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Ulrich model ‘asks too much of HR business partners’

30 Jun 2017 By Cathryn Newbery

Experts divided at HR360 event amid debate on value of customer-centric HR

The HR360 European Summit kicked off yesterday with a heated debate over the relevance of the Ulrich business partnering model to modern HR.

Albert Hakkers, former HR director at global drinks company Diageo, argued that the Ulrich model – as proposed by renowned HR thinker Dave Ulrich in the 1990s – was “very static and role-oriented… HR should be more about growing the business”, he said.

But, countered Michael Rubas, SVP for HR planning and operations at Deutsche Telekom, the model still chimes with the function’s “core purpose” of customer-centred HR. “Shared services means we can focus on automation and efficiency,” said Rubas. “The business partner gives us an entry point to the customer. We fail if we don’t put the customer at the heart of what we do.”

Conference chair Lucy Adams, CEO of Disruptive HR and former HR director at the BBC, said the model “means we are asking too much of the HR business partner... I don’t think the role of HR in the future is to do the leaders’ work, it is for HR and leaders to work together to create the right environment. [In the] Ulrich model there is too much focus on what leaders want.”

Hakkers said the Ulrich model’s positioning of people in “buckets of separate responsibility” was “unhelpful”. He added: “Departments need to run the business together. You have to run each project together. [The model means] people say ‘that’s not my responsibility’.”

While a quick poll revealed that just over half of delegates in the conference room agreed that HR departments needed to move away from the Ulrich model to better align themselves with business objectives, the reaction from People Management’s followers was much more mixed.

An informal Twitter poll suggests that 45 per cent of PM readers still value the model, with one-fifth unsure of its usefulness.

"[It’s] probably not fit for purpose for many businesses in the first place,” commented Tony Jackson (@JacksonT0ny). “The profession needs to stop following ‘the latest model’.”

“I’ve seen it work well. I’ve seen it not work well. But advocating ditching it without a clear alternative is reminiscent of Brexit!” commented Graham Salisbury (@grahamsalisbury).

“Oh dear are we still debating this,” asked Stephen Moir (@ssmoir). “Ulrich model was never about purist application; it is helpful but needs contextualised! [sic]”

This desire to move on from deciding on the ‘best’ HR model was echoed by panellists in the room. Christian Muller, senior HR business partner for transformation at Unitymedia, said: “If the business knew we were spending [so much] time talking about models, it would ask us what we were doing.”

In closing, Adams said: “Never has a function been so obsessed with it’s own design.”

Do you agree that the Ulrich model is outdated? Join the debate by posting a comment below or on Twitter @peoplemgt

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