Interviews

Dave Ulrich: ‘Big data can expand HR’s role’

22 May 2018 By PM Editorial

The HR luminary talks analytics, leadership and the crucial role of the public sector

He’s one of the most respected and recognisable figures in HR. So when Dave Ulrich says HR has an opportunity to own big data, the profession is sure to listen. 

It’s a message he’ll be bringing to the UK at next month’s Love Your HR conference in Birmingham, part of a busy calendar of speaking engagements in his role as professor at Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and author of a range of titles covering HR, leadership and the shared space they inhabit. He took time out from his jet-setting to tell People Management more about how the profession is evolving – and where it goes next.

Do you think we are suffering a crisis of trust in leadership, and if so how much worse can it get?

Trust is the foundation of leadership because it enables people to make choices having confidence that A will lead to B. Without trust, and predictability, people will not act. Leaders who build trust inspire employees who can act knowing that their actions will lead to positive outcomes. Trust also enables leaders to move quickly with others following.  

I tend to be an optimist and see many leaders building trust through their authenticity, commitment to learn and care for others. But I also see a society that is increasingly isolated, ego-driven and focused on ‘winners’ (see the popularity of real-world experience television shows where there is one winner and many losers). Leaders who fall into the ‘me first’ society traps erode trust that builds their success. Real leadership power comes from empowering others.

The public sector in many parts of the world, including the UK, is facing huge pressures and is downsizing rapidly. How can HR leaders deal with the challenges that brings?

In many ways, the public sector is different. My father, mother and grandfather were public sector employees. They instilled within me a sense of service first and honour in supporting public sector policies that improved a country and personal citizenship. The public sector must respond to social and economic pressures. Dealing with the dual challenges of service and efficiency mark exceptional public (and many private) sector agencies. 

We’ve found in research that the number one competence for HR professionals delivering business results was to ‘navigate paradox’. The service/efficiency paradox can be navigated (not managed) by encouraging open dialogue, seeking alternatives, finding common ground and acting with real agility. These same paradox navigation principles might apply to other public sector paradoxes (long term/short term; individuals/teams; autonomy/discipline).

Are you confident that HR leaders have the tools they need to deal with challenges such as Brexit?

I am clearly not an expert on Brexit. But I know something about responding to change, both foreseeable and unanticipated. Individuals and organisations that are ‘change champions’ are less threatened by change when they have the tools to manage it. These tools include creating agile organisations that can allocate work, build autonomous teams to move quickly, and adapt policies.   

Organisational change tools also include mastering disciplines of change so that initiatives are implemented as fast as the market requires. Change also requires agile individuals who are curious, ask questions, explore options and learn from failure. Hopefully these ideas will apply to Brexit as much as other change challenges.

Is the increasing emphasis on HR data a welcome development, and how do you see it changing the nature of the profession?

Good HR has always relied on evidence. The advent of technology to bring digital information expands the use of evidence-based decision-making. The key to HR data is to move from HR scorecards that focus only on HR actions, to insights that are wonderful nuggets of knowledge, to interventions that allow innovation to impact on HR work inside the firm and to customers and investors outside. Good data focused on business impact expands HR’s role.

What are the reasons we should be optimistic about the future of the HR profession, given the challenges of automation and globalisation?

Organisations require products and services customers buy, money to finance products or services, and systems to create them. But underlying these requirements are the foundations: talent, leadership and organisation. HR is not about HR, but about delivering talent (right people, right skills, right time, right place, right commitment), leadership at all levels and the right organisational culture and/or capabilities to ensure the business wins. What a great time to be in a profession with clear insights that will enable organisations to compete and win and individuals to find personal wellbeing.   

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