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Why Ulrich is killing HR



A while ago I was asked to attend a debate entitled, “Ulrich, the end of the affair” – or words to that effect. Now I know that there will be those of you who would rather take sandpaper to sensitive parts of your body that attend something like that, but I went along because a) I was invited and b) I have Ulrich issues.

For those of you who don’t know, Ulrich set out in 1997, his answer to the woes of HR and their need to “add value”. In doing so he proposed a structure where HR was split into three sections, Business Partnering, Centres of Excellence and Shared Services. The last 13 years have seen organisations dogmatically move towards such a structure, almost without exception. In fact, I was at a conference last year where one of the speakers said, “If you haven’t centralised your HR services, why the hell not?”

Anyway, back to the debate. Well actually, back to the non-debate. Over coffee at the beginning, one of the participants said to me that he expected it to reveal pretty entrenched views. It did, but in honesty the views were entrenched in the same place, “If it works for your business then good, if it doesn’t then do something that does” Logical right?

So, why is this a big deal? Why are we even having debates about the topic? I put it down to two interrelated phenomenon,

1) The HR professions need for faddism to give it purpose and meaning

2) HR media, fanning the flames to justify its existence

And interestingly, within the room of professionals having this debate, although people were very laissez-faire in their comments, over 90% had applied the Ulrich model within their organisatons…..presumably it worked for all of them?

I should be clear, I don’t blame Ulrich for this in any way. To do so would be like blaming Mr Smith and Mr Wesson for Columbine. It is not the tool itself but the application. The persistent noise about Ulrich (voted HR Magazine’s most influential thinker year after year – yawn) is leading people to make the wrong decisions about their business and ultimately leading to criticism of the profession and attacks by the likes of Sathnam Sanghera.

A quick search of the HR journals shows hundreds upon hundred of articles, letters, features about Ulrich. Headlines such as, “Business guru Dave Ulrich urges HR to focus on outcomes to add value” – ummm, yeah thanks Mr. Guru, there was me thinking about how I could sit on my arse, take my money and do as little to help the business as possible. What this does though is stir up a sense within the profession, that if you aren’t doing it, you are somehow second class, second level and inferior and a less strategic HR professional. So quick, jump on the bandwagon, there is safety in numbers and if everyone is doing it, it must be right!

I have been working in HR now for nearly 15 years and there was not one year in my memory where we weren’t either restructuring the department, planning to restructure or recovering from restructure. Was any of this driven by a business imperative? Were the leaders of the business asking us to realign ourselves? I think not.

The question I would ask is this, if we want to be strategic, if we truly believe that we can add value, is this best done through the dogmatic implementation of a model that you feel you need to do to change your perception and “status” within the organisation? Or is it best done by understanding your business, talking to the people and providing interventions that suit your culture, industry and circumstances?

Think it over, let me know?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. BJH permalink
    03/02/2010 13:39

    I must admit, I’ve often felt like the little boy in “The Kings New Clothes” when it came to Ulrich. As you say, whilst it might suit some organisations, it’s definitely not right for all – and yet they try and shoe-horn it in anyway.

    I don’t really have anything to add to what you’ve said – you’ve largely voiced my own views. It’s just nice to know I’m not alone 🙂

  2. 03/03/2010 00:34

    Great post. Love the comment on sitting on your butt and taking up money/space w/o adding value. There’s no silver bullet, whether Ulrich or otherwise.

  3. 03/03/2010 07:20

    Anything that’s one-size-fits-all ultimately doesn’t fit.

    Restructuring – a four letter word with with 13 letters.

  4. 03/04/2010 08:20

    @BJH – I don’t think you are alone at all, however, the more of us that stand up and ask questions, the more relaxed people will be challenging the principles within their businesses.

    @Ben – Thanks for commenting…this is like the Queen coming for tea or something!! There is of course no silver bullet, so I question why in HR we always seem to be looking for one?

    @mkeefer – Agreed, although you are clearly better at mathematics than I am!

    • 03/04/2010 13:42

      Whoa! The Queen? I’ll have you know that I wear pants, thank you very much. 🙂

      I have no idea. Everyone wants something simpler/easier, but it’s rarely that… Um, simple.

      Brilliant, huh?

  5. 03/18/2010 09:56

    Only stumbled across this article afterI’d had my anti-Ulrich rant for today. He’s rapidly becoming the “Dr” Gillian McKeith of the HR world.

  6. 03/18/2010 12:49

    @Graham – Multiple rants are acceptable!

  7. 12/03/2010 06:16

    I ran across your blog post while doing some reading after a senior executive in a client organization told me that Ulrich invented the idea of Shared Services. I was surprised by the comment so I decided to see if I was wrong. Your post took me back to my first HR job in 1978 – OK, then it was Personnel. My boss told me to spend as much time out in the organization learning their business and helping them anticipate problems ranging from recruitment to retention to employee relations. Who knew I was becoming a Business Partner that adds strategic value. I thought I was just doing my job. I received my first question about HR gets a “Seat at the Table” when speaking to a conference in the mid-1980’s. It has come up almost every year since. We get a seat when we earn a seat. It is our responsibility to learn the business not the business’s responsibility to learn HR. I continue to be amazed with the number of people who believe that utilizing resources and expertise to be more efficient and effective is a novel idea.

  8. Pat McInerney permalink
    04/26/2012 06:42

    Gee I was thinking it was just me…and I like your thinking Randy

  9. 12/04/2012 09:31

    You may well enjoy Punk Rock HR – an antidote – available free at

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