The Ulrich Model: Is it still working?

It’s now over 20 years since Dave Ulrich published his classic book on Human Resource Management (Human Resource Champions).

A generation of HR professionals used the ‘Ulrich model’ as the basis for transforming their HR functions. It was based on the notion of separating HR policy making, administration and business partner roles.

The ultimate goal was to shift the role of HR from administration to strategy. It promised a bright future for those that successfully implemented the approach.

As the Ulrich model turns of age, it’s time to ask if it has successfully reached adulthood or whether it’s already past its prime. If this is the case, there may be a call for early retirement.

Ulrich the ‘guru’

Ulrich has achieved guru status and was recently heralded as ‘the father of human resources’ by HR Magazine. Deservedly so given the impact he has had on the profession.

However, many claim that the model is irrelevant and impractical in the 21st-century. People argue that while it has delivered benefits for some, it has been a disappointing journey and HR is no more strategic now than it was in 1995.

Perhaps devotees thought it would be simple. Re-badge the HR team as business partners, build a service center, throw in a little technology and call it transformation. Job done.

If only it were that simple. Most struggled with getting just one of those components right, let alone the full suite.

Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with the Ulrich model, but the way the HR profession jumped on a concept they barely understood. They simplified it and ‘cherry picked’ the best bits.

Many simply ignored the parts that seemed either too difficult to implement or too hard to understand.

What’s in a name?

Ulrich never intended roles such as ‘business partner’ to be a blueprint for organizing HR. He never directly translated them into specific jobs (although his work has generally been interpreted as if he did).

As a result, many organizations launched the business partner(BP) role before introducing Shared Service Centers or outsourcing their service delivery. This left BPs with the impossible task of balancing a transactional workload with the strategic expectations of customers.

He was also clear that responsibility for transforming HR does not just lie with the HR department. But the CEO and senior management also have key roles to play.

Even now, many organizations still do not have an integrated system for HR records, recruitment, learning, payroll, compensation and talent management. This leaves gaps in administrative efficiency and management information, key pillars of the Ulrich model.

The scary part is that many (if not the majority of) HR professionals gained their knowledge of Ulrich’s work second-hand. This was through consultancy firms, magazine articles, conferences and professional networks.

Apart from mis-pronouncing his name (it’s Ul-rich, not Ul-rick*), research shows that few HR professionals and consultants have actually read his original work. Fewer still keep up with the latest developments.

Updating the original model

Ulrich stresses that over the last 20 years, he has constantly updated and revised his initial thinking. Anyone working to the classic 1996 model is bound to be out of date.

His most recent work (2012) on HR competencies is the latest stage in his thinking. Let’s not forget he is essentially an academic, eternally pragmatic and willing to change his theories if the evidence doesn’t support them.

Despite this, the basic principles of ‘Ulrichism’ remain:

  • Define a clear role for HR
  • Understand how it provides competitive advantage for the organization
  • Create a structure that delivers value
  • Then measure it.

Ulrich isn’t perfect but it’s a very good starting point.