Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Ulrich model and why HR's not a Support Function




Dave Ulrich seems to be going down well at the HR Director's Business Summit in Birmingham today, as he did at Artof HR in Croatia.  But his ideas are still being knocked in many places.

One of the most recent is this article in People Management: 'Are HR business partners a dying breed?'

As normal, most of the criticisms are unfair and largely irrelevant, for example focusing on things which have nothing to do with the structure of the Ulrich model eg:

"HR remains reactive, procedurally focused and transaction-oriented."  Yes well structure (alone) isn't going to change that and may be if people acted on rather than just listened to Ulrich's advice we'd all be in a better place by now.

"When HR can’t explain its own transformation to the rest of the business, the idea of an HR business partner is dead in the water."  As it, and hopefully the HR function concerned, should be!

"The business partner role is best suited and most effective in larger organisations."  Yes of course, it was always designed for complex, multiple business unit organisations.


In any case:

“A lot of people say HR structure is a three-legged stool, but that’s not at all what the model says,” Ulrich tells People Management. “The model says your HR structure needs to match your business structure. If your business is centralised and functional, your HR function should be centralised and functional.”


Other comments are more relevant eg the suggestion than business partners come from the line, as with Ram Charan’s suggestion.  Though I still think the suggestion is wrong headed.  After all, another key principle of effective business partnering is that the HR structure need to match your HR vision.  Much of our problems come from an inappropriate vision, not an inappropriate structure.

Eg the article suggests that

“If you are an HR business partner, it’s probably best to ask yourself a few key questions: whether you understand business strategy and how HR supports it.”


If that’s how you see your job then that’s going to indicate a particular type of HR structure and I can understand why taking HR from the line is probably going to be a part of it.

But I also suggest that this is an inappropriate vision for HR...



There's nothing wrong with understanding the business strategy of course (other than the question still needs to be asked) but the key word in the above paragraph is 'supports': "whether you understand business strategy and how HR supports it.”  Did you spot it?

This is still the big problem in HR - we define ourselves as being a support function.  We're not, or at least shouldn't be, but then if we believe we are, we'll act as if we are, and we shouldn't be surprised when we remain reactive, procedurally focused and transaction-oriented!"


Of course the word support could just be a slip of the pen, but I think it tells a deeper story.


PS I tried to make some of these points in a comment on the People Management article but PM has chosen not to publish this.  I don't know why not - I was critical, but only of some of the ideas, not the article.  And I did link to a previous blog post but only because it was relevant to the discussion about Ram Charan.  Perhaps it was because that blog post refers to the HR Business Partner training I run with Symposium which competes with the CIPD (though ours is much better.)  But then PM use their article to advertise the CIPD training so why is it OK in their article but not in my comment???  (Just a side comment about the impact of poor moderation on people's propensity to comment - which I probably won't be bothering to try and do again.)


Picture credit: Ed Schipul

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