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Difficulties implementing HR business partnering? Don’t blame the Ulrich model

The first Managing Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Workplace online course will be launched in December.
Register your interest for the course at the introductory price of SGD199.

One of the biggest enablers for effective business partnering is best fit – whether a business has identified and developed a business partnering approach which makes sense for its organisation, sector, organisational context, business strategy, capabilities of existing HR and line managers, and more.

And where things do go wrong, it’s often due to the opposite of this – a complete lack of attention to what makes an organisation unique.

The biggest and baddest problem of course is due to organisations trying to implement Ulrich’s HR business partner model – the (in)famous three legged stool.

But note, I said the problem is organisations trying – not the Ulrich model itself.  I think this is often misunderstood!

I’ve been to one session given by the head of a major global HR consultancy focusing on what’s wrong with the Ulrich model – whether the Ulrich model is inherently flawed or if the problem many organisations have in implementing it is down to sheer poor management and implementation.

(They concluded it was generally a bit of both.)

It just does not make sense. The idea that you can take any model and apply it to a particular organisation is just bizarre – and it’s completely the opposite of what needs to happen to develop an effective organisation – whether in HR or in any other area of the business.

ALSO READ: How close is HR to becoming a strategic business partner?

The Ulrich model has only ever been promoted as a description of what a lot of organisations have been doing (starting in the 1990s), or possibly a straw model to benchmark your own HR function and ask useful questions about how it can be improved.

There’s never, ever been a suggestion that you should turn your own team into any stool of any number of legs, but that is unfortunately what a large number of businesses still tend to do.

Don’t! Instead, do design a best-fit solution that meets your particular needs. Consider the full range of alternatives and pick the one that best meets the needs you’ve identified.  It’s really not too hard.

And if you do that, you’ll be much better positioned to develop a successful approach to business partnering yourselves.

Oh, and don’t think it’s all about stools and legs anyway. Embedded advisers, service centres, centres of excellence, etc., may be part of the solution, and can make a big difference. But actually the things that really count (which Ulrich writes and talks about as well) are:

  • Strategy. Do you have an ambition, objectives and processes that are going to make a difference to your business through your people?
  • Technology. Are your processes supported by good and effective HR systems that enable you to implement the processes you’ve designed?
  • Capability. Do your business partners understand what partnering really means, and do they have the skills to achieve this?
  • Measurement. Do we know how well we’re doing – in partnering and in delivering enhanced business results.

On this last point, it’s also often a specific focus on the particular organisation which makes the difference in measurement as well.

Measurement is generally not that hard – the problem is understanding what we need to do. Once we understand who we want to achieve through HR business partnering, it’s often a lot easier to identify the appropriate metrics to use to measure it.

Jon Ingham is executive consultant at Strategic Dynamics Consultancy Services, based in the UK. He is also the trainer for HR Academy’s “Strategic HR Business Partnering” course on 18-19 April (Singapore) and 21-22 April (Kuala Lumpur) 2016. For more details, visit

The first Managing Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Workplace online course will be launched in December.
Register your interest for the course at the introductory price of SGD199.

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