A radical new approach when it was first introduced, the David Ulrich model transformed the role of Human Resources back in the 1990s, shifting it from a purely administrative function to a core part of business strategy.
In this article, we explore the purpose, components and application of the model, and discuss how relevant it is to today’s business landscape.
Who is David Ulrich?
David Ulrich is a highly respected name in HR and business management, once crowned the number one management educator and guru by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and awarded the title of most influential thinker of the decade by HR Magazine in 2015.
As a university professor, management coach, management consultant, speaker and author, Ulrich has co-written over 30 books that have helped redefine the purpose of HR. This includes his own title, “Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results”, originally published in 1997.
It was in this book that Ulrich put forward the argument that HR should not be viewed as an activity-based profession but one that contributes significantly to organizational outcomes. This theory, and the framework behind it, became a popular HR model still in use today.
What is the David Ulrich HR model?
The David Ulrich HR model was devised primarily for large, complex organizations, put forward as a means of rethinking - and restructuring - HR function.
The basis of the model is that the work of HR is integral to achieving organizational excellence. This was a revolutionary idea at a time when Human Resources existed in an administrative silo, responsible for behind-the-scenes activities like information handling, policy enforcement and regulatory documentation. Whilst necessary, this had little to do with the core work of a business, so contributed nothing to its success.
What Ulrich proposed was that senior management give more responsibility to HR professionals, extending their remit to include things like recruitment strategy, training and development programs, and diversity initiatives.
Ulrich believed that this new agenda for HR would see increased efficiency, add strategic value to an organization, and help it meet new business challenges - challenges that at the time included globalization, the adoption of new technologies and adaptability in response to constant change.
To achieve all of this, the David Ulrich model suggests four core roles for HR, each considered vital for a business to remain competitive.
The 4 roles of HR
According to the David Ulrich model, senior management must encourage the input of HR executives when it comes to business strategy.
HR should be responsible for mapping out how a company goes about its business, conducts regular audits of organizational architecture, and makes recommendations for improvements as a strategic partner.
HR’s role as change agent involves arming a business with the resources and practices it needs to respond to change effectively. Rather than being on the front line of execution, HR creates the plan of attack with the use of a change management model.
Such an approach enables a business to implement new processes, technologies and initiatives at speed, not only adapting to change but capitalizing on it.
This is all about increasing employee engagement. The 1990s saw the demands of professional life increase dramatically, and the David Ulrich model placed HR at the forefront of the response.
In this new role, HR must champion well-being initiatives, promote development programs and speak on behalf of employees in top-level discussions. Ultimately, HR must ensure the workforce feels valued and remains committed to the organization.
Finally, HR must continue its administrative function, but elevate its level of expertise. In other words, HR professionals must find better ways of working.
Be it through new technologies or improved processes, HR must introduce cost and time savings while improving productivity - not just in the HR department itself, but across the whole organization. The model also advocates automation and outsourcing of administrative tasks to free up more time for strategic focus.
These four roles are, in essence, four individual divisions of HR that together cover a businesses’ strategic direction, its people, its process and its day-to-day operations.
By implementing the model, large organizations can bring structure to HR functions with clearly defined roles that add value, and gain a competitive edge in the process.
The benefits of the David Ulrich HR model
When implemented effectively, the David Ulrich model can bring many benefits. Some headline advantages include:
Organizational commitment - the model encourages better employee support which in turn brings all the benefits of a more committed workforce, like increased productivity and talent retention.
Adaptability- with the role of change agent assigned to HR, a business becomes more responsive to change, be it in terms of culture, services or strategic direction.
Streamlined processes - the introduction of outsourcing and automation frees HR up from time-consuming mundane tasks so it can focus efforts on helping a business achieve organizational excellence.
The challenges of the David Ulrich HR model
The David Ulrich model is of course not bulletproof, and along with its benefits also brings some key challenges:
Implementation time - the redesign and restructure of HR is a lengthy process. Defining roles, sourcing HR talent and establishing new practices takes considerable time, effort and investment, and it can be some time before the benefits of the model are realized.
It relies on senior buy-in - the David Ulrich model does not work unless all senior management is on board. Leaders must change their perception of HR and welcome it as a strategic partner.
One size does not fit all - some professionals suggest that the model is too rigid in its structure and does not account for the unique needs of a business.
How relevant is the David Ulrich HR model in today’s workplace?
Some 25 years on from its introduction, and parts of the David Ulrich model seem more relevant than ever.
The challenges it sought to combat - operating in a global marketplace, technological innovation, talent retention - continue to impact businesses of all shapes and sizes.
What’s more, the roles it puts forward for HR have, if anything, become more critical - like change management in our increasingly unpredictable world, and employee engagement in an age of remote and hybrid working.
However, the David Ulrich model is intended for large organizations with multiple business units and high employee counts, and since the 1990s this type of business structure has been replaced by multiple SMEs. In fact, in 2022 large businesses (with an employee headcount of 250 or more) made up just 0.1% of the UK’s business population.
That said, as the business world has evolved so too has the model. Ulrich’s latest iteration was put forward in 2017, and whilst it may not be relevant in its entirety to every modern-day business, there are still many lessons to be learned from the concept of HR as a strategic partner.
Is the David Ulrich HR model right for your organization?
The David Ulrich model was introduced at a time when HR had a pretty bad reputation, viewed as more value-sapping than value-adding.
Since that time HR has undergone a major transformation, in large part down to the Ulrich model itself, so chances are your HR efforts are already benefiting from its influence.
As a full-scale model though, it is not suited to every organization, nor was it intended to be. Larger companies with complex HR needs may find value in its structure, while smaller businesses may find more success with other popular HR models.