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And suddenly we have nothing to offer…..



Last week I wrote about my dislike of the Ulrich model and particularly the way in which the HR community latches on to the latest fad and fashion.  One of the most damaging elements of the introduction of the Ulrich model, however, has been the dumbing down of the HR function.  I daren’t try and quantify the amount of investment that departments have put into “Business Partner Skills development” and “Up skilling the HR function”, but in all of this, we have in fact taken the first steps towards deskilling the profession.

 I am by no means long in the tooth, though I am bald.  But as Trish points out at HR Ringleader, the profession seems to attract baldies, so I am in good company!  But once again I digress and run the risk of forgetting why I set out to write this and instead put in an impassioned defence for baldness as the new black…… 

The point is that when I started out in my career, I did everything.  I would recruit, I would discipline, I would work on reward, I would train and develop and I would administer.  I learnt my trade through doing.  I always used to say that after studying the CIPD I had to forget everything I had been taught and then learn to do it all again properly.  Now the value of the CIPD is a whole different post, but the truth is, like many professions, you learnt your job by doing the grunt work and progressing upwards.  You would do the basics but you would also then pick up projects to help you develop (the Employee Handbook needs revising…….*groan*).

With the implementation of the Ulrich model, where do young starters into the profession go?  I imagine they all come out wanting to be “Business Partners”, but can you effectively partner a business if you haven’t experienced first hand a lot of the interventions you will be calling on others to apply?  If you go into a “Centre of Excellence” sure you might be able to progress until you are “Chief Recruiter”, but what do you know about Learning and Development or Employee Relations?  And if you go into the “Shared Services”…well are you convinced you will ever get out alive?

The value of the generalist model was that there was clear career progression.  You could dip in and out of specialisms during your career, you were a rounded professional with areas of expertise, but a breadth of knowledge.  That meant that when you finally climbed to the top of the tree, you understood everything that lay beneath you.  Maybe not in detail, but in enough detail to make sure it was functioning correctly and servicing the business well.

Our value to an organisation is as an expert that understands the business and that can apply our expertise in the right way to drive improvements within our organisations.  If we allow our knowledge and insight to dissipate, all that we are left with is knowledge of the business.  And let’s be honest that is not a USP!  Other business areas have it and many in significantly higher proportions that their HR colleagues!  So I wonder, is it a coincidence that the faddism for Ulrich has coincided with an increased number of “non HR professional” moving into HR Director roles?

On discussing this the other day I was asked, “Well if you had the choice who would you appoint as HR Director?  An HR Business Partner or someone who really knew your business?” My response was simple, “Who would you rather appoint someone who really knew your business or someone who really knew your business and was an expert in HR management?”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/08/2010 19:44

    First, thank you for mentioning my Bald Men of HR post. And, glad to see you’re one of the great ones. : )

    Bravo on this post and ESPECIALLY the last couple sentences. I want to share it with everyone.

    I think you’re on to something here regarding how having a strong generalist background can help you long-term in a HR career. And, how following any other model can certainly derail someone just starting into the field. I grew up as a generalist- spent time cutting my teeth with interviewing and recruiting. Then moved into employee relations for a LONG time where I really honed my ability to council and coach THE coaches. Along the way, I picked up those “business acumen” skills so that I have a solid understanding of finance, communications, marketing, and the like. Interestingly enough, just took a role where my title is actually……HR Business Partner. Living the dream-job life for sure.

    The one downside is that I never spent enough years doing one area of HR SO well that I can go get a specialized job doing it. And for me, I wouldn’t want that. The argument is that there are people who do far better when they can learn one role and stick to it. I don’t think that anytime soon companies will all move to one model of HR over another. It will always be diverse. There will always be those companies where each role is specialized. There will be those where HR is purely transactional in nature (most are today). Then, there will be those forward thinking companies who can blend the transactional positions with those more visionary (generalist) positions.

    They issue is that more companies are just randomly appointing the head of Marketing (for example) to now run HR. Coincidently, I have a draft post along similar lines that will address whether it makes sense to bring people from other departments into HR. It’s becoming a popular topic.

    Great post. Thanks for making us all think.

  2. Karin permalink
    03/09/2010 00:52

    Perhaps it isn’t Ulrich that is the problem but the penchant for jumping on the bandwagon of every trend and taking up the battle cry of every new HR buzzword that is the problem. HR needs to stop being so isolated and start trying some cross-functional collaboration. They might learn something. They have a very long way to go. As to the commenter that is thinking about bringing in people from other areas to HR-the reality is it probably couldn’t hurt.

  3. 03/09/2010 10:07

    My experience is that most of the really good HR people I have met didn’t start out that way. They started out in other disciplines, gained a real understanding of how business runs, and what the levers are to create value, and then have brought that to HR. That’s when HR becomes really powerful – when it grasps the essential linkages between people, their performance and the organiszation’s aims. I’d go as far as to say that without wider experience than HR, it’s unlikely that HR people can be really useful strategically.

  4. Dave permalink
    03/09/2010 10:24

    How like a HR person to respond to a question with another question.

  5. 03/10/2010 09:26

    @Trish – I guess I am fortunate in having spent time in both specialist and generalist roles, but I would struggle to see how you could progress to the “top job” from a purely specialist background. That said, I’m not against people moving into HR as long as they have the skills as well as the business acumen.

    @Karin – I completely agree, the model is not the problem it is the faddism within HR.

    @Henry – Interesting point, I agree to a level although I think in forward thinking business you get cross functional experience because you are involved in conversations and projects which are broader than just “people”.

    @Dave – I try never to disappoint the cynics in the crowd….I consider it a gift.

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