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


Upskilling and introducing new competencies into HR will help ensure digital transformation initiatives succeed, writes Rob Scott

Original article published by Inside HR Magazine (Feb 2016)

Given a digital workplace is undeniably the future we are rapidly heading towards, the skills any future employee will need to be effective and remain market-competitive is an important consideration for HR and talent managers. HR functions have had first-hand experience of resistance from executives to hand over strategic accountability, mainly because their business skills and acumen have been lacking.

The HR function is not immune to the disruption of modern technology; in fact, the advent of Cloud and SaaS technologies in the HR space is ahead of many other business functions. It’s an advantage that HR leaders should capitalise on to secure the relevance of the function in a digitally minded work environment.

Being digitally literate for HR is a prerequisite for the next wave of business transformation. So what are the competencies, knowledge areas and behaviours required to ensure HR professionals can deliver optimised future service? I have identified five focus areas, each of which houses a number of different subsets.
Digital HR literacy

1. Computer and platform literacy
This competency area is often mistaken as the equivalent of digital literacy. Rather, this skill set is a predecessor of digital and includes understanding how desktop PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets work. This includes how these systems are best consumed and how they connect, and managing software applications. For many, these are skills associated with IT specialists. These skills are no longer an IT domain but have become general business skills which form a fundamental base to foster digital innovation and creativity.

2. Data design and ethics
These two components may seem like distant cousins, but how and what data we collect and derive is both a powerful business opportunity as well as one that borders on intrusion, invasion of privacy and manipulation. This skill set involves an understanding of other disciplines such as marketing and finance, as well as how things such as graphics, video, Internet of Things (IoT) feeds and other non-transactional data are integrated and designed to produce evidence-based outcomes.

3. Analytics
Analytic skills are closely aligned with data design and ethics. It’s far more than producing quality outputs, which is increasingly becoming a science in itself, and has a strong emphasis on ensuring the right information is being analysed and interpreted to inform business- and people-related decisions. Just as HR faced rebuke by becoming pseudo psychologists with off-the-shelf psychometric assessments, this skill set is embedded in formal data-science education.

4. Social intelligence
Social tools are ubiquitous and increasingly straddle our private and work lives. Understanding how search, content and social media work together requires technical understanding such as SEO as well as strategic alignment and tactical execution skills. Creating, observing and responding activities are reliant on a creative mindset, communication, writing and PR skills.

5. Innovative mindset
SaaS solutions as well as hardware are continuously being updated and improved, to the extent that new features are being “dropped” by the vendors every few months. Ignoring new features and capabilities for extended time periods is not a good strategy; rather, HR should embrace an agile and continuous improvement approach to its operating model. Skills relevant to support innovation include novel, critical & adaptive thinking, problem solving and design concepts.

Most seasoned HR professionals won’t fall into the “digital native” category, meaning that many of these concepts will be foreign and confronting. However, upskilling and introducing new competencies into the HR function will ensure digital transformation initiatives are executed with insight and purpose.

The scope of digital HR literacy

  • The next wave of business transformation will develop around the creation of a digital work ecosystem.
  • Being digitally literate is not the same as being computer literate. It’s about understanding the creation, consumption, management, manipulation and interpretation of information across multiple platforms to achieve business goals.
  • HR should capitalise on their lead in Cloud and SaaS technology deployments to further develop their digital skill sets and influence.
  • Some digital literacy skills – such as being computer literate – are general competencies; others such as data analysis are specialist skills supported by formal qualifications.
  • Digital skills should be spread across many HR roles, rather than thinking they are inherent in a single individual.

Your (HR) data will find you

I’ve never been a fan of telling other people what to do, think or say. I find it arrogant and demeaning at both a personal and professional level, and aside from situations warranting it (e.g. your immediate safety), you quickly lose respect and credibility. In many ways HR reporting has committed this same offence. For some reason HR leaders continue to produce standard HR reports and dish these out at regular intervals to management and executives for examination and supposed insight into their business operations. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met too many leaders or managers who are excitedly waiting for the next HR report to land on their desk or email in-box.

Standard HR reporting has reached retirement age, and should be put out to pasture. It’s a reactive way of looking at your business and people management, and has its roots in a time when HR had to spend hours and days collecting, fixing and consolidating information into spreadsheets before distributing a report that added little value. Managers don’t need a report to tell them they have 3 vacancies unfilled, or that it took 47 days to fill a position or that 7 appraisals are still outstanding. They know all of that before they get the report. Sadly I still see many HR functions fixated on producing their “monthly report”.

Most modern HR systems have dashboard, trend analysis and mini analytics that replace the need for Standard HR reporting. This is much more effective and removes the constraints (and arrogant assumptions) of standard reporting by offering line managers a choice of information to support their decision making, and more importantly, they get it immediately. At a minimum you should be providing this approach to managers.

This approach doesn’t however go far enough. If line managers don’t know what questions to ask or what data or information is relevant, they won’t get the best outcome. This shouldn’t be seen as a loophole for HR to get back into a telling mode, but rather an opportunity to define how information finds the line manager based on their people related and enterprise social on-line activity.

Its good to see some of the leading HR vendors moving into this space together with strong predictive analytic tool-sets. The algorithms behind these tools are complex, but also configurable to suit your environment and solutions. It does however require a significant rethink about decision making in general, not just related to HR information, but including the interplay between other internal and external data sources.

Check out my previous blog “Is WFM  the new HR?

SaaS HR technology: the new face of HR?

Featured in Inside HR Magazine – October 2014

The next three years provide an opportunity for HR to evolve people practices into a modern digital environment

There is significant value to be derived from HR evolving people practices into a modern digital environment, writes Rob Scott

Compared to traditional on-premise or ERP HR technologies, true SaaS technology has fundamentally shifted the business discussion from one focused on getting HR technology to work effectively to an emphasis on how HR can generate business value through people. While not dismissing the value that many companies continue to derive from traditional on-premise HR solutions, there is no denying the comparatively long and often complex journey traditional HR systems demand in order to achieve the desired outcomes.

Time saving and agility: important ingredients
Executives are realising the long-term impact and financial advantage of effectively managing their people value chain. Together with emerging workplace trends such as remote working, ad hoc team creation, social collaboration, project orientation and hyper-specialisation, the luxury of having time to build solutions to support these new work environments is quickly diminishing.

The workforce itself is changing. It’s a more flexible workforce that is fast becoming a collection of diverse, specialised individuals who have different contractual relationships with a company. And there is an expectation that the tools they use to be productive are simple, yet effective – integrated in a way that supports collaboration and is accessible from anywhere on any device. In a recent survey conducted by Microsoft, 31 per cent of employees said they would be willing to spend their own money on an app if it made them more effective at work.

The last thing an organisation wants is to be held back by software that absorbs a great deal of time and takes even more effort to adapt to the changing demands of the workplace and workforce. The need for agility and swiftness are two critical elements for future business competitiveness, and for these reasons, SaaS HR software is being recognised as a supportive catalyst.

We are moving to a digital work environment rapidly, and mechanisms such as social tools, mobility and gamification are providing the platform for enabling HR to step up to a strategic analytic and evidence-based advisory role. While many ERP tools are bolting on some of this digital capability, the underlying technology and design of these products have not been built with a digital framework. True SaaS HR products have been completely rebuilt from the database objects to the user interface and fundamentally support and integrate with digital design thinking.

HR needs a new set of skills
HR professionals, particularly those from a social sciences background, have generally been reluctant to build personal skills and knowledge in technology. In many respects, this has limited their ability to be effective in driving traditional HR technology projects. New SaaS tools have largely solved this problem because of the simplicity in how these tools are set up and maintained. SaaS tools have fewer configuration and modification options than ERP solutions, which in my mind is a good thing for HR. Too often, ERP tools are redesigned at great cost but with little business benefit.

I believe there are other complementary areas where HR functions can build competency and expertise. First, social intelligence – understanding how social thinking is introduced into business and HR strategies and enabled through digital technology. Second, analytic intelligence – making sense of lots of new people-related data that will be created as the digital work environment evolves. This includes data from wearable technology and from everyday objects that are connecting to the internet (internet of things). Analytic intelligence will have a strong predictive focus rather than a reactive statistical slant.

The next three years open up a window of opportunity for HR to evolve people practices into a modern digital environment. There is significant value to be derived, and HR must now become self-sufficient in making this a reality.

Key SaaS trends for HR

  • True SaaS HR software is quite different from ERP products. When you pull back the covers, the underlying design is geared to support a digital HR environment.
  • Modern organisations no longer have the luxury of extended time to redesign their HR solutions – SaaS tools offer agility and simplicity.
  • Now is the time for HR professionals to take ownership of HR software projects with no need to be intimidated by a lack of IT knowledge.
  • News skills for HR in social and analytic intelligence are critical to understand how software will create people value.

Rob Scott is global lead: HR strategy & innovation for Presence of IT, a leading consultancy in HR, talent, payroll and workforce management solutions.