HR must be more outward looking, says Dave Ulrich

Iconic author and consultant urges practitioners to become architects of digital change

The next stage in the evolution of the HR function is to stop viewing employees as the sole beneficiaries of its work, according to the man widely regarded as the architect of the modern profession.

In a keynote speech at the inaugural #loveyourHR conference in Birmingham, Dave Ulrich – who gave his name to arguably the most common structure deployed by HR functions – said HR had an opportunity to champion digitisation and increase its influence if it connected its work to outcomes affecting the broader public, community, partners and other stakeholders.

“We began as a function, a utility,” the author and consultant told the gathered public sector HR and OD professionals. “We learned to serve with functional excellence, by doing a good job of training and development. We linked it all with strategy. But now we need to work from the outside in.

“The value of what we do in HR is not about HR itself – it’s about the value we create for someone else. And if we’re going to do HR to create value, the receivers of that value [in the public sector] are the citizens. Does the programme I put in place help citizens feel better?

“We used to talk about getting invited to the table. Now we have that access. But what are we going to do when we get there?” he asked.

Part of tackling this conundrum, he said, was making more explicit links between HR’s mission statements and better outcomes for customers or members of the public. But the author of Human Resource Champions and HR Transformation also said there was work to do in the structures and competencies of HR teams themselves.

Ulrich listed a number of practices he believed marked out the most effective HR departments, including: sharing a common purpose, respecting each other’s differences, being positive to one another and solving problems together, caring for each other, sharing experiences and responding to ‘bids’ for help, and growing together.

Much has changed since his iconic work in the 1990s, he added: his ‘three-legged stool’ model (which advocated the use of shared services, business partnering and centres of excellence) was “a good idea” at the time but “in 2018, it’s not a good idea because the world has changed.”

Technology represents a new opportunity, and as well as owning the talent agenda, HR should become auditors and evangelists for digital transformation, said Ulrich. That could mean building the case for – and removing a fear of – digitisation; facilitating the introduction of multi-functional teams; setting outcomes for digital activity; auditing the state of digital competence; and creating and implementing plans.

“We can use technology to be more efficient in HR practice. We should start getting information and data that helps us make decisions, but also use technology to build belonging and connection,” said Ulrich. “Most companies are getting HR efficiency and innovation in digital HR, but relatively few are using technology as a connecting mechanism. We are committed in the public sector to creating relationships, and we need to use technology in a more creative way to do that.

“That doesn’t mean you have to be an expert on blockchain. You have to ask why you’re doing digital, build the team and set the right outcomes.”

Later in the conference, which was organised by West Midlands Employers and the Local Government Association, CIPD membership director David D’Souza issued a rallying cry for HR to be more evidence-based in the way it tackled problems and approached new management ideas. “We shouldn’t respond to organisational whims or changes in the marketplace. We should do what’s right for the organisation,” said D’Souza. “And we should be better at diagnosing what’s happening in our organisations and what’s right for us.”

That needn’t mean simply rejecting new ideas, he added, but it was important to be motivated by a desire to do the right thing rather than the latest thing: “If you see something saying everyone else is doing a certain thing, approach that with curiosity rather than fear of getting it wrong [if you don’t follow suit].”