What are students interested in when it comes to human capital and how can we better teach it at Wharton?

The term “human capital” can be hard to define. It encompasses a combination of the intangible things that make employees valuable, like experience, education, industry knowledge, and even loyalty. Investing in these qualities has become more popular in recent years as HR departments have found that strategic decisions backed by data rather than intuition can lead to increased profitability.

Such a dynamic field can be tough to stay ahead of, however, and tougher still to teach. Wharton’s Center for Human Resources hosted a student and alumni panel discussion on December 13 to talk about what’s working and what’s not, when it comes to teaching the future of work.

The talk, led by Management Prof. Katherine Klein and Assist. Prof. Lindsey Cameron, featured alumni and students across all degree programs who offered their insights. Here are four takeaways from what they had to say.

1. Students should learn to expect the unexpected.

Kathryn Dekas, W’00, a senior manager of People Operations at Google, said teaching students to learn how to succeed in an ever-changing environment is a valuable skill.

 “Students from Wharton are exceptional. They’re motivated and hardworking, and they’ve had exceptional training,” Dekas said. “What I think is really hard to train for is experience in the work environment where you’re being faced with complex situations that don’t exactly line up with what you’ve been taught.”

 She said simulations in which students apply concepts to  a rapidly changing assignment would be of great value.

 “I think about what I ask my team to do every day, and it’s rarely what I could have predicted the week prior,” Dekas said. “The folks who have some ability to thrive in that ambiguity and are comfortable making decisions when they don’t have complete information are the people who are the most successful.”

Students sit around in a circle in a conference room at Wharton with two moderators leading the discussion.
Students and alumni speak during a panel assessing how Wharton can better teach students about human capital and management.

2. Modern solutions require a multidisciplinary approach.

Bryan Boyle, WG’20, a student in the MBA Program for Executives, said in his position at AIG more and more of the problems he encounters are solved by communicating with his co-workers in different departments.

“What I’m finding is that a lot of the solutions that differentiate now are going to require cross-functional and multidisciplinary expertise,” Boyle said. “And I think Wharton is a great environment to explore some of those ideas.” He said it’s important to ask: “Are we putting ourselves in a position to have the right staffing model to execute on our strategies?” and consider how that overlaps with other functional strategies.

 “All these (human capital initiatives) are interconnected. It’s not that we’re partnering up with human resources on human resources initiatives. Instead, we’re making it part of our DNA, so that we’re acting as one team,” Boyle said.

Philip Miscimarra, WG’82, a Wharton alumnus and former Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, echoed Boyle’s sentiments.

“It would be very valuable for students to understand that they will repeatedly experience situations where they’re dealing with people who don’t care at all about what makes business sense,” Miscimarra said. “I’ve spent 30 years in collective bargaining, and I’m used to going into a room filled with people who see the world totally differently than you do.”

3. Diversity and inclusion are becoming increasingly important to students.

 More students are asking about ways to ensure workplaces are more diverse and more inclusive, said Natalia Villarman, WG’20, president of Wharton’s Human Capital Club. 

 “There’s a spectrum of comfort and willingness to talk about these different issues. We have some students who come to us asking for more direct workshops around how to address some difficult conversations in teams, situations or within organizations, as a whole,” Villarman said.

She mentioned that there’s an encouragement among students for companies to consider the complexity of diversity.

 “It’s not just about race or gender. We should also be thinking about some of the invisible components of our identity or socioeconomic backgrounds — the intersectionality across all of those different identities,” she said.

4. “Soft skills” are just as important as “hard skills.”

 Engaging Wharton students in discussions about human capital can be difficult, said Human Capital Club member Angela Rice, W’15 and WG’21.

“One of the reasons is that Wharton students tend to over-index on hard skills. So, helping undergrads feel like they’re in a safe space to explore their true interests and understand that they can get a job from any major, I think is important,” Rice said.  

The beauty of people analytics, she said, is the opportunity for students to utilize their hard skills in an industry people might not think of as ‘hard.’

“Actually, you can put a lot of rigor and critical thinking into human capital work, in terms of numbers and frameworks, to put the pieces together in a really interesting and exciting way.” 

— Emily O’Donnell

Posted: January 15, 2020

Read More Stories