Dave Ulrich’s model defence

Dave Ulrich’s business partner model has not been cut much slack recently. Research earlier this year revealed less than half of managers think the system had been a success in their organisation, with HR directors queuing up to claim that business partnering simply did not work for them.

Whether they blamed this on poor implementation or a simple misunderstanding of the model as reasons for its failure – albeit these are human rather than technical errors – can it really be true the once ground-breaking strategy for HR is on its way out?

Personnel Today caught up with Ulrich at a HR conference in Rome last month, hosted by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). How would he respond to criticism of the business partner model more than a decade since it was launched in his influential book Human Resource Champions: the Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results? Is it a case of areverderci to business partnering and new thinking for HR in the 21st century?

“Not at all,” Ulrich told Personnel Today. “It is like saying: ‘I have a computer but all I use it for is for is a bookshelf’ you have to learn how to use it. It’s like saying: ‘I have a computer but all I use it for is word-processing and not the internet’.”

Computer analogies aside, Ulrich echoed a point made by those who have condemned the much-feted model. Senior HR figures in public, private and voluntary sectors have blamed the profession for failing to develop business partners as commercially savvy, and undermining the model by inadequately applying it in their organisations.

Ulrich himself admitted ‘poor implementation’ had let the model down, but insisted HR should stick with it. “I have evolved the model over the years. I would not judge a TV by what it was like 10 years ago,” he said. “People have misunderstood what the model is it starts with the business. Leaders need help to reach their goals – HR needs to help them think about their organisation’s culture and the people to do that.”

Despite misconceptions about what business partnering actually is, Ulrich still has what it takes to pull the crowds in. His keynote address at the Rome conference packed-out the auditorium with a 400-strong crowd and standing-room only at the back. Not a bad achievement for an 8:45am seminar when many delegates had been out the night before.

His speech barely touched upon his business partner model, but Ulrich did urge HR to up its game when it came to understanding business issues. “HR has been woeful at knowing the business well enough. We still have people in HR that cannot talk to board members when they start talking about cashflow or [financial] numbers.”

HR professionals have focused internally too much and failed to research wider business issues, such as labour market conditions or demographics, which would affect their customers and chief executive’s decisions, he claimed. “The legacy of HR is around terms and conditions of the work, not around the terms and conditions of the workplace.”

Ulrich insisted that, despite the recent backlash, his business partnering model would help HR to truly tackle those workplace challenges. He urged HR practitioners to “do some studies” and “go find out what the model is” before criticising it further, or before implementing it so badly that it did not work.

A PwC survey published at the event found that 89% of the 1,150 chief executives surveyed listed people issues as one of their top priorities. Ulrich said: “Chief executives want HR to help them with people issues. This survey is a call for HR – it’s not getting to the boardroom that matters, it’s what you do once you get there.”

So what’s the one thing Ulrich would change about the HR profession? “Grumble less. Stop talking about what’s not working and start doing the good stuff,” he said.

Ulrich’s top HR tips

  • Understand both people issues and the business
  • Get hold of the board’s ‘numbers’ presentations learn how to do admin faster and better.
  • Focus on the customer: on the outside of the business as well as the inside
  • Run the HR function as if it’s a business within a business
  • Promote outcomes and value of HR’s work rather than input

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