Dave Ulrich: The evolution of the profession

Dave Ulrich analyses research on HR competencies and examines whether we are making progress in the workplace


There is ongoing (and seemingly endless) debate about whether HR professionals have made progress in adding value to their business. Many judge the entire HR profession by their personal experience with their HR professional. After collecting seven waves of data over 30 years on competencies of HR professionals with more than 90,000 respondents, we can offer empirical evidence of the evolving skillset of HR professionals.

What’s new?

Have HR professionals improved their competencies over the past 30 years? This is an important question because we hear continued laments about incompetence of HR professionals from both HR professionals who do not feel valued and general managers who get frustrated by HR professionals. At times, HR professionals tend to be hyper self-critical and continually obsessed how they contribute value. At times, general managers and others who interact with HR judge the overall HR profession by their experience with their personal HR professional. As a profession, it is useful to zoom out to see if HR professionals overall are making progress in their competencies.

Explanation of the research

This 30-year research project has been co-sponsored by the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business Executive Education and The RBL Group. It has included many regional partners who represent HR professionals around the world.

For example, in 2016 research, there were 22 regional partners who helped define the competencies and collect data. It has resulted in dozens of PhD dissertations, books and articles (see recommended reading), and been the basis of HR concepts such as business partner, value added, strategic HR, transformation, deliverables, outside in, governance (centres of expertise, shared services), credible activist, change champion, and others.

Each of the seven rounds are independent, in that they represent a cross-section of HR professionals (HR participants) who rate themselves on competencies, and associate raters (both inside and outside of HR) who rate them. This random cross-section of respondents offers insight into the profession at each point in time. The seven rounds of data collection include a total of 90,000 total respondents.

In the research, we defined between 120 and 140 specific competencies (knowledge, skill and attitude) of HR professionals. In each round, we changed about 30 to 40% of these individual competence items. The new specific competencies were identified with research partners. To see patterns, we performed factor analysis to organise these items into competence domains.

We collected data using a 360 since we realise that self-report (HR participants) often represents bias as people judge themselves by their intent and others judge them by their behaviour. We worked to get other reports from both HR and non-HR associates. Over the life of the study, each HR participant received about six associate respondents (half from HR and half from outside HR).

These data allow us to track the competencies of HR professionals over the past 30 years and result in a number of key findings.

Key findings

Finding 1: Increased complexity of competencies required for HR

Over the seven rounds, the factor analyses showed an increase in the complexity of HR competencies. In 1987, we found three domains: business knowledge, HR delivery and management of change. In 1992, we found four domains, five domains in 1997, then ultimately nine domains in 2016. Being a competent HR professional has become increasingly complex, with some of the recent competencies (analytics designer and interpreter; technology and social media integrator) reflecting how HR competencies reflect general business trends. While the competencies have become more complex, we can still loosely couple them into the factors defined by the early studies to see patterns.

In addition, the competency domains have evolved. For example, we talked about “business knowledge” for four rounds (1987, 1992, 1997 and 2002), then the data led us to call this being a “strategic positioner”. Likewise, the concept of “personal credibility” morphed to “credible activist.” These competence evolutions track the increased role of HR related issues to business outcomes (see recommended reading for work on these evolutions).

Finding 2: Improvement in mean scores

HR professionals have dramatically improved over the past 30 years as shown by these score differences between 1987 and 2016:

a. Business: 4.13 – 3.17 = .96

b. HR delivery: 4.02 – 3.50 = .52

c. Change: 4.01-3.70 = .31

d. Personal proficiency (1992): 4.33-3.78 = .55

These are dramatic improvements in overall competence of HR professionals. Of course, there continues to be variance for HR professionals and someone may be discouraged by their individual HR professional. But these findings offer compelling evidence that the HR profession as a whole has made enormous progress over the past 30 years.

Finding 3: HR self-criticism

In each round of the data, we compared the HR participants (self-report) to associate participants (other raters). In every case on every HR competence domain for 30 years, HR participants rated themselves lower than their associates rated them – for example, in the 2016 (round seven) data.

From research to reality

Implication 1: Accept and recognise progress

Our data indicate that there is a 20-60-20 (normal) distribution of HR professionals on these competencies. Too often, HR professionals and others look at the bottom 20% and ascribe the lower performing HR professionals to the entire profession. This self-criticism shows up in essays on the HR profession, often bemoaning what is wrong with HR efforts… in performance appraisals, HR governance, business partner models, and so forth. Maybe it is time to build on the HR strengths and successes of the top 20%, while creating a better future for everyone. Again, our data suggest that overall, HR professionals have made enormous progress (we wish we had data to compare to other staff functions such as IT, marketing and finance).

Implication 2: Build the profession

Many of the books and articles written about HR fail to recognise the extensive work and studies of HR that have gone on before by many exceptional colleagues. HR professionals in leading companies, or researchers, often write about their experience without recognising the work others have done.

We often see presentations, papers or books that declare “here are the eight things HR professionals should do” without recognising and building on the decades of study. This creates a vicious circle of starting over with each unique experience rather than building on and evolving previous work. This is an HR Sisyphus effect of always having to restart the HR journey and not making long-term progress. This self-reliance and lack of building on other insights may keep the profession from moving ahead.

Implication 3: It is not just about the competencies

In each round of the study, we were able to report the average competencies for HR professionals. But we realised that it is NOT the competencies that matter most. In our work, we have been able to parse out which competencies derive important outcomes like [1] personal effectiveness, [2] stakeholder value and [3] business results. These results will help HR professionals focus on the things they do that matter most and general managers create appropriate expectations of HR professionals.

Conclusion: Are we there yet?

Maybe it is time for the HR profession to recognise and appreciate progress that has been made. While individual experiences may differ, our data clearly shows that HR professionals have become more competent over the past 30 years. Instead of bemoaning what HR professionals lack, maybe it is time to relish the progress that has been made. Do these results imply that HR ‘has arrived?’ No, there is always more to do. But the base for moving forward is strong and getting stronger.