Power, control, HR and Ulrich

As I write this, I’m heading off over the Atlantic. So I know it is normally de rigueur to mention the number of feet….but I’ve never been the most spatially aware and, let’s be honest, you really don’t care. It’s ok….we can be honest….we’re amongst friends.

Whilst working on the subject, of which we must not speak, which occupies most of my waking and sleeping hours, I’ll also be spending some time with someone who divides my world, our profession, more than most. Someone we could maybe describe as the Marmite of the HR world. Revered by many, loathed by others and the subject of more column inches than even the Rave Pony. I’ll be meeting and spending time with a certain Dave Ulrich.

I’ve been pretty open about the Ulrich model in the past. I firmly believe it has been responsible for down skilling the HR profession. I believe it has made building a career in HR harder than ever. The model has been snatched by the profession with the blind eagerness of an addled addict spying a wrap of crack down the back of a well worn and somewhat putrid smelling sofa.

I also don’t believe that you can blame Ulrich for this any more than you can blame Smith and Wesson for the ridiculous levels of gun deaths in the country that likes to consider itself the most advanced in the world. Yeah…I’m posting this after I’ve got through immigration.

But that isn’t it. The issue isn’t the model.

The issue is about power and control. And no model has, or will, deal with the issue that is at the heart of the problem.

We see the power tension in the EU, in the United Nations, in our health care system, local and central government.

In any organisation with central and devolved functions, with local and global functions will always have tensions. The thing about the Ulrich model is that it did nothing to tackle them and instead went a long way to creating significant additional issues by highlighting and emphasising them.

Centres of Excellence looked down on Business Partners. Business Partners looked down on Centres of Excellence. And everybody looked down on the Shared Service guys. If they could find them….somewhere between here and Bangalore.

The creation of an additional power struggle within an already fragile and uncertain profession was as welcome as the proverbial fart in a space suit. And as parts of the HR function set about fighting in and amongst themselves, in a comedic HR turf war. The people that really matter, the employees, the managers, the customers and consumers, became increasingly disenfranchised from the department that couldn’t even speak highly of themselves.

Confusing. Baffling. Conflicting. Debilitating.

I don’t think any “model” is going to work unless you can deal with this issue of power and control. Throwaway statements about collegiate working and cooperative solutions are excrement coated feathers in the breeze. Easy to throw out there, seemingly light and appealing, but ultimately stained, stinking and ineffective.

So let’s get this elephant on the table, this walrus on a rock, this ostrich egg on a giant sized egg cup. And let’s crack this thing once and for all. The power struggle within HR is all pervasive and crippling. No model that separates, that divides will work unless it deals with this, the very essence of our identity crisis:

Who has the power and who has the contol?


  1. Flora Marriott · March 11, 2013

    I’m with you on the unthinking application of Ulrich’s model. I look forward to hearing how your meeting goes. I wonder what Ulrich thinks of the blind following he garnered.

    • Neil · March 18, 2013

      You know what…..I was kinda impressed. But then, not so much. Hard to explain. Also saved by the fact that we didn’t talk about the model!

  2. Good post, and the unthinking application of any model is problematic. Your points re power and control got me thinking that neither in and of themselves are the issue, necessarily; it depends on the intention that is behind any decision to make use of power & control. That is ultimately what is going to influence what we experience most, I suspect.

    And maybe one other thread to weave in… It is possible to have power, control, the best of intentions and yet still lack the awareness to appreciate the possible consequences to others if you are the decision maker are insulated by a sense of impunity.

    Steve Hearsum

    • Neil · March 18, 2013

      Absolutely. I guess what I meant was we need to be clear in defining power and control and not leave it to others to define. That requires great leadership.

  3. Jane Newell Brown · March 12, 2013

    Hi Neil – as I work on the fringes of HR (I guess I’d call it call people and talent) I’m not sure I get this struggle – do you mean within HR or between HR and their client base? I guess perhaps if I worked in a larger business with all of the elements you describe more I might understand?

    In my potentially naive way I thought that in the BP model the HRBP was commercial and understood the business and called on ‘experts’ in different arenas (from HO/Centre of Excellence perhaps) to consult on specific projects. One of my beefs with some of the HR people I meet and train is that they have little interest and knowledge and often disdain for the business they work in ….and my feeling was that the HRBP stood a chance of getting close to the business operations (not too close) and could therefore effectively operate as a ‘fifth chair’ within that space….from your post doesn’t sound like that happens in your view?

    It’s an interesting debate I think….

    Hope Atlantic trip is treating you well….
    Jane NB

    • Neil · March 18, 2013

      Jane, you describe the intention of the model perfectly. But the tension, in my experience, tends to come between the BPs and the “Centres of Excellence”. People tend not to want to diagnose and just accept the solution they’re given, but then they stray into the territory of the “experts” etc. etc.

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