Looking back on the last decade of my career, I truly am lucky to have had a front row seat on some of the hottest HR debates. I have seen major organisations strategically turn on decentralised HR models and run towards holy light of centralised a HR practice only to swing back a few years later to a decentralised as swiftly and purposefully as a half-naked Miley Cyrus on her metaphorical wrecking ball. In the exact same seat, I have seen David’s Ulrich model successfully deployed with significant results, only to later be shunned and criticised more recently by a tidal wave of articles claiming “NextGen” approaches to HR. My love for consulting in the HR Technology space keeps me spinning in this chair. Yes, it is a chair that moves and swivels quite a lot in our new era of business, and I can’t help but point out three key observations:

  • A “One HR Model” to rule them all mentality that abruptly leads to a political “right” vs “wrong” moral standing on pretty much any model put forward;
  • The pendulum swing between Centralised vs Decentralised HR models (you are thinking about Miley still aren’t you?). The same can be said for “outsourced” vs “insourced”
  • A “demolish and rebuild” mentality whenever the model is challenged around effectiveness.

So, hence, when I was recently asked by a client as to which HR operating model is the best fit for their organisation, I thought it was time to take a few steps back, do a little bit of high level homework and reflect on HR life for a moment.

Per my research of the abundant amount of papers, articles, case studies and examples, I discovered a consistent pattern in the content as if they all sing from the same music sheet:

  1. The big case for change: Yes, we are operating in an incredibly complicated business era trying to deliver simpler solutions to demanding clients. Yes, technology has certainly push HR into a new world of working. Yes, agility, scalability and feasibility are imperative. And yes, this is definitely the perfect time to relook (and continue to assess) the HR activities businesses deliver and how these are channeled to the HR customer/client. We get it!
  2. A blatant prosecution followed by a gory public desecration of the Ulrich Model: Generally, a google image mug shot of the model in question followed by the judgement – it’s outdated; it fails to deliver strategically; it has gaps delivering transactionally and we just hate it.
  3. A bright, shiny and new NextGen Model: Lots of circles and shapes tattooed with sexy consulting lingo which in reality is just the Ulrich model put through a blender, given liposuction, facial augmentation and a new stage name.
  4. The shameless sales pitch from a consulting firm: In a nutshell, “choose our firm and we will give you this cheaper, faster and with implementation success”.

In all honesty, I am not a big fan of Miley Cyrus and her music, but I am going to stick with this metaphor here because it works. All that is happening here is that our big HR record companies are turning a Hanna Montana (Ulrich) into a NextGen Miley Cyrus accessorised by a large wrecking ball of change. But in reality, underneath it all… the parts are all still the same, albeit in different places, shapes and sizes. Her success both before and after had nothing to do with appearances alone, but rather:

  • Solid market research and data analysis
  • A bullet proof branding and marketing strategy
  • A committed team and partners
  • Raw Talent
  • A dedicated fan base

I can’t help but think we are doing the same with HR operating models and maybe, just maybe, we are completely missing the point here. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a lot of merit and good thinking that have gone into NextGen HR models. I quite like the idea of performance coaching teams, centres of excellence focused on business best practices and insight, and I believe strongly in a Tiered HR case management approach to fully leverage technology.

My issue is that maybe we should be less focused on a “one size fits all” model and more focussed on how we make its parts work together in order to deliver people success to our HR clients. We seem to be getting lost in all the glitz and glamour of these new models and forgetting that central to any model is the HR client after all.

So before we go and shun the Ulrich model (and more importantly, its parts), maybe we need to be asking more questions, such as:

  1. Who is our HR client within our organisations? What HR activities do they want and how would they like them delivered (or even done by themselves)?
  2. What is our business strategy? How have we aligned our People and HR strategy to deliver and support on this?
  3. Do we have our executive team 100% committed to the future direction of HR? Do they trust HR to deliver? Do they consider HR to be a strategic enabler of the business? How are we involving them in the design and implementation of an HR Operating model?
  4. Does HR have the internal capability to analyse, design and implement an agile, scalable and efficient model?
  5. How are we assisting our HR clients on the journey of change?

By turning the traditional “top down” approach on its head and making the various layers of HR clients central to HR outcomes of the operating model, we are in a position to better design HR activities to meet these outcomes and articulate how the different parts of the HR operating model would work in order to deliver these activities.

I also cannot over-stress the importance of strategic executive commitment to the model as transformational change management is to the process. In the absence of this, even the most appropriately designed models will not deliver the value intended. For me, involvement is the magic ingredient to generate commitment and involvement of executives and operational leaders in the process is critical.

So before you call the “wrecking ball” specialists to redefine your HR look and feel, take a moment to focus on outcomes first, before getting too fixated on images and pretty pictures.