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HR excellence and the Ulrich model – deja vu?

A recent report on the famous Ulrich model has reignited debate around its effectiveness. Chris Roebuck remembers the first time he was asked to weigh in, back in 2008.

I learnt about the Ulrich model when I spent two weeks in Michigan with Dave and Wayne Brockbank doing the full in-depth programme on what it is and how to implement it in your organisation. So I understand the model and its effective implementation very well. 

My view is that the Ulrich model doesn’t deliver anything that the best HR professionals haven’t done for years by really understanding their organisation. It’s just that Ulrich analysed this excellence and put it into a form that all HR professionals could comprehend and implement. Sadly that has not happened as widely as it should. My comments back in 2008 revolved around the simple fact that most organisations seeking to implement the Ulrich model to some degree omitted or reduced one or other element of the set up process. This came back to haunt them by degrading the effectiveness of the end result.

The new report says this is still the key issue, and from what I have seen I can confirm that. Maybe that’s not all HR's fault, but much of it is. Firstly, because HR often doesn’t implement the basic steps of the model to build it on a firm foundation and secondly, it fails to effectively sell the business case for strategic HR, including areas like talent management. That’s why 63% of business partners are still doing too much transactional HR. When the HR leaders of 83% of organisations say they are missing out on commercial opportunities from talent management one tends to ask 'well whose fault is that then?'. The business case is accessible and compelling so why haven’t they presented it to their CEO ?

In the past week I have judged the 2014 IIP awards for Leadership and Excellence in Management and Most Improved Organisation. There were some inspirational examples of turnaround from being on the brink of disaster to best in class. What is clear is that it is possible to implement the Ulrich model effectively in any organisation – from globals to SME, from governmental to not for profit – if you do what Ulrich suggests. So it’s not that it doesn’t work.     

Sadly HR has an amazing ability to convince itself that it's delivering the best when patently it’s not, e.g. a few development programmes equal a world class talent management system.   

The one weakness that I see in the Ulrich approach is that it is over-optimistic about the capability and self-awareness of HR in delivering on the implementation of the model. In other words he assumes that everyone will implement everything as they should. But the world is not like that. We tend to do the easy and fudge the difficult. This is not the fault of the model, but those implementing it. However, it’s something that needs to be factored in to drive better implementation.

The best example of this, and the main reason for the model not delivering full value is the requirement for HR to understand not only their internal clients but also external customers in depth. The Ulrich interpretation of this is that there is an in-depth understanding of the relationships, the process, what is delivered, how, the challenges, strategies and to actually have met some real customers to relate to them. The HR interpretation of this is that we speak to our internal clients, know we make widgets, and that our customers buy those widgets.

We need to put more emphasis on the areas that HR teams are likely to fudge because they see them as difficult or time consuming. That’s why back in 2009 I developed further the concept of the HR Entrepreneur – to strongly emphasise the criticality of focusing significant effort on those areas that were too often fudged or forgotten in the Business Partner model. So the HR Entrepreneur doesn’t replace the HR Business Partner, just builds on it to focus in on the critical elements that are often neglected.

Its practical simple approach says that there are six steps to success, which need to be built in order:

1. Good professional HR knowledge

2. Good general organisational knowledge:basic finance/task management/business operation

3. Good operational understanding of both internal clients and external customers

4. Good understanding of organisational strategy and HR's role in delivering it

5. Good understanding of the market and environmental challenges the organisation faces

An entrepreneurial mindset that drives proactive behaviour by: total focus on end customer; optimising not minimising risk; constant innovation to improve; inspiring others; taking personal responsibility; and collaboration. 

In the final analysis line managers don’t care what HR people call themselves as long as they deliver what is wanted and add value. There is a difference between the two, which HR too often fails to get across as well.

I always question the effectiveness of asking people to assess the quality of something they have patently failed to implement properly, especially if others have. That failure suggests to me they don’t fully understand it in the first place or lack the commitment or capability to deliver. Thus maybe in future we should only ask those organisations that have successfully implemented the Ulrich model what the issues are with it.

The HR Business Partner model has been updated and developed to reflect changes over the years so it still presents a good blueprint. However, the reality in real organisations is that it is too often fudged with obvious consequences. The antidote to this is to deepen the emphasis on the critical elements by going up a gear to seek to become an HR Entrepreneur as well.  

HR gets too hung up on models – let’s just try to get back to delivering simple, practical, great HR to develop leadership in our organisations. This creates the “aligned communities of effort and collaboration” we so badly need for everyone’s success.

Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School in London and has held senior HR roles in a number of organisations. Roebuck is a HR Most Influential thinker.