty will exhibit this behavior to attain tenure and promotions in the future. If writing for and connecting with the business community is also rewarded, then this is what the faculty will learn to do. But it must be meaningful for both educators and business professionals. This is not to suggest that scholarly research be stopped or even limited but rather that faculty need to believe they will be rewarded or valued for this focus, as well.
What is the one piece of advice you would give graduate students as they pursue business education?
Cohen: Continue to learn and look for ways to enhance your experience and training at all levels of your career. Never put yourself above or beyond professional development opportunities. Tie everything you do, whether it is an internship, part-time job, or full-time job while in school to your education and learn how to integrate learning from all your experiences. And be a mentor to your professors. Listen and learn, but also tell them what you experience and how what they are teaching may or may not be realistic. Pay it forward and help faculty be the best they can be in the classroom. They are very smart and very good at what they do—but they can always be better with your help and input. It is easy to stay quiet in the classroom but far more valuable to share your experience—including ones that are based on cross-cultural differences. Never assume that your experience in a different country or a different industry or a different size organization does not add value to the classroom conversation. Business education comes from books, articles, preparing for tests, writing papers, and in classroom discussions.
Debra Cohen Bio
Debra Cohen, PhD, SHRM-SCP, is the senior vice president of knowledge development for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and is responsible for the society's Knowledge Development Division, which includes the SHRM Knowledge Center (including the Society Library), the Research Department, Academic Initiatives, and HR Competencies. Cohen joined SHRM in May of 2000 as the director of research.
Cohen is a noted speaker and visionary leader with a strong track record of performance in knowledge and content development in higher education and association management. She has more than 25 years of HR management and leadership positions in the profit and nonprofit sectors as well as public and private universities. She serves on the executive leadership team of a 130 million USD, 400 employee organization, representing more than 275 thousand members around the world. The leadership team ensures the financial health of the society and oversees the successful implementation of a strategic plan.
Prior to joining SHRM, Cohen spent 15 years as an academician teaching HRM at George Washington University (10 years) and George Mason University (five years). Cohen has published over 50 articles and book chapters and has been published in such journals as Academy of Management Journal, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Development Quarterly, Journal of Management, Human Resource Management, Journal of Business and Psychology, Journal of Management Education, and the Journal of Business Ethics. She is a coeditor for a (2013) book titled Developing and Enhancing Teamwork in Organizations: Evidence-based Best Practices and Guidelines.
Cohen remains professionally active and has served on the eecutive board of the HRM Division of the Academy of Management (twice). She recently served as the chair of the Professional Practice Committee for SIOP, the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology. She is currently an advisory editor for Human Resource Management journal, serves on the editorial review boards of Human Resource Management Review and the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal and does ad hoc reviewing. Cohen oversees the Michael R. Losey HR Research Award—an award for 50,000 USD given out annually to a premier researcher in the field of HR. She has also served as a judge for AARP's 50 Best Places to work for workers over 50 2006-13, and served on the board of trustees for EBRI, the Employee Benefits Research Institute, from 2010-14. She currently sits on the Business Practices Council for AACSB International.
Cohen received her PhD in management and human resources in 1987 and her master's degree in labor and human resources (MLHR) in 1982, both from The Ohio State University. She received her bachelor of science (in Communications) from Ohio University. She is a frequent presenter at both national and regional conferences and has spoken to a wide variety of audiences in the US and abroad. Prior to her academic career, she was a practicing human resources manager (in training and development).
Interview with Industry is eNEWSLINE's article series designed to introduce the members of AACSB's Business Practices Council (BPC) to our membership. The BPC serves as a collaborative partnership for an ongoing, sustainable relationship between the business community and business schools at the management education industry level. Contributors share candid thoughts on the importance of aligning management education with effective business practices.