(Dave Ulrich is one of the leading figures in the Human Resources field; a writer, speaker, consultant and professor at the University of Michigan, Ulrich has been acclaimed as “the most influential person in HR” by HR Magazine and as the world’s “Number One Management Educator & Guru” by Business Week. His model of HR roles and activities – the Ulrich Model – is considered the most influential and most commonly implemented occupational structure tool in the field.)
SSON: What do you think have been the biggest changes to human resources, both as a field of study and in practice, during your time in the field?
David Ulrich: HR has had to identify and deliver value: this means not doing more, but focusing on how what we do creates value both for employees inside the company and customers and investors outside. This changes the discussion of HR professionals with HR folks and line-managers. The focus is not on what we do, but what we deliver.
SSON: And how do you see HR developing over the next few years: what are the main drivers and challenges you see in play?
DU: I see HR being split like other functions: sales/marketing; finance/accounting; IT/strategic information. HR will be administrative- and transaction-driven by costs and strategic- and transformational-driven by value-added. Managing both halves is important.
SSON: What impact do you see the current financial crisis having on the HR function?
DU: HR becomes more important, not less, because financial capital, business strategies, and other traditional sources of competitiveness are being copied, leaving talent and organizational culture as driving sources of uniqueness. The current financial crisis is not about toxic assets, but bad leadership who made poor decisions.
SSON: How has the Ulrich model itself evolved over the last few years since you first published it, and why?
DU: The premise is the same: how can HR deliver value? What we are seeing are roles (who we are) and competencies (what we know and do). Roles are emerging into employee advocate (today), human capital developer (tomorrow), functional expert (doing the right administrative work right), strategic partner (including change agent), and leader. We have studied competencies and found credible activist, business ally, strategic architect, operational executor, talent manager/organization designer, and culture and change agent. Doing these roles with the right competencies will help the firm be successful.
SSON: What might the next iteration of the Ulrich model look like?
DU: We will look at the above HR roles and HR competencies. We will see HR even more connected to external customers. We will see investors paying increasingly attention to the talent and organizational issues.
SSON: How do you view the concept of outsourcing elements of HR? And does that answer vary once we bring in the concept of offshore outsourcing?
DU: Done well, outsourcing can help reduce costs and increased quality of service. Offshore works because knowledge can be transferred quickly and easily. Knowledge is an asset that has few global boundaries.
SSON: If companies do decide to outsource, do you see the better option being to outsource parts, or all, of the HR function?
DU: This is a mixed answer. All the administrative work of HR (in staffing, training, compensation, benefits, et cetera) are able to be integrated through outsourcing. It is better to do them as one versus separate. Outsourced activities will likely be done on an industry average.
But other parts of the HR function (talent development, organization development, leadership assessment, et cetera) are not outsourced because a company wants to exceed industry standard.
SSON: Do you see the increasing reliance upon automation in business – especially business services – as a terminal (or, indeed, any) threat to the HR function? And if so how can HR practitioners guard against that threat?
DU: Technology has good and bad news. The good news is efficiency, connect 24 hours a day, and distributed work. The bad news is isolation and lack of emotional connection. Not over-relying on technology will help HR do a better job.
SSON: What are the most common HR mistakes you’ve seen made by the businesses you’ve worked with?
* HR doing strategy HR without line managers
* Line managers doing HR without HR managers
* Trying to do too much
* Not focusing on outcomes, but activities
* Doing what is easy, not what is right
* Focusing only on employees inside the company versus customers and investors outside
* Not measuring progress or measuring the wrong things
SSON: On a more personal note, what’s the best advice you’ve been given during your career? And did you take it?
DU: Again, several things:
* Keep learning. Obsess with what I did and make it better the next time
* Do work that is easy to me, energizing, and enjoyable: don’t run up “sand dunes” that don’t lead anywhere
* Focus on results: what is the outcome of the work I am doing? What value will it ad to what people?
* Engage others: don’t try to have all the answers myself
* Innovate… keep trying to do something new. Listen hard for problems that others can not solve. Solve them
SSON: If you could have your career over again, is there anything you’d do differently, and if so what and why?
DU: It is easy to say I would stay at home with my family, but they were generous with their time and support. I would keep trying to do bold things that push what’s next and work to build my point of view about the business.
SSON: Finally, what are your current ambitions for the next phase in your career?
DU: We would like to see HR through the eyes of the investor and customer. We would like to develop leadership throughout a company that delivers value to multiple stakeholders. We would like to find ways to audit quality of leadership or management that investors would be confident in. We would like to help HR professionals live to up to their standards and customer expectations.
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Jamie Liddell has worked in journalism since he was a 17-year-old cub reporter for The Tico Times, Costa Rica’s highly regarded English-language weekly newspaper. Holding an MA in English from Clare College, Cambridge University, Jamie came to SSON from the world of overseas property publishing where he worked on the industry’s best-selling publications for the UK and Ireland, and gave seminars at consumer and b2b exhibitions and conferences internationally.
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