Ulrich’s Framework on the HR Role and Its Relevance

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The changing business environment has brought a lot of challenges with it, especially in the global human resource structures. This is because it is the human resource department that is expected to identify and drive the change theme in any organization, at least in the recent business development. Ulrich (1997, p.83) proposes a conceptual Four-Roles Model. This framework entails two major dimensions; the first being on the perspective of the present operations in line with future strategic dimensions, the second dimension reflects on the demands of the people and the processes which are normally conflicting. In this paper, the role of Ulrich’s human resource framework in the modern business environment and its prospects in the future is critically analyzed to provide a clear concept of the growing human resource demands.

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The rapidly changing business environment has put a lot of pressure on the business strategies, especially the human resource departments, which is expected to identify and drive the change theme. Some scholars have described the changes as “traumatic” or “revolutionary” (Bradley &Parker 2001, p. 349). They say that the catalyst for this disturbed equilibrium includes the rapid and unprecedented technological change, continuos demand of quality from customers, new competitive arrangements in the environment, business globalization, change in organizations mindset that adv advocates flexibility and responsiveness, reduced supply of highly qualified human resource, and shifting demographic trend (Aulich 1999, p. 12; Caldwell 2003, p.984; Ulrich 1997, p. 89).

The role of the human resource framework and its subsequent contribution to strategic management and most importantly its impact on the culture of organizations have been debated for quite a long time. Fisher, Dowling & Garnham (1999, pp.501-502) observe that traditional human resource functions have been seen as primarily administrative in nature, concentrating on the individual employee, individual job, and individual practice, with the basic notion that upgrading the performance of an individual will subsequently and automatically enhance the performance of the organization. According to Ulrich (1997, p. 123), the transformation of an organization depends on its ability to successfully move with the new strategic framework he proposes, arguing that this success will only come from organizational capabilities such as “speed, responsiveness, agility, learning capacity, and employee competence. Success organizations will be those that can quickly turn strategy into action; to manage process intelligently and efficiently; to maximize employee contribution and commitment; and to create the conditions for seamless change” (Ulrich 1998, p.127).

Ulrich (1997, p.83) proposes a conceptual Four-Roles Model, which entails two major dimensions; the first being on the perspective of the present operations in line with future strategic dimensions, the second dimension reflects on the demands of the people and the processes which are normally conflicting. In the framework, Ulrich states that human resources can be an important aspect in the process of organizational excellence delivery through the following four methods:

  1. The human resource should be a partner to firm’s management to assist in the strategy execution,
  2. Human resources should contribute expertise in the efficient and effective performance of work, to ensure quality without necessarily increasing the cost,
  3. Human resources should represent the employees’ plights and concerns to the senior management of the organizations and at the same time working with the employees in an effort to increase and ensure their ability to contribute to the organization through their competence as well as commitment, and
  4. Human resource professionals should continually be ready to contribute to the process of change and help improve the capacity of the organization to effect these changes (Ulrich 1997, p. 89).

The figure below highlights Ulrich’s framework

Future/ Strategic focus

Strategic partner Change Agent
Administrative Expert Employee Champion

Day-to-day/ operational focus

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Source: Ulrich (1997, p.81).

The role of human resource as a strategic partner and a change agent

The human resource role as a strategic partner is the involvement of the HRM in the process of defining business strategy and the HR professionals should not just be mere respondents to the edicts that the top management present (Ulrich 1997, p.139). “HR professionals become strategic partners by asking questions and designing human resource practices that effectively and efficiently align themselves with the strategy of the business (p.129). Human resource professionals, therefore, have the capacity to identify and then subsequently implement those practices to enhance business success i.e. strategic human resources is generally owned, directed, and used by line managers to affect the human resource strategies (Francis & Keegan 2006, p.233; Brown, Ryan & Parker 2000, p.208). On the other hand, Ulrich (1997, p.119) observes that transformation, as well as change management, falls squarely on the human resource as a change agent. This, therefore, means that human resources should be in a position to help the organization build its capacity for effective change and development (Ulrich 1998, p. 129)

From this framework, it is apparent that Ulrich has proposed the separation of the roles of human resources, one as a partner to business and another as a change agent. The business partner idea is of utmost importance, at least in a functional perspective, since it acts as a “precondition for tackling the challenge of realignment” (Wilcox 2006, p.187; Sheldon & Junor 2006; p.154). However, it has been noted that the two roles can never be separated easily, as suggested by Ulrich’s own empirical evidence. This is because the content (partner agent) and the process (change agent) are indivisible (Friedman 2007, p. 161) says that it is very difficult to manage change if the content and the process are separated if there is not a healthy partnership between line and human resource management if processes such as business planning and business planning are not closely linked.”

The framework presented by Ulrich also leads us to the concept of fit, a more complicated concept due to the changing demographic nature of the labor market where professionalism and diversity have become more critical than ever before and the drastic change in technology. According to Friedman (2007, p. 163), “all these changes and shifts compel a process of realignment” to respond to demographic and technological change in the modern business strategies. In essence, this process of realignment goes beyond the technical effort of redesigning human resource practices, when the strategic business management is not in the scene as advocated by Ulrich. When one talks of strategic business management, the concept of the strategy relies on both the internal and external environment of the firm (Dollery & Marshall 1997, p.569). However, this fragmented approach to the business realignment, through human resource practices adopted by more externally oriented firms with new objectives put in place attached to the centralized corporate does not consider the relevant linkages as well as consequences (Brown, Ryan & Parker 2000, pp.212-213). Such firms unknowingly concentrated too much on the external fit at the expense of internal fit leading to the notion that human resource management is inconsistent and irrelevant (p.214).

Again, even though many human resource experts and researchers have emphasized the importance of the roles of human resource as well as human resource competencies, there is no valid research finding that has proved the relationship between the two variables (Brown, Ryan & Parker 2000, p.216; Friedman 2007, p. 166; Aulich 1999, p. 15). There is only one research study in South Africa that revealed that there is a positive relationship between business-related competencies and strategic partner roles of the human resource professionals (Francis & Keegan 2006, p.244). The study indicated that the two variables are interrelated in essence that they are both very important factors that assist human resource professionals’ contribution to their respective organization’s success (p.248).

So how is Ulrich’s Framework Relevant?

As a change urgent, Ulrich has advanced a very important aspect of the human resource role; creating a sense of urgency. Most researchers agree that if the sense of urgency is not “pumped enough” into an organization’s strategic change plans, it is likely to create a sluggish behavior towards the change process Aulich 1999, p. 27). Brown, Ryan & Parker 2000 (p.203) studied a hundred companies and found out that if the urgency for change is not backed by at least 75% of the senior managers, the transformation process would definitely be doomed. This is where the role of Ulrich’s framework can easily be seen, by separating or subdividing the roles of human resource, the company management is able to see the urgency of effecting change in a company. “The starting point of realignment is the external change in a customer’s needs, technology competition, resources and the like, leading to a new strategy” (Francis & Keegan 2006, p.245). However, one can never assume wholly that there would be a common understanding about the need for external changes and their strategic impacts, even for the managers themselves (p.247). In research conducted among about 3000 managers in Europe in the mid-1970s, there were varied expressions of views concerning strategic goals, with most managers being adamant about the role of human resources in strategic management and change(Fornell & Larcker 1981, pp.39-40). However, a similar research a decade later, in 2000, indicted that the managers favoured the role of human resource on the management of change, a change attributed to the works of scholars like Ulrich (1997, p.114.) that subsequently led to many organizations adopting his human resource framework.

By identifying and fragmenting human resource as a valid and a genuine institution, the Ulrich model help create and will continue creating the institution of new behaviour. According to Francis & Keegan 2006, p.246), the process of corporate transformation is only complete when the new behaviours are institutionalized. They need to be incorporated into an organizations shared beliefs and values and become “the way we things around here”. The institutionalization of the human resource department emphasizes its role as the mechanism to support the “a long-term capacity for continual adaptation and learning (p.247). The human resource managers are also able to share the responsibilities with the line managers to help them examine the amount of contributions each and every employee make and to ensure that such efforts meet their needs and the needs of the organizations (Dollery & Marshall 1997, p. 612). It therefore involve helping people assess their competencies and goals so they can identify, plan and implement development actions, a process that is closely integrated in the design of the performance management as well as reward system (p.214). Again it also means helping the organization build capacity to embrace and adopt change, and most importantly, ensures the organization’s ability to be flexible and adaptable to its external environment (Ulrich 1998, p.130).

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The employee champion role

In a study to examine the effectiveness of the human resource department from the perspective line managers in a sample of Australian Local Council, it was revealed that line managers have an averagely high regard for their human resource counterparts (Dollery & Marshall 1997, p.672). The empirical research also found out that human resource departments have adopted strategic approach within the local councils, a finding that is in line with the human resource departments in the state government agencies and all the state-owned agencies, more so the ones the are currently undergoing commercialization and changing into private corporations (p.679). In this study, the researchers revealed how there was a relative importance of employee championing role and the administrative role in the local councils of Australia, thereby indicating a break from the private corporation, suggesting the value of Ulrich’s disintegration. This study is supported by Francis & Keegan 2006, p.241) who through their recent study argue that for human resource departments to be viewed as “strategic and value adding” to strategic decision making process, it must perform its administrative role properly and effectively, as part of day-to-day operational roles, a concept that was advocated by Ulrich when he said that “Human resource practitioners in the United States must focus on this particular role in order to be perceived as effective by its multiple stakeholders” (Ulrich 1998, p.131). Furthermore scholars agree that human resource departments must be continually effective in its administrative role, so as to be considered effective in its strategic role (Dollery & Marshall 1997, p.435; Francis & Keegan 2006, p.239).

Communicating the massage

Caldwell (2003, p. 989) intimate that communication by the top management is a very powerful tool in making employees gain commitment as well as build consensus to the required change. Ulrich (1997, p.121) notes that “executives who communicate not only what needs to be done, but why, elicit more response from employees”. Any form of new implementation will occur to companies where the executives “walk the talk” by teaching new behaviours and displaying examples, strive to develop a visionary message that is easily understood and most importantly appeals to all stakeholders (p.122). This will be emphasized through the employee championing role provided by Ulrich’s framework.


Recently, it has become apparent that myriads of articles and books have been written to explain the “best practices” in the human resource practices. However, one aspect is apparent; the inconsistency in terms of clarity on the best way to effect change management. The other challenge is inadequate support from external stakeholder and at worse employees who may not see any significance of change, and the failure by the senior managements to confront the people with the theme of change, and inappropriate follow-up to the change process. Caldwell (2003, p. 998) says that the major reason why many managers fail in their management quest especially when approaching change is that they tend to stick to what they learnt in school that made them promoted when they joined their organizations, he describes this concept, a “solution- oriented management” (p.1001)

Despite the limitations, the Ulrich model has provided a platform for further research into the convergence or divergence in the impact of human resource roles in the strategic growth of the organization or the organizations’ efforts to realign the management process. The researches should focus on both profit and no-profit organizations with which the results would provide a comprehensive basis of analysis to provide more practical and theoretical perspectives for the “best practices” in the human resource managements (Francis & Keegan 2006, p.243).

List of References

Aulich C 1999, “From convergence to divergence: Reforming Australian Local Government”, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 58(2): 12-23.

Bradley L &Parker R 2001, “Public sector change in Australia: Are managers’ ideals being realized?” Public Personnel Management, 30: 349-61.

Brown K, Ryan N & Parker R 2000, “New modes of service delivery in the public sector: Commercialising government services”, International Journal of Public Sector Management, 13: 206-21.

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Caldwell R 2003, “The Changing Roles of Personnel Managers: Old Ambiguities, New Uncertainties’, Journal of Management Studies, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 983-1004.

Dollery B & Marshall N 1997, Australian local government: Reform and Renewal, Melbourne, Macmillan Education Australia.

Fisher C, Dowling J & Garnham J 1999, “The impact of changes to the human resource function in Australia”, International Journal of Human Resource Management ,10: 501-14.

Fornell C & Larcker F 1981, “Evaluating structural equation models with unobservable variables and measurement error”, Journal of Marketing Research, 18: 39-50.

Francis H & Keegan A 2006, “The changing face of HRM: in search of balance”, Human Resource Management Journal, vol. 16. no. 3. pp. 231-49.

Friedman B 2007, “Globalization Implications for Human Resource Management Roles”, Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, vol. 19, pp. 157-71.

Sheldon P & Junor A 2006, “Australian HRM and the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2005”, Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, vol. 44. no. 2. pp. 153-70.

Ulrich D 1997, Human resource champions: The next agenda for adding value and delivering results, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Ulrich D 1998, “A new mandate for human resources”, Harvard Business Review, vol 76. pp. 124-34.

Wilcox T 2006, “Human resource development as an element of corporate social responsibility”, Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, vol. 44. no. 2. pp. 184-96.

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