The Ulrich model helps large or complex organizations with many business units organize their human resource function. The Ulrich model was named for management coach David Ulrich after the release of his 1996 book Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results.
Understanding the Ulrich model
In the book, Ulrich argues that the role of human resource professionals must be redefined to meet the competitive challenges modern businesses face. In other words, organizations must stop viewing HR as an administration tool and instead see it as a strategic tool.
To some extent, the function of HR has changed organically. Once the foundation of every business, HR administrative activities are increasingly outsourced or automated. Furthermore, the traditional HR model of a single, large team of generalists and specialists is becoming smaller.
Given this context, HR management is evolving from a bureaucratic function with a focus on operations to a strategic support function based on consultancy. That is, HR is becoming more of a trusted advisor and less of a policy officer.
Ultimately, many businesses are encouraging this shift by following the four basic principles of what many refer to as “Ulrichism”:
- Define a clear, new role for HR.
- Determine how this role facilitates competitive advantage.
- Create a unified structure that consistently delivers value.
- Measure how the company has performed according to predefined metrics.
The four roles of a HR professional
According to Ulrich, these are the four roles a HR professional must play in an organization:
- Strategic partner (Strategic HR) – who develops and aligns strategies with business results and fosters systems thinking with a focus on customers.
- Change agent (Transformation & Change) – with a deep understanding of organizational culture, the change agent institutionalizes the capacity for change. Primarily this is enabled by training individuals and assisting line managers as they lead change initiatives.
- Administrative expert (HR Service Delivery) – tasked with creating HR processes that are both effective and efficient. They must also be tailored to the individual needs of the business without cost overruns.
- Employee champion (Employee Contribution) – these individuals create competent and committed employees and ultimately increase human capital contribution. Employee champions also recognize the power of digital design in increasing engagement among the emerging millennial-generation workforce.
Strengths and weaknesses of the Ulrich model
- The Ulrich model advocates that processes be simplified, standardized, re-engineered, and automated wherever possible. With less time spent on bureaucratic internal processes, human resources can direct more effort toward strategic goals.
- With a new model for HR administration, traditionally negative notions of HR practitioners are expelled. Company culture and employee morale increase when staff can see that HR has a vested interest in adding value to the business.
- Implementation time. The Ulrich model is an organization-wide strategy that will take time to realize maximum effectiveness. Implementation time is also increased because the business must adopt all four of the stipulated HR roles and create job descriptions for each.
- Confusion over the model. Some businesses argue that the model is obsolete. However, Ulrich has made several updates over the years, with the most recent being in 2012. Some businesses also believe that the Ulrich model proposes a blueprint for restructuring HR with defined job titles. However, this is not the case as businesses must adapt each of the four roles according to their needs.
The evolution of the Ulrich model
As recently as 2017, Ulrich reiterated that human resources – and by extension, his model – was in a constant state of evolution and progression as HR professionals became more competent and added more value to their businesses as a result.
He defined this evolution in terms of thirteen key dimensions:
- Value – in terms of value, HR has transitioned from efficiency to functional excellence to strategy. Today, the focus has shifted once more to outside-in thinking, where an issue is viewed from multiple perspectives.
- Context – Ulrich noted that social, political, environmental, and cultural trends are shaping the world more rapidly than ever before. In response, HR must focus on individuation to increase purpose and foster a sense of community.
- Stakeholders – there has also been a shift from a focus on internal stakeholders to external stakeholders such as the aforementioned community but also investors and customers.
- Talent – workforce talent must be increased via competence, commitment (employee value proposition and sentiment), and meaningful contribution.
- Organization – this refers to how HR can build more competitive organizations. HR once focused on roles, re-engineering, and downsizing, but now considers a broader ecosystem approach to build capabilities.
- Leadership – similarly, how can HR build better leaders? There is now more of a focus on developing leaders that can manage risk without being reckless, inspire purpose and meaning, and navigate paradoxes.
- Strategy – for a HR department, this means crafting a strategy that defines who it is, what it delivers, and why it exists.
- HR organization – or the way in which the HR department itself is organized. Ulrich advocates the use of technology to automate menial tasks and leave strategy work for professionals. In larger companies, he also suggested HR should operate as a separate professional services firm.
- HR practices – this refers to the design and delivery of HR processes and procedures. These should be integrated with existing practices, aligned to core business strategy, be innovative, and simple to access and implement.
- HR competencies – Ulrich also noted that while HR has come a long way in the past 30 years, professionals must be able to match their skills to desirable outcomes for the organization. They must balance personal effectiveness with stakeholder value and business results.
- Digitization – HR is now an important part of any digital business strategy and is itself enhanced by digital information in terms of efficiency, innovation, the dissemination of ideas, and the facilitation of connections between individuals.
- Information and analytics – the way in which HR analytics are used to improve value creation has improved in recent years. There has been a shift away from simple HR activity scorecards toward data insights and action-based interventions that improve business results.
- Workstyle – lastly, in modern businesses, HR professionals must collaborate with others and with those in other departments by showing empathy, respect, and acceptance via a shared purpose or experience. Individual roles and responsibilities are only useful in defining departmental structure.
- The Ulrich model represents a paradigm shift in human resource function. It is particularly suited to large or complex organizations with multiple business units.
- The Ulrich model defines four key roles that HR must play in an organization: strategic partner, change agent, administrative expert, and employee champion.
- The Ulrich model shifts the focus from resource-intensive bureaucracy to one of delivering value to the business. However, it does take time to implement and there is some confusion over whether the model is a blueprint or a methodology.
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