What has Dave Ulrich given and taken away?

In one sentence, David Ulrich gave us modern people management in the company. In the next sentence, I would say he gave us the position of HR Business Partner. As an added bonus, he added six core HR competencies without which his model for managing the HR department doesn’t work very well. Unfortunately for us, most took only that position and ignored the rest.

This gave David Ulrich sleepless nights and a lot of work. It’s not as easy as it first appears with his HR model. At first glance, his idea will generate enthusiasm. Most people didn’t want to accept that implementing a concept should never start from the end.

As a result, Business Partner positions have sprung up in companies. It’s just that often the wrong people were sitting in them. Because Dave Ulrich didn’t tell us where to get that HR Business Partner and how to do it right the first time.

And who is this gentleman? Dave Ulrich is a true HR guru, but he certainly helped make HR a function where great things happen. It all started with the book Human Resource Champion. I’m pretty sure it was published in English, but I can’t remember what it was called. And then he published several other books on similar topics. It was always about how HR can contribute to the growth of an organization.

He’s not a practitioner, he’s a pure academic, which also gives him a certain measure of freedom to provoke others. If he had restricted himself in his outreach, he certainly wouldn’t have come up with what he came up with. He’d be aware of the obstacles that would stand in all of our way. And the pain he’d cause us, too.

Strategic proactivity and a revolutionary HR Model

The whole concept is about strategic proactivity and adding value. It’s not about anything else. It’s not about having HR involved in all the important projects. And that it should have a say in the company’s critical issues. It’s just a journey towards the dream goal of the HR department adding value to the organization.

Dave Ulrich's HR Model and HR Roles
Dave Ulrich's HR Model and HR Roles

Strategic proactivity is a big change in the mindset of HR people, because historically it has never been a department that has grabbed the banner and gone into direct conflict. It has never led a major company-wide project that lays the foundation for a successful future. It was accustomed to executing assignments accurately and at most pointing out possible risks that it vaguely perceived somewhere in the future.

At that time, terms like succession planning, talent development and employer branding were not yet used because no one even needed them. Either the leader was doing it by himself or no one in the company was doing it. Fortunately, most senior executives somehow intuit that they have to groom their own successor, so they instinctively do it.

Dave Ulrich wanted to change that and came up with the revolutionary idea that Human Resources should become a strategic partner to senior management. There was a lot more to it, of course, but this idea appealed to everyone at Human Resources the most. Being a partner, that’s it. It sounds so sexy. Plus, it’s full of respect. Now we just have to work it out.

Of course, that doesn’t just happen on its own. We can’t walk into a board meeting and say we want to sit in. They’d look at us pretty strangely and think April hasn’t happened yet this year. Because the whole story starts with HR having to work on their competencies. There are six today, but more on that next time. Today it’s about the HR Business Partner position.

Dave Ulrich didn’t start his concept by saying this is what HR should look like now. He said that the department will work best for the company if it fulfills specific strategic roles. In doing so, he identified who should work in HR and what competencies they should have. Finally, he got to how the different roles in HR should be divided.

And in doing so, he created a practical problem, because in theory it fit exactly, but the implementation in practice was nowhere near easy. The road is paved with many monuments to those who just didn’t make it. A new role in Human Resources

HR Business Partner is a relatively new role. It is based on the concept of HR being split into several domains dedicated to what they do best. So there are three domains in HR today in some form:

  • HR Front Office;
  • HR Back Office;
  • Centers of Excellence.

Unfortunately, to this day it doesn’t have English names and to say front office and back office sounds really quite strange. But it’s about mirroring the classic company setup in HR. Someone is dedicated to sales and customer contact and someone is dedicated to getting the goods made. And then there’s the part that invents the products.

In theory, there is nothing to fault such a model. It may have been a novelty for HR, because everyone there was used to having employees talk directly to them, but it could have made a big improvement in the quality of the work being done. Implementation-wise, it looks very easy and surprisingly simple. Almost no one can probably think of the logic, because the model is that everyone does what they do best. But…

Bad implementation strategy

Human Resources has historically been a service function. It lacked the necessary self-awareness and all employees were used to having to follow the commands and wishes of others. The HR department has never been about strategic proactivity.

Suddenly, HR was about to change. And it was also supposed to change the expectations of all the managers around it. It just didn’t have the right people to make it happen. You can’t just write an email saying that HR will work differently now. There’s got to be some change, and that hurts. A manager doesn’t just let his powers slip out of his hands.

It has also often happened that a manager has quickly flipped his hot potato to HR and waited to see what happens. And started complaining when nothing happened. Having responsibility doesn’t mean we have to solve problems for others. It just happened a lot.

Our inexperience has provided us with enough sleepless nights. We lost our peace of mind when we wanted to move on. To end our passivity and to gain a new role and a say in the organization. And also, the HR Business Partner finally came on the scene.

HR Business Partner on the scene, please!

HR Business is a critical role for David Ulrich’s model. It is the link between the world in HR and the world outside of HR. Plus, a smart liaison who acts as an HR agent in other departments. He knows his way around any situation and can adapt standard solutions to the client’s needs. That’s the theoretical part.

In practice, the right business partners just haven’t been available yet. They had never worked in HR before and therefore there was nowhere to take them. The HR ladies became the business partners and they became the agents. Unfortunately, they often became agents in HR.

What no one really counted on was that it would be a long haul to raise a great HR Business Partner. The HR Model has been with us for almost 20 years and we have only the second generation of great people who will fit that exact role.

And what does the future hold?

The dust has settled and there is already a great HR Business Partner on the market. There still aren’t enough of them, but there are. And that’s a very positive change. Plus, HR is slowly starting to make its way into the mainstream. In some companies, they’re not just sitting at the table, they’re talking at the table. And they have an opinion.

And Dave Ulrich gave us all that because he didn’t give a damn about the pain.