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Time to turn the Ulrich Model into a Digital Delivery Model

Written by Rob Scott for Inside HR

The Ulrich model of HR delivery has been the cornerstone framework of HR for the past 20 years, but in light of the newly emerging digital world, modern HR must adapt to become agile and remain effective, says Rob Scott

There is no denying that all of us are on a digital transformation journey. Our work environments and operating models are feeling the strain of being caught between more traditional business operating models and the newer, agile demands of techno-digital environments. Deciding whether to toss out the old approach or focus on a more evolutionary adaptation of your existing ways can be a daunting decision to make for HR leaders.

The Ulrich model of HR delivery, developed by Professor David Ulrich 20 years ago, has been a solid guiding framework in full or part for most HR functions globally. And even though the model has been contested over the years, the building blocks of the model; HR Shared Service Centres (SSC) for administration, Centres of Excellence (CoE’s) for content expertise and the HR Business Partner (HRBP) for business alignment, have worked – so why change something that ‘ain’t broke’?

The underlying design principle of the Ulrich model has been about effective and streamlined connectivity between the elements of HR and business operations and strategy. It was built on assumptions that were pre-digital age. But the digital work environment has introduced new technologies such as Robotic Process Automation, Cognitive computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), new thinking styles such as Design Thinking, Evidence-based decisions supported by deep-dive Data Analytics as well as a deluge of demographic, ethics and loyalty impacts. As HR professionals, the worse thing we can do is bury our heads in the sand and fall prey to the Normalcy Bias, believing things will always function the way things normally function. We need to consider how a digital environment is changing the way the workforce is empowered, interacts and connects.

“The Ulrich model as a framework is still a relevant HR operating model, but the transition from the old roles to the new ones is an important adjustment required to support digital work environments”

In a Digital world, HR must respond and adapt quickly to changes which impact your business, whether that be through external competitiveness or internal innovation. This will require the roles of the HRBP, SSC and CoE to transform into ‘early warning’ detectors and predictors which can seamlessly morph into problem-solving guru’s and inform the creation of relevant and unique HR solutions. How should these roles change?

HR Business Partner » Alignment Agent

Modern HR technology, digital and automation tools fully empower line managers to be effective in hiring, managing and developing their staff. It’s time to get beyond playing the quasi-admin role for line managers. The Alignment Agent is externally focussed around your organisation’s supply chain and customers, ensuring HR solutions are adding customer-focussed value in line with business strategies and advising line managers and executives on required changes. The new Alignment Agent is seeking out business issues from a people perspective and doing problem-solving with data analytics.

Shared Service Centre » Analytics Engine Room   

As Automation and Robotic Processing takes over administrative tasks and AI replaces more complex HR admin tasks, the admin centre becomes obsolete but is reborn as an Analytics Engine Room that supports business problem solving and provides predictive capability to business leaders. Their outcomes inform future HR solutions. The future SSC employee is a data scientist or analyst. The engine room is not HR centric only, but can be part of a broader analytics entity or could be an outsourced service.

Centre of Excellence » HR Solution Provider

The new CoE will still require deep-skilled and experienced HR practitioners who will remain the thought leaders for appropriate people practices. They will be responsible for developing and deploying solutions which are identified by the new Alignment Agent and use data-driven outcomes from the Analytics Engine Room to validate their solutions. Solutions are not always standardised and can be focussed on providing the best solution for a part of the business.

The Ulrich model as a framework is still a relevant HR operating model, but the transition from the old roles to the new ones is an important adjustment required to support digital work environments.  It requires forward thinking executives and HR leaders to recognize the different demands of a future workforce and workplace, and an acknowledgement that technology, applied in the right way, is empowering employees and workplaces to be super-agile, and achieve significantly more. HR must change.

Some takeaway messages

  • The classic Ulrich model of HR has been the cornerstone of HR delivery for most organisations. It’s a good model, but it needs to be aligned to the emerging digital work environment
  • Much of what HR Business Partners and HR Shared Services Centres do is administrative in nature. The available HR software, automation and AI tools now available will completely change how these mundane activities are done. The Ulrich-defined roles must adapt
  • The old HR Business Partner role needs to drop the line manager ‘hand-holding’ style of management – Modern HR tools make line managers completely self-sufficient
  • Shared Services as we know it will disappear as administrative tasks are automated or managed by AI. A major skill refocus is needed to change these entities into Analytic Engine Rooms

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: ARE HR PROFESSIONALS AT RISK?

Latest article published in InsideHR

would HR professionals be as enthusiastic about HR technologies if they contained Artificial Intelligence (AI) capability

Are we ready to be pushed down the proverbial pecking order of importance by sophisticated AI technology? asks Rob Scott

Very few HR and talent professionals would refute the value that technology has brought to their operations. HR functions have leveraged these tools to become efficient, effective, collaborative, engaging and more accurate. But would HR professionals be as enthusiastic about HR technologies if they contained Artificial Intelligence (AI) capability that could predict more accurately and make better business decisions than the highly educated, people-focused HR practitioner?

At what point does software that is able to pick the best applicant, predict who is most likely to resign or identify the best mentor for a talented employee, become a legitimate replacement for a highly paid HR practitioner?

Most HR professionals I engage with don’t believe this will transpire, citing the complexities of human behaviour, personal choice and the absence of universal logic in managing people in the workplace. In the short term I agree with them, but not for the same reasons they mention. In fact, when I look at how most HR functions rely on standard processes to manage certain events, I have no doubt that near-future HR technology will do a better job than humans in executing these rule-based processes. Our flawed minds can never achieve the same level of efficiency.

“AI in HR is maturing; we are seeing interesting algorithm designs, predictive analytics and automation solutions coming to market”

This is not to say that our current HR technologies are anywhere close to being artificially intelligent. Right now there is a lot of hype-spinning by software vendors about the predictive prowess of their tools, but in reality these are immature tools. We should, however, be under no illusion that sophisticated AI for HR is heading our way. As it becomes more credible and capable, it will displace employees who are focused on maintaining standardised HR processes and mundane transactional work. There is, however, a far deeper and fundamental reason why I believe AI will, in the short term, find a home as a digital assistant rather than as a replacement for HR professionals. It goes to the heart of a human emotion – fear. Having artificially intelligent machines making sophisticated and important people-based decisions feels threatening and generates a level of anxiety about our status as human beings. We are not ready to lose our “superiority” to machines, no matter how intelligent they become.

As an example, Microsoft recently released a small tool which guessed one’s age based on a picture you uploaded. The results were mostly wrong, however, the tool went viral. Why? The reasons lie in the notion that while the technology is inaccurate, we feel less threatened by it and are able to maintain our dignity and humanness.

This is a powerful lesson and opportunity for HR software developers. Building AI software that is too accurate and human-like is likely to be rejected or underutilised, not because its outcomes are incorrect, but because it pushes human beings down the proverbial pecking order of importance and insinuates that the work they are doing is demeaning and unnecessary.

“Building AI software that is too accurate and human-like is likely to be rejected or underutilised”

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that technology enhancements have been at the heart of mankind’s industrial revolutions and progress. New machines with capabilities that outshine human ability have typically been met with resistance from those affected, at least until new work opportunities borne from the new technology become evident. AI in HR is maturing; we are seeing interesting algorithm designs, predictive analytics and automation solutions coming to market, but future job clarity in a digital and AI age is still blurry. Until then, AI tools for HR will develop into great digital assistants under control of HR professionals. At least for now the role of the HR professional remains in demand. 

5 key takeways for HR 

  • AI is a growing phenomenon in HR. We are increasingly seeing the inclusion of decision algorithms, predictive analytics and automation tools in HR software.
  • Basic AI tools will have the ability to manage standard HR processes with little to no human intervention, ultimately displacing employees from these mundane roles.
  • Complex AI tools which can make human-like decisions are likely to be rejected in HR because of the implied threat to our status.
  • Whilst it seems far-fetched, HR professionals should start thinking about how to “manage” and integrate artificially intelligent machines in the work environment.
  • Digital HR assistants are already with us managing workflows, finding information and managing large amounts of data. We don’t need to fear AI.

Image source: iStock

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