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The Ulrich Model: Is it still working?


It’s over 20 years since Dave Ulrich published his classic book on Human Resource Management (Human Resource Champions).

A generation of HR professionals used the ‘Ulrich model’ as the basis for transforming their HR functions. It was based on the notion of separating HR policy making, administration and business partner roles.

The ultimate goal was to shift the role of HR from administration to strategy. It promised a bright future for those that successfully implemented the approach.

As the Ulrich model comes of age; has it delivered on the promise?

Ulrich the ‘guru’

Ulrich has achieved guru status and was heralded as ‘the father of human resources’ by HR Magazine. 

However, it has been claimed by some that the model is impractical in the 21st-century. While it has delivered benefits for some, some would concede that it has been a disappointing journey and HR is no more strategic now than it was in 1995.

Perhaps devotees thought it would be simple. Re-badge the HR team as business partners, build a service center, add in new technology and call it transformation.

Unfortunately, many companies have struggled getting just one of those components right, let alone the full suite.

What’s in a name?

Ulrich never intended roles such as ‘business partner’ to be a blueprint for organizing HR. He never directly translated them into specific jobs (although his work has generally been interpreted as if he did).

As a result, many organizations employed Business Partner (BP) roles before introducing Shared Service Centers or outsourcing their service delivery. This left BPs with the near impossible task of balancing a transactional workload with the strategic expectations of customers.

He was also clear that responsibility for transforming HR does not just lie solely with the HR department. CEOs and senior management also have key roles to play.

Even now, many organizations still do not have an integrated system for HR records, recruitment, learning, payroll, compensation and talent management. This leaves gaps in administrative efficiency and management information, key pillars of the Ulrich model.

Some HR professionals gained their knowledge of Ulrich’s work second-hand through consultancy firms, magazine articles, conferences and professional networks.  Consequently, the model may have been misinterpreted in what it can do.

Updating the original model

Ulrich stresses that over the last 25 years, he has constantly updated and revised his initial thinking.

Let’s not forget Ulrich is essentially an academic, eternally pragmatic and willing to change his theories if the evidence doesn’t support them.

Despite this, the basic principles of ‘Ulrichism’ remain:

  • Define a clear role for HR
  • Understand how it provides competitive advantage for the organization
  • Create a structure that delivers value
  • Then measure it.

Ulrich may not perfect but it’s a good starting point for organizations looking to transform HR.

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