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Can 29,000 HR Professionals Be Wrong?

Brockbank and Ulrich’s compelling work defines HR and its value, but book fails to address the role of management.

by Matt DeLuca

During the SHRM Conference, I promised a dedicated column to one book brought to my attention while there: “The HR Value Proposition” by Wayne Brockbank and David Ulrich. The book is the result of research they conducted over 18 years with data gathered from more than 29,000 HR professionals and line managers. They raise some thought-provoking ideas that all HR professionals should ponder. You may not agree with all they say (I don’t, as you will see below), but what they say should command our attention in an effort to be more effective and successful HR professionals.

Citing the text as an ongoing study, the authors refer to previous works, including Ulrich’s “Human Resource Champions,” which identified the four roles of the HR pro as “employee champion, administrative expert, change agent, and strategic partner.” Quite frankly, these seem tired—“administrative expert” doesn’t quite identify the detailed HR expertise required in the process area. I prefer Lengnick-Hall’s four roles: human capital steward, knowledge facilitator, relationship builder, and rapid deployment specialist. These are quoted from “Human Resource Management in the Knowledge Economy,” mentioned in this column several times previously.

Next and most importantly, Brockbank and Ulrich then identify the premise of this work. “This book,” they say, “brings all those elements (HR roles, HR deliverables as intangibles, HR strategy, HR competencies, HR outsourcing) together in an integrated blueprint for the future of HR … [This book] offers an integrated approach to what HR professionals and departments can and should do to create sustained value.” The authors do a very good job of delivering on that promise.

The key is meaningful content that is convertible into action. They identify 14 criteria to determine HR values that are applicable to all organizations—large, small, and all those in between, including public and not-for-profits. Although their claim is that this approach is relevant worldwide, I can only speak for the United States.

Space does not permit the listing of each of the 14 action criteria, so you may determine their worth. I will point out that they are broken into five major categories that include: knowing external business realities; serving external and internal stakeholders; crafting HR practices; building HR resources; and ensuring HR professionalism.

The last includes three competencies: ensure staff members play clear and appropriate roles; build staff ability to build HR competencies; and invest in HR professionals through training and development experiences.

The book in approximately 25 percent of its chapters (three of twelve) discusses HR roles, competencies, and development with assessment instruments included for additional guidance and direction. It includes a shortlist of authors to read for each competency domains when the issue of developing HR professionals is discussed. But are there only three in the entire field of HR technology? Also, the choice of books omits major works and authors. Peter Drucker comes immediately to mind, although in fairness they point that out the list is “selected.”

Worth the price of the book is the discussion on HR and the customer. First, they mention the need to obliterate any mention of the internal customer. There are internal as well as external stakeholders, but there is only one customer—the one who buys from the organization. Additionally, they insist that the customer becomesfamiliar to the HR professional, who should even help with the sales process.

“HR professionals are ideally placed to find and present this information, along with equally interesting information about what employees in various departments think customers want,” the authors write.

A key frustration for me is that they exclude executive management from any discussion of stakeholders. The fault may lie with the research method—they admit they only sought the opinions of HR professionals and line managers. HR professionals will go nowhere without “C-level” commitment to human capital. My other annoyance is with the layout. Brockbank and Ulrich talk about providing a blueprint but there is a missing uniformity to the chapters, and some are weak from the absence of additional assessments. Why not cite at least one for each of the 14 categories and a chapter for each as well? That said, this valuable HR book is worth the investment of your time until a better one comes along.

Tags: Engaged Workforce, Learning

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