Building the smart workforce of tomorrow

As technology and market conditions continue disrupting businesses, world-renowned management guru Dave Ulrich says it is high time HR steps up to the plate, to lead their organisations to greater heights

In 2012, Dave Ulrich was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from US-based HR Magazine for his role as the “father of modern HR”.

It was one of the highlights of a remarkable career, but the Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business says he is both embarrassed and honoured by the title.

He prefers to share the honour with the many other thought leaders whose own ideas he says, have shaped how HR professionals today think, act, and deliver key outcomes more than his own.

“I am honoured to be considered one of those thought leaders, but clearly HR insights come from many great colleagues who shape the profession,” he says.

Redefining HR forever

The author of some 30 business titles may like to downplay his achievements, but his résumé speaks for itself. He arguably redefined the HR function to become what the world knows it as today.

So influential is Ulrich in the management and HR thought leadership space that Business Week crowned him the year’s top management educator and “guru” in 2001.

One of the 64-year-old’s greatest and most lasting contributions is perhaps the concept of the HR business partner.

It was Ulrich who first introduced the HR Business Partner model to the business world in his 1997 book Human Resource Champions.

Today, the HR business partner is a key role present in any organisation that views the talent management function as a crucial component of their leadership chart, enabling their businesses and policies to succeed.

Ulrich, who is also a founding partner at organisational consulting and development firm RBL Group, first created the model to methodically guide HR in its transformation from being an administrative cost-centre to becoming a strategic part of the organisation.

Ulrich’s idea was that HR business partners would serve as the bridge linking a company’s overall business objectives with the line managers who sit across different departments.

This way, HR would act as an indispensable advisor to both leadership and that line management level.

According to Ulrich’s model, there are four main roles that talent managers have to play.

They have to act as strategic HR advisors to senior management; take on the role of change agents who are catalysts for continued business performance; be administrative experts who are skilled at operational HR; and, finally, be employee champions who understand the needs of employees and speak up for them.

Lifelong commitment to learning

But for all the contributions Ulrich has made and continues to make in HR, he is quick to place his three children and eight grandchildren at the top of his proudest life achievements.

He views his professional life philosophically, crediting his legacy to his own endless curiosity of people, organisations, and how they interact.

“I am often surprised when my personal (learning) journey has helped others find their unique insights that will help them on their own journey of impact”, he tells HRM Asia.

Ulrich says there is a “true commitment” to learning at the core of his being. In fact, he is so driven to gaining knowledge that he aims to discover “25 to 30” new ideas every 18 to 24 months.

Ulrich admits that this is “incredibly demanding”.

That’s because his process of discovering original workforce concepts requires many hours of keen observation, deep reading, thorough writing, and intense thought.

The last, and most vital step in Ulrich’s research, is the corroboration of a hypothesis with findings from other management academics.

“Then, I get to research the ideas, almost always with incredible colleagues who have unique insights and often with big datasets full of structured information,” he says.

“I like to couple these statistical insights with personal observations and unstructured information.”

HR transformation

True to his affinity for reinvention, Ulrich is the first to agree that management, like any other discipline, has to evolve in order to remain relevant and, ultimately, valuable to the business.

He cautions that HR transformation is not about simply “reorganising” the HR department within any given organisation.

“Real HR transformation requires a much broader view,” he explains. “This focuses on why HR exists, what HR delivers in terms of value, and how HR delivers that value.”

As technological disruptions and market conditions continue to shape commerce, HR needs to remind itself that it exists primarily to deliver value to stakeholders inside and outside the organisation, Ulrich says. The function then needs to tailor its execution accordingly.

Ulrich’s newest book – his 30th – is titled Victory Through Organisation and is co-authored with his son Mike Ulrich and fellow academics David Kryscynski and Wayne Brockbank. It explains not just the how and why HR models should develop.

“In all of our work and our latest research, the ideas of ‘from X to Y’ need to be replaced with ‘and-also’ ideas,” Ulrich shares.

“This means that old models for HR were great for their time and place, but as the overall world and business in particular changes, HR must also change.”

From “trusted advisors” to “credible activists”

While Victory Through Organisation acknowledges the success of Ulrich’s past models at making HR a “trusted advisor” to business, his latest research has found this will not be enough in tomorrow’s workplace.

Using data from 32,000 survey respondents across 1,400 organisations, Ulrich shows that the single biggest predictor for HR to get a “seat at the table” in 2017 and beyond lies in being a “credible activist”.

So what exactly does this label mean? And what qualities help to build it?”

Ulrich’s further probing found two separate sets of specific skills and actions HR professionals should take to be seen as “credible” in their organisations and to become “activists”.

The first requires individuals to build trust with internal and external stakeholders alike, deliver outcomes as promised, and keep confidence across the business high.

Having a point of view, taking a stance and challenging ideas, will further put HR professionals a step closer to becoming “activists”.

“It is the combination of credibility and activism that allows HR professionals to establish trusting relationships with those they support, as well as their HR colleagues,” Ulrich explains.

Credible individuals who are not activists may be respected for their insights or expertise, but have relatively little impact. Activists who are not credible may have good ideas, but may find it difficult to get others in the business to pay attention to them.

“Credible activists are (both) respected and proactive,” Ulrich says.

Value paradox

But Ulrich adds that a paradox actually arises here.

That’s because while being a credible activist secures HR a seat at the table and gets it involved in key business dialogues, it does not really add value to stakeholders.

To add value and deliver actual business results, HR professionals have to progress to the next competency level of “strategic positioners”.

The essence of being a strategic positioner, Ulrich says, is that HR professionals must be able to move beyond “knowing the business” to positioning the business to win in its marketplace.

To be able to drive the business forward and position itself as a strategic department, it is key that HR first master another area of business - since its work tends to cross disciplines and functions.

It is most advisable to gain knowledge of finance, but Ulrich says any category central to the business’ success, whether it is marketing or information technology, would also suffice.

Beyond this, strategic talent managers also need to know how the business makes money and the key differentiators between it and its competitors. Ulrich adds that strategic decision-making, infrastructure design, and culture management are among the specific key competencies required at this level.

The final and most important tool true HR strategists should possess is a deep understanding of the company’s external stakeholders, including customers, competitors, suppliers, investors and regulators.

“HR needs to know who they are, how to build relationships with them, and utilise them to set criteria for effective people management,” says Ulrich.

Understanding external environments and contexts also allows practitioners to anticipate business trends and design strategies accordingly.

For example, recruiters can hire candidates who display good customer service qualities, based on their understanding of the business’s specific customer expectations. HR can also plan promotion structures around how well individuals communicate with customers and vendors, which will help the organisation retain its best talent.

Organisation matters most

Ulrich says one of Victory Through Organisation’s most ground-breaking insights, which he will further detail at HRM Asia’s Smart Workforce Summit 2017 in September, is that the workplace of tomorrow will be one where “talent matters, but organisation matters more”.

That is because a smart workforce requires a great workplace with superior organisation.

“We found out that the quality of the organisation had four times the impact on business results as the competencies of the individuals,” Ulrich says.

He explains that “organisation” is not about structure or alignment of the various parts within an entity, but about building capabilities that allow the entire body to succeed and win in the given market.

Some of these capabilities include: managing information, managing change, facilitating culture change, customer service, and creating a collaborative environment.

“When HR professionals can work with general managers to create these capabilities, the war for talent morphs into a victory through organisation,” Ulrich says.

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