Are We There Yet? Dave Ulrich Insights on “What’s Next for HR?”

HR author and expert Dave Ulrich

“I just hope that this conference gives me the answer to this project I am working on.”

This statement came from a conference attendee that I sat next to years ago as we waited for the speaker. He told me that this was his third conference that year, and he was still looking for the silver bullet. He said that he always comes away disappointed.

In the past, I tried to attend at least two conferences per year. My reason for going was to get some insight and clarity on an issue that I may have been facing. The speakers were key, and the topic was the driving point. I always came away with enough nuggets to inspire me to go back to the drawing board to finalize the product.

Is this Talent Management Heaven?

This past week, I attended an HCI sponsored “Executive Workgroup Session” as part of the Engagement and Retention Workshop held in Boston (full disclosure: I serve on the Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy for HCI). This session was comprised of approximately 20 senior level executives. What made it so interesting was that two of the participants would be presenting their Engagement/Talent Initiatives. One participant was in health care while the other worked for a multinational technology company.

As they each presented their strategy, I thought that I had died and gone to Talent Management Heaven. If someone would have walked into this session, they would had thought that this was a high level strategy session which could have been about marketing, production, communication, and finance.

The level of discussion was at the highest level. They would have never in a thousand years thought that this was an HR group. The level of the HR discourse in this room was remarkable. The participants really got it, and they knew where HR was headed and what it looked like

After the presentation, we broke into two work groups and basically dissected their plans. At the end of the breakouts each group would offer insight into possible solutions. At the end of their presentation, the two executives would retake the podium to comment on the presentations relating to their respective strategic plans. They both mentioned how much clarity and insight they were walking away with.

Some of the areas that they had not even given much thought to came into play, and some of the strong key points in their plan caused them to rethink their approach. In a nutshell, this was a great experience and this model is hands down better than simply sitting and waiting for lofty words from a great speaker.

Ulrich on “What’s Next for HR”

As I headed out of Boston, I thought of a just released e-book by Dave Ulrich titled “What’s Next for HR?” This free e-book was published by HR Magazine, a UK publication. He opened with a question that any parent has heard numerous times while driving with their kids, “Are We There Yet?”

In his book, he methodically and strategically broke the next steps for HR into four issues that show how “Successful HR” will look:

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  1. Mega-message for HR Direction: Creation Value
  2. HR’s Relationship to the business: Context and Stakeholders
  3. HR’s Targets or outcomes of HR Work: Individuals, organizations, leadership
  4. Domains for HR Investment

Four key areas

Here’s a breakdown of these four areas to give a snapshot of this strategy.

  • The Creation of  Value. Ulrich’s simple question — “What is the greatest challenge you face in your job today?” — gives a totally different take on what you may assume the answer is. The responses that are normally given are now grounded in the new context of HR.
  • Context and Stakeholders. Two questions are asked here: What are the general problems you are trying to solve? and, Who are your targeted customers and who will buy the product? This is summarized as HR understanding the business context for their organizations, and, identifying and serving specific stakeholders.
  • Individuals, Organizations, Leadership. These three targets or outcomes of HR work broken down this way. Dave Ulrich’s take: to deliver on any strategy, individuals need to be more productive, and organizations ought to have the right capabilities and leadership. What talent do we need to make this strategy happen? What organizational capabilities do we need to make this strategy happen? What do our leaders need to be good at to make this strategy happen?
  • Domains of HR Investment: HR Function/HR Practices/HR People and HR Analytics. What is meant by HR? The domains were broken down into these four areas.

The HR Function has gone through major transformation and there is no one size that fits all. The HR department should align with the structure of its operation. HR practices are broken down into:

    • People HR
    • Performance HR
    • Information HR
    • Work HR

People HR gives insight into a data-based study of competencies and agendas of HR professionals.

  • The 20-60-20 formula (see Ulrich video on this below) : 20 percent of us are able to contribute to business success, the 60 percent majority in the middle are making progress by trying to get into the top 20 percent and contributing to the business, and the remaining 20 percent are either not able or willing to get it and engage in the new level of HR.
  • Fewer HR professionals will be needed to do transactional administrative work.
  • HR professionals will become more balanced in their approaches to work. They will be:
    • Credible activists;
    • Strategy architects;
    • Culture and Change stewards;
    • Talent Manager and organizational designers;
    • Operational executors;
    • Business allies.
  • HR analytics. HR investments and outcomes must be tracked. This will allow HR professionals to better justify, prioritize and improve HR investments. Improved HR metrics helps HR move towards professional respectability and decision-making rigor. This section will make all of us rethink our metrics and what and how we are measuring them. I found this the more interesting part of the book.

After spending that day with this amazing group of HR folks and the level of work that we were doing, I felt confident after reading Ulrich’s book because it confirmed to me that, yes, we are on our way. We have mapped the destination. Yes, we will have detours but we will get back on track.

So if anyone asks, “Are we there yet?” we can answer positively and with confidence that yes, we really are.

To my friend from the convention years ago:  if he’s still looking for the silver bullet, I wish that I would have stayed in touch because I can now tell him that yes, I think I found it.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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