• The future of HR is about relationships

  • 24 Mar 2015
  • Comments 13 comments

Dave Ulrich exclusively unveils his new HR operating model

The debate about how to organise the HR department never seems to end. Should HR work be centralised, decentralised or some combination of the two such as shared services? Working with others, I have tried to define the roles that HR professionals should play in an optimal HR operating model.

We have proposed that the HR structure should match business strategy and structure. In many cases, where a diversified business strategy has a divisional, networked or hybrid structure, we have proposed an HR operating model with service centres focused on technology-enabled transaction capability, centres of expertise with deep specialised HR knowledge and insight, embedded HR generalists who adapt HR services to deliver business needs, and corporate HR leaders who set overall policy.

With the best of intentions, many keep tweaking these HR roles to help the HR department and HR professionals deliver increased business value. 

In our research on 12 key foci of an HR department, we found that having “clear roles and responsibilities for each of the groups within HR” ranks as among the best-performed areas, but among the least impactful on business impact. On the other hand, “connecting HR activities to external stakeholder expectations” and “tracking and measuring the impact of HR” were the two activities with the highest business impact but were the least well done.  

As I have pondered these findings and heard the ongoing debates about improving HR operating models, I have come to the conclusion that upgrades to the HR operating model will come less from roles defined on organisation charts and more from improved relationships. 

Imagine a family that isn’t getting along. They try buying new appliances, chairs and sofas. Most of us realise that new furnishings won’t help. And in HR, new tools and technologies are unlikely to improve operations. If the dysfunctional family remodels its house or buys a new one with more and larger rooms it’s unlikely to help, any more than changing boxes on organisation charts will help HR professionals work better together. 

For families to function better, they need to learn to belong, to focus on relationships more than roles. For HR operating models to deliver more value, once the basic roles are satisfied, maybe we too should focus more on relationships. 

Many have studied what makes relationships work better in friendships, couples, families and communities. For example, John Gottman, a relationship scholar, has been able to predict with more than 90 per cent confidence which couples will stay together. Synthesising relationship research, let me propose six principles that, when applied, may improve the HR operating models more than debates about roles.

1 Share a common purpose 

Partners in a relationship have different roles to play, but they succeed when they realise that they are stronger together than apart because they have superordinate and binding goals such as raising children. Couples stay together when they share dreams, find meaning together, and create a culture of joint rituals and goals, while respecting individual skills.

Likewise, in HR each role has unique expertise (service centres with technology-driven efficiency, centres of expertise with specialised HR insights etc). The challenge is to find a unifying purpose that brings together these different parts into a greater whole. This binding purpose may be business performance or improving customer or investor value. Each component of HR operations contributes unique value to serving customers, improving market value and delivering business results.

2 Respect differences

In couples therapy, each partner is encouraged to identify and appreciate the strengths of their partner. Couples succeed when they communicate more positively than negatively. Gottman found a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments in successful couples. Others have found in work settings that leaders are more successful with a 3:1 positive-to negative relationship ratio.  Couples succeed when they know and respond to their partner’s “love maps,” or what matters to their partner. 

While it might be awkward to talk about HR’s love maps, the same logic applies. Clearly, different parts of the HR operating model focus on different activities, with HR service centres emphasising standardised, consistent and cost-efficient solutions, and embedded HR generalists working to create tailored HR solutions for unique business requirements. 

Embedded HR professionals define the talent, leadership, and cultural requirements to deliver business goals. Those working in centres of expertise have pride in their deep functional knowledge. Service-centre HR professionals ensure that the “trains run on time” (or, to put it another way, that the systems do what they should). When these different groups respect each other, focus on what is right more than what is wrong, and yield to the influence of the other, they can form relationships that supersede their separate roles.

3 Govern, accept, connect

A large part of relationship success comes from managing expectations. Researchers have found that 65-70 per cent of relationship problems are never “solved” but “managed”.  Most of the early problems in a relationship are worked around (for example, spending habits, raising children, doing household chores). It is important to solve the solvable problems and not obsess about those that seem to persist. 

Likewise, in HR we may falsely assume that relationships will be congenial and solved. More realistic expectations recognise that the processes used to govern HR will be more important than the solutions. When different parts of an HR operating function can focus on creating a growth mindset, they worry less about the right answer and more about learning to negotiate and discuss.  Managing differences with calmness, curiosity and caring will help build connection among the different parts of HR.

4 Care for the other

In relationship therapy, the most important questions that solidify a relationship are: Can I rely on you? Are you safe? Will you be there for me when I need you? Without positive answers to these questions, relationships will crumble under pressure. With positive answers, partners build trust and delight in and celebrate others’ success. 

In HR departments, it is important that different parts of the operating model care for each other.  There needs to be confidence that transactional work will be done on time and accurately. Centres of expertise need to be trusted that they will not impose answers, but collaborate to discover innovative solutions. Embedded HR professionals need to be able to accurately diagnose current and future business problems. Trust in the HR function should be high due to each area being predictable, dependable, available, accessible and reliable. Different groups should be aware of scorecards for each group and be delighted when those in other groups do well. “We” language should replace “my” language as the aim is HR unity more than isolation.

5 Share experiences together

In any relationship, things go wrong. A partner has personal or professional disappointments or a couple has stresses that pull them apart. To build stronger personal relationships, partners are encouraged to turn to each other in times of difficulty, to yield to the influence of their partner, and to be emotionally vulnerable to share deeper feelings with each other. Spending time together and investing emotionally in each other strengthens relationships.

In the HR operating model, it is easy to isolate yourself in your group. It is more helpful to have individuals work across groups. This may mean career rotation from centres of excellence to embedded HR roles and vice versa, group HR meetings or calls where the groups share concerns and celebrate successes, problem-solving groups with representatives from each HR group, or informal contacts. And when things go wrong in the HR operating model – and they will – rather than blame, complain, or hide, they should have the emotional confidence to admit a problem and seek a joint solution. 

6 Grow together

Anyone in a successful relationship over five or 10 years can look back to see progress.   Relationships morph and each partner learns and grows. Some of this growth comes from constantly learning, from focusing on the future and what can be, from letting go of grievances, recognising vicious cycles and breaking them. Couples with positive relationships recognise growth looking backward and anticipate future growth.

HR departments need to learn from the past. The stories of HR success can be woven together into an historical narrative of how a department has made progress. Sometimes, HR groups don’t recognise the progress they have made – but their historical narrative should be a basis for future growth.  When the growth of the department focuses on the shared purpose of delivering sustainable business value, when differences are respected, when governance is managed, when caring occurs, and when HR professionals share time and energy, the growth will likely be sustained.

Dave Ulrich is a speaker, management coach, professor and author of a range of titles including Human Resource Champions, HR From the Outside In and the forthcoming Leadership Capital.

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Comments (13)
  • I agree and respect the thoughts of David, and certainly have seen them if applied in a workplace and in our HR Team they have blown an air of confidence and support on any difficult task to handle at the best.

    I think managers are a key to keep people bonded in a team and a great manager can certainly encourage you to grow and learn within a team. Connect within a team gives you a great exposure over how other HR Functions work and leads to more of learnings apparently. It also strengthen your bond within the team and you work as a family to pursue a common purpose.

  • This is all well and good, however, I think we all know how lower level workers see any HR function. You notify someone that they have a meeting with HR, or they have to pop into HR, the immediately fear the worst. For many in most organisations their relationship with HR is negative (or at least this is how it is perceived).

    HR relationships within the larger scale of the company may be manageable, but I am a firm believer that the role of HR in too many organisations is seen to be one of 'hiring and firing'. For HR to fully realise its rightful function this perception needs to be removed.  

  • The relationship are so important for work and grow good together.

    It's something that you need to build everyday in your job place with your colleague because they can have a influence the achievement of your goal.

  • This is true. At a personal level I am more productive in environments where I experience a connection with my colleagues. We spend most of our time at work anyway and building relationships with my colleagues means I have more happier productive hours in my life.

  • Fully agree with this. For sure such strategy is needed for further development of the HR Teams supporting the development of different organizations within different industries. From my own experience in managing different HR Teams within different type of organisations such strategy gave the best result both in terms of motivation for the HR Team members as well as result towards the other functions of the organisation.

  • I think the comments made a insightful....effective relationships are key in all aspects of business.

    OnePlusOne and Working Families conducted research over the last couple of years into the impact of effective relationships and to increase the understanding about the association between Relationship Quality and Work Engagement.

    The link below shares the findings of the research and the outputs of working with five companies to embed 'relationship thinking' into all we do in HR.


  • It would be interesting to her David's view on managing relationships through SLAS, particularly with outsourced HR shared service centres and how we can use his principles of design in contractual engagements.

  • I sincerely agree with this fact.

  • Everything is about relationships.The issue is whether the work culture and the people in the various roles congruent with and supportive of the need of the organisation to achieve, innovate sustainably i.e. share and collaborate such that personal agendas and egos dont get in the way.

  • It would be nice to hear what Mr Ulrich's thoughts are on applying these principles within small organisations or organisations with small HR teams. Building trust and respect between the HR department and the senior leadership team as between HR and the wider workforce can be challenging indeed yet it’s something that’s absolutely necessary if we (HR) are ever to be viewed, in terms of our contribution to the achievement of the overall business strategy, as on a par with the likes of the Sales, IT or Finance functions for example. It can be difficult to quantify the value we as HR professionals add to the business so we have to be creative with the ways and means we use to demonstrate our value. Showing that we can build relationships right across the organisation and use those relationships to the advantage of the business can really enhance our credibility and is something that every HR department, however large or small, should see as a vital part of their remit.

  • A really interesting article, beautifully garnished with Common Senses. I have found over the years that the more complex the model the less connection with people. Wonderful advice and all this model needs to succeed is for HR to focus on the right stuff and work hard to make it happen. Thank you..Martin Brennan

  • Great suggestions for building more effective HR - and already a big focus of my training on HR business partnering (the relationship building approach, bit just the operating model role.)  But it also largely misses the point that the real relationships we need to build are the ones between people in the rest of the workforce, not just with HR.  I've recently been speaking about this as the new HR - i.e. the old HR has been about individuals, the new HR is about Dave's relationships. Eg see this recent session for the ATD in Saudi Arabia - pages.td.org/.../FS%203%20Human%20Capital.pdf .  In other cultures

    I even include a reference to Dave's love maps!

  • While I have previously worked in large organisations where the Ulrich model has been applied and worked well, let's not forget that many organisations - including the work I currently work for - have an HR department of one! Our operating model is to support the organisation against the whole range of HR activities, from personnel administration to the provision of strategic advice to the Senior Management Team (SMT) in away which adds value and allows the SMT to fulfil the organisation's purpose in an effective and efficient way as possible.