Part 3: Centres of expertise - Ulrich 20 years on

Written by
Changeboard Team

07 Jan 2016

07 Jan 2016 • by Changeboard Team

In the third of my articles ‘looking back over 20 year’s of the Ulrich model’ I focus on centres of expertise (CofE). I’ve found the biggest tension in implementing the model is between the HR Business Partners and these centres of expertise. These tensions come from both sides.   

HR Business Partners:

• Don’t like to be told what to do by experts especially when, in many cases.
• They think they have just as much expertise together with greater contextual understanding of the organisational need
• Adopt a ‘not invented here’ approach focusing on differences not commonalities
• “Go native” and recreate CofE expertise locally 
• Won’t implement central initiatives locally even when everyone agrees on the need for common standards 
• Control access to the business and then complain the CofEs are disconnected, ivory towers


• Feel they were brought in too late so can’t influence the work and then don’t see the project through to completion so lack satisfaction
• Complain they aren’t allowed to speak to the client and are isolated from the business
• Push programmes that they think are ‘best practice’ rather than listen to the need so they become solutions looking for problems. At times this can descend into ‘hobbyism’, doing things they enjoy rather than what’s needed.
• Act as internal consultants, not knowing the business or taking responsibility for outcomes
• Produce overly academic, theoretical rather than practical, implementable solutions 

So what can we do to make the model work?

One obvious solution is to starve the CofEs of resources so they can only deliver what’s really needed but the key is to build strong relationships between the HR Business Partners and the CofEs where they see themselves as ‘One HR’ delivering solutions together to meet organisational needs. Perhaps this means we should organise the CofEs around needs specific to the organisation such as digitization or emerging markets rather than generic HR expertise such as resourcing, L&D or comp and ben. Understanding the market for digital marketing expertise or talent in China requires not only specialist contextual understanding but also the ability to apply this systemically across all aspects of HR. In this context is being a generic expert at resourcing enough?

It is also critical to understand the skills required to make CofEs work. People need to be real experts or they will not be able to deliver expertise and they will also lack the credibility with the business or the HR Business Partners. In conversations with head-hunters I have noticed a trend of people claiming to be experts who aren't, one example being people who claim to be OD specialists but when pushed are actually glorified facilitators or team builders.

They need to apply these skills in a highly practical way as opposed to the theoretical and be able to implement as well as design. As well as expertise they need to be able to build effective relationships across the business so they need to have the self-confidence to feel they don’t have to take the credit. 

There needs to be a clear talent management process as outlined in our previous report on HR Talent. In particular it is important to break down potential barriers by rotating HR Business Partners and CofE experts into each other’s roles so they can understand the context they each operate in. 

Roles and responsibilities need to be reinforced with clear governance, accountability and reporting processes supported by clear SLAs and measures of success that need to be constantly monitored using hard metrics but also satisfaction surveys. But this isn't enough the key is creating a culture of openness, mutual respect and collaboration built on the personal relationships between the generalists and specialists. 

The challenge isn’t either local or global but as Beaman and Hock have talked about building ‘a “chaordic” organisation, an organisation that thrives on the border between “chaos” and “order”, that is adaptive to changing conditions, controlling at the center while empowering at the periphery, leveraging worldwide learning capabilities, and that transcends geographic and divisional borders’. 

Central to this is an HR Leadership team who role model this collaborative behavior, whose members don't represent their part of the model but operate as one team which:

•    Has clarity about its role and how it operates as one team – trust, collaboration, real listening and no egos

•    Has shared understanding of and respect for everyone’s role

•    Spends time building a one team, ethos developing behaviours together focusing on problem solving not reporting

•    Focuses on synergies not silos.  

•    Has agendas defined by the business challenges

•    Has clear deliverables for the business not for HR

•    Measures the right things – making a difference to the organisation not delivering an HR model or process

•    Reinforces these messages with their teams

But perhaps the key is the HR leader, not just the soft side to drive collaboration, but the ruthlessness to enforce these behaviours and exit blockers quickly.  Perhaps this is the final message a model isn’t enough without people who want to make it work and a leader who understands how to make it work and will make the tough calls when it doesn't.