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Deskilled in the search of strategic value



I’ve made my views on the Ulrich model and on Business Partnering known before, particularly the way in which the thoughtless HR profession has adopted it with gay abandon and without proper assessment or analysis.  But perhaps the scariest implication of this mindless lemming like approach has been the deskilling of the HR function to a point where I genuinely worry if it will ever be the same again.

When I kicked off my career (and this was only 15 years ago) I started life as a Personnel Officer.  I had a couple of client groups and I was responsible for all of their HR requirements.  If there was a vacancy I would recruit it, beginning to end, drawing up an ad, sifting CVs, interviewing, making an offer, rejecting candidates and drafting the contract.  If we needed to change a structure, I would sit with the manager discuss it, help draw up the profiles, the redundancy selection criteria etc and follow it through to termination and even representing the company at Employment Tribunal.

There were more senior people above me and if I was unsure I would talk it through with them and seek guidance.  When I was ready, I left to join another company where my span of control was slightly greater and the level of support slightly less.  I moved up a rung. Through all of this I was building up my level of competence, learning new skills.  But I was also learning to take responsibility, because if things went wrong it was both my fault and importantly ME who felt the pain.

All of this meant that when I started to manage teams about ten years ago, I knew what they were going through and I knew the pain that they were experiencing and I knew how I could help.  But it also meant that I was fastidious about detail, because cock ups tend to be the result of a lack of attention to detail.  You can’t rock up at an Employment Tribunal and say, “well I didn’t mean that…” or explain to a candidate why their contract has the wrong terms and conditions on it.  I could explain the importance of everything that we did and how it knitted together.

Increasingly over the years, I have found it hard to recruit good HR pros into my businesses primarily because they have a lack of breadth.  If you think of the Ulrich model, it doesn’t lend itself to career paths or to movement between the “legs”.  Shared service teams are (generally) seen as low skilled administrative functions, specialist teams are exactly that and business partners whilst they may have good consultancy skills lack on the technical side. HR professionals are developing unevenly, the stool is wonky.

Added to this is often a lack of ownership and accountability.  If a shared service centre gets something wrong, how often do they feel the pain directly?  If the BP feels the pain, how often do they blame it on the shared service centre? And the specialists? In my humble opinion they tend to walk around telling everyone what to do but providing little support or assistance and never really “getting” a business.  We don’t like pain, we seek to avoid it, it is in our nature.

So where does all of this take us?  Will the next generation of HR Directors have bloodied themselves in operational HR matters, have gone before a Tribunal Chairman, have drafted contracts, completed admin?   Will they have cocked things up and had to take complete and total ownership of the issues?

Does it really matter?   I think it does.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. BJH permalink
    06/15/2010 08:39

    I’m generally in agreement with this. I “worked my way up” as you did and was really shocked when I found myself working in an Ulrich environment where a BP didn’t know how to do a redundancy calculation, or understand TUPE regulations.

    However, I am a “soldier”, a “doer”, a “make it happen” kind of gal. I am not a visionary and I’m not an inspirational leader. In my opinion, directors and very senior managers need those skills and don’t necessarily have to be technical experts – as long as they can sell a vision and inspire those that are.

    Having said that, as you rightly point out, the Ulrich model does not help anyone work their way up a ladder to any point, and it’s something I found particularly challenging when I was a manager of a team of admin people in the Shared Service Centre … where was their next career move?

    So … as ever, excellent food for thought here.

  2. NZHRGuy permalink
    06/15/2010 08:55

    I had a similar career path to you. HR was my second career and I had already spent years as a line manager so understood exactly what a line manager needed from me, and what I could do to make their lives easier. You can’t train that into people and they don’t pick it up in university. Breadth of experience is the biggest issue for HR people these days in my view. Sadly those HR practitioners with all the experience won’t be the Directors of tomorrow. They know way too much, don’t have big egos and are too busy keeping their organisations out of the crap to be recognised as “leaders.”

  3. 06/15/2010 14:57

    At risk of sounding like an old soak, i can honestly say its not like it used to be and i agree, things are not better for it. I’m not necessarily suggesting that we take a wholesale step back in time but there was alot to be said for the ‘HR apprenticeship’. I cut my teeth as a personnel officer, totally green out of uni, on the shop floor of a manufacturing plant employing 450. It was a closed shop union environment and as gritty as it gets. The day before i started the job i was on a high, and my head and ego were vastly out of proportion to my body. By the end of the first week i was a very different person. humility and respect were just two of the things i learnt the hard way. But it was the best education and made me the person i am today. I was humbled by ‘human resources’ – the workers who did the do.

    But its not just the Ulrich model that is to blame, although our wholesale adoption for it has done little for our overall standing, despite all the promises. Part of the problem has been the demise of the environments where ‘apprenticeships’ in HR, or people management, can be lived out. Look at all the greats and you can trace their roots back to a small number of gritty yet progressive environments including Ford and BAE. These environments are dying out and with them are the opportunities for getting great experience in the nitty gritty of employee relations and development.

    Add to that the fact that we are specialising and outsourcing at every turn on top of the angst and anxiety of not being taken as seriously as we would like and its no wonder we have maybe lost our way as a profession.

    My biggest fear though is that future HRD’s, those that have not had the exposure that the HRD talks about here, will be in seriously senior positions without ever having had to ‘mix it’ with all levels of the organisation, take on the difficult situations and, ultimately f**k up and have to take it on the chin.

  4. 06/16/2010 15:36

    In a similar way, I am loathe to think that someone who has 2 years of training experience can confidently fool themselves into thinking that they are able to start a consultancy and run a successful business. Because they have about as much commercial nous as my 3 year old son. Or worse, ‘professionals’ completing a masters degree who think they have such a wealth of knowledge they can step into a high flying HR role with no experience, but they’re CIPD qualified, and that’s all you need. *groan*

  5. 06/17/2010 08:07

    @BJH – You make a good point about leadership. It is true that you don’t need to be a technical expert, but I do think you need to know when you’re having the wool pulled over your eyes. That doesn’t require technical depth, but it does require some level of expertise.

    @NZHRGuy – You’re right about breadth. I just don’t see how the current model of “centres of Excellence” can ever provide it.

    @Gareth Jones – Excellent point about industry. Once you’ve had to stand nose to nose with a hairy arse shop steward threatening you with all sorts of legal and illegal stuff, there is very little that will phase you in the boardroom!

    @Sukh Pabial – Ah the “Consultant Question” I’ve promised @BillBoorman a post on this one at some point. As for the CIPD as a means of entry to the profession… is only that…..


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