HR Operating model design: What is working well, what is working less well?

By Jessica Cooper, Research adviser - Resourcing. @JessicaCooperHR

Recently I held two Round Tables with participants from our HR4HR network and HR leaders network.  The round tables were designed to complement the recent publication of the Changing HR Operating Models thought-pieces.

The objective of the session was to discuss factors influencing:

  • The current priorities for HR;
  • Key drivers influencing HR organisation redesign;
  • What is working well and what is working less well in current structures;
  • How is this measured;
  • And what might the future HR Operating model look like.

In this blog post I thought I would share some of the things that organisations felt were particular strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their models.  It is worth highlighting that the organisations were diverse, mostly in terms of sector and industry as opposed to size.  Most organisations were affected by the same external drivers but some organisations had more of a growth agenda, whereas others were still very much more focussed on cost efficiency.  Interestingly this didn’t seem to influence significantly the analysis of the model.  


Relationship and knowledge with the business; the importance of having close relationships with the business, understanding business issues and priorities and involving them in the planning process

Strong HR Leadership; very much speaks for itself but strength of the function is found in the strength of the leadership team

Creating synergies; for HR to be successfully operating at a strategic level, there needs to be managers with the necessary capability, technology that helps simply the process, reduces the administrative burden and enables managers and employees to manage more of the process as well as having simplified policy to reduce complexity for employees, managers and HR.


Understanding business priorities and playing catch-up; as is often the case what are strengths in some situations are weaknesses in others and those that hadn’t successfully achieved a situation where they had a good understanding of the business in HR constantly felt like they were playing catch-up

Absence of evidence based HR; the absence of using metrics, data and management information to engage with the business, senior leaders and HR when analysing issues and proposing solutions was identified as impacting credibility

Ceasing to deliver services that are no longer required; HR has been quick to take on more and more and expand the remit of the function, but in turn this has led to confusion about the main purpose of the function and who its customers are.  HR has an opportunity here to look at what it does and stop delivering services that are no longer required by the organisation or which are better placed to be delivered elsewhere


 Internal tensions between HRBP’s and specialists; HR is criticised for operating in silos, many organisations have a tag-line of ‘one HR’ but the reality is anything but.  These internal tensions and relationships of conflict between the different elements of HR threaten to undermine the credibility of the function with its customers and limit all that it could potentially achieve

Line manager’s ‘people management’ capability; For HR to be successful organisations need’s to have good people managers, the challenge is that many individuals do not embark upon their career with the goal of becoming a people manager, but becoming a people manager is one of the criteria to achieve career advancement

Mind-set of the customer towards HR; the mind-set of HR’s customer’s needs to change.  The reality is that in the most part the role of HR has changed (even if it hasn’t left the other stuff behind) but the legacy of it as a function revelling in policy hasn’t and HR needs to go through an image revamp and re-educate its customers about its role and purpose in organisations today. 

So ending on a high and focusses on where organisations have the opportunity to make changes to their HR model to make a difference:

Creating a shared goal across HR
; creating a shared vision for the function, clarity about its role and purpose in the organisation and how all the component parts fit into achieving this vision

Creating an intelligent customer; ensuring that this shared role and vision is clearly understood not only internally within the function but externally by its customers

Letting go of some activities and moving into new spaces; sitting behind this new vision and purpose is an HR function that has looked at what it is offering to the organisation and what the organisation needs and has simplified, slimmed-down and become innovative.  Making decisions about their structure to support this by potentially having multiple relationships with the business and greater internal collaborative working.

From here we explored a number of specific design features that could represent the HR model of the future, but it is interesting that it would seem that what HR needs to tackle first is at a much higher level.  Once it has defined its role and purpose as a function it is in a much better position to identify the organisation design criteria for the function, establish how this fits with the wider organisation and make structural changes, redefine roles and decision-making authority and implement technology etc.

Maybe before we embark on this new period of evolution it is time to ask ourselves as a function a few questions;

  • Do we know what our role and purpose is in the organisation?
  • Are we delivering services that are aligned with this?
  • Is there anything we can stop doing or would be better done elsewhere in the organisation?

Once we have clarity on this, we can move on to look at the operating model in more detail and establish;

  • What are the design principles we want our model to adhere to?
  • How can we best organise our work in line with these principles and how the rest of the organisation operates?

On conclusion of the round tables we identified a number of areas for further exploration. We intend to continue these round table events about the HR operating model through the CIPD HR Leaders and HR4HR networks so if you are interested in finding out more about these networks please get in touch.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Anonymous

    Jessica,  You mention the importance of HR adding value and you point out that HR often continues to do things or takes on things that do not add value.   But, in the opportunities section the tone is more about how great HR can be and how visionary.   Wouldn't it be better for HR to be less ambitious and focus on doing a few things really well (maybe this is what you mean by your last point).  My impression is that HR suffers from promising lots and delivering little.  It also suffers from wanting to be strategic while failing to do a good job of operations.  The real opportunity is to match the ambition with the skills.

  • Good points made, but HR are not always represented at the top table, and whilst this is the case HR will always have to fight to be taken seriously. There are too many short sighted people in management positions that do not want HR and only have it because they feel its a necessity. You may say that it is up to HR to change that opinion but like many things the wheels of change are slow and I am sure there are many good HR people out there that have just lost the will to live with trying to make a difference.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Jessica, the approach of (1) better understanding the HR added value, (2) making sure our customer understands and (3) doing things differently, is not really appealing is it? Would it be a suggestion to bring Ulrich's thinking on 'organizational capabilities' ('oc's)  a step further as a 'best process'. His examples and process are in my view thin and need more research and experimenting. The  process to understand and name the oc's might be better in more experienced hands like management, marketing, communication, finance than with HR, but the organisational develoment of these intangibles is in my view the heart of HR. By owning the development of the oc's the HR operating model is in alignment with the business. And as the development of the oc's are of wide interest for each and every corner of the organisation, recognisable for all, the added value of HR as oc-developer is clear and will prove itself.