From "Organization, People, and HR: The General Manager Agenda" by Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, University of Michigan

Roles and Competencies of HR Professionals

Just as HR functions and practices face change, the roles and competencies of HR professionals are undergoing change (Ulrich, 1997). A number of choices and challenges go with the new role of the HR professional.

What does it really mean to be a business partner? For the last decade, HR professionals have been labeled "strategic partners,"(Ulrich, 1987) but the specific ways HR professionals should act and what they should contribute to be strategic still receive discussion (Barney and Wright, 1997). It is time to move beyond rhetoric and begin to help HR professionals articulate the questions asked, time allocated, and models used to be a strategic partner. It is time for HR professionals to translate what they know into what they do.

When and how do HR professionals get involved with strategy? Traditionally, HR professionals came to strategy discussions with frameworks and tools to help implement strategy. Increasingly, HR executives are either being invited or inviting themselves at the formulation stage of strategy. This requires more questions than answers, more inquiry than action, and more generating alternatives than executing decisions. As it defines a new role for HR professionals, new competencies must follow.

What skills must be demonstrated by HR professionals? Competency models for HR professionals now go beyond simple statements from a handful of executives to more robust models with empirical data from many firms (Ulrich, Brockbank, Yeung, and Lake, 1995). As the demands on HR professionals change, what competencies will be required and how will these competencies be generated? Where can good HR professionals be found? Should they be sourced from within HR departments? other staff groups? line management? consulting firms?

Competencies represent who an individual is and what an individual knows and does (Boyatzis, 1982; Clark, 1990; Curry, Wergin and Associates., 1993). If wise investments in HR practices such as staffing, training, communication, compensation, organization design, performance management, and culture change help a business reach strategic and financial goals, HR professionals must know and do things to make strategy-HR linkages happen. Competent HR professionals will have the personal credibility coupled with knowledge and behaviors to ensure that HR practices align with and accomplish business outcomes.

Most competence work has focused on leaders and general managers (Boyatzis, 1982) or from efforts to specify HR competencies coming from a limited number of executive interview from within a limited number of firms (Yeung, Woolcock, and Sullivan, 1996).  Firms generally have idiosyncratic requirements for making strategy happen. Hence, while firm-specific studies may provide interesting cases, a limited number of in-depth case studies alone will not provide an overall theory of HR competencies for the profession. They are not sufficient to build an overall architecture for HR competencies within the profession.

Three large-scale HR competence studies have been conducted. In collaboration with IBM, Towers Perrin (IBM-Towers Perrin, 1991) surveyed 3,000 HR professionals, consultants, line executives and academicians about a broad range of HR issues. The competency portion of this work revealed that line executives indicated computer literacy as most critical HR competence; faculty wanted HR professionals to demonstrate broad knowledge of and a vision for HR; consultants suggested anticipating the effects of change was most important; and HR executives proposed educating and influencing line managers as the most critical competence. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation recently commissioned a study of future oriented competencies of HR professionals (Schoonover, 1998). Based on data from 300 HR professionals in different industries and company sizes, this study found that a set of core competencies around leadership, management, functional and personal attributes needed to be augmented by level-specific and role-specific competencies. With these competencies HR professionals would improve traditional HR services while creating and implementing future HR methods.

The third and most of extensive of the HR competency surveys has been conducted at the University of Michigan School of Business in three rounds over a ten year period with the involvement of over 20,000 HR and line professionals. Our work at Michigan between 1988 and 1998 has identified competencies for HR professionals across HR functional specialties, industries, firms, and time. Our intent has been to create an architecture for the competencies for the entire HR profession, not just a single firm.

When we began the research in 1988, we scanned the literature on competencies required for HR professionals and other staff groups, examined specific firm case studies of HR competencies, and performed a series of pilot studies to identify a set of knowledge, skills, and abilities that were expected of HR professionals. With this input, we performed cross-company research to assess how HR competencies might vary by industry, level, function, global region and expectation. Our first round of data collection in 1988 had data from over 10,000 individuals in 91 firms (Ulrich, Yeung, and Brockbank, 1989). While this survey resulted in a findings beyond the scope this current paper, we found that HR professionals had to demonstrate competencies in three domains: knowledge of business, delivery of HR practices, and ability to manage change. We found that the ability to manage change was more important than business knowledge and delivery of HR practices combined.

After this first round, we continued to explore competencies for HR professionals through research within firms on a company specific basis. Based on this anecdotal work, we felt that the competencies for HR professionals had evolved. We did a second wave of multiple company data collection in 1992/1993 with a focus on global firms and over 5,000 participants. The findings suggested that HR professionals needed to be more knowledgeable about financial management, external competitive and customer demands, able to work with line executives to send clear and consistent messages about the firm goals and directions (Ulrich, Brockbank, Yeung, and Lake, 1995). We found that the highest performing firms reduced time and effort spent on HR transactional issues as they outsourced, automated and reengineered their HR activities. Thus, the relative amount of time spend on strategic issues escalated while the transactional focus of the leading firms diminished (Yeung, Brockbank and Ulrich, 1994).

In the 1997/1998 study with another 5,000 participants, we found that two additional domains of HR competencies emerged as keys for the successful HR professional: culture management and personal credibility. Culture management deals with how HR professionals help firms create new patterns of behavior and mindsets among employees and a collective identity for the firm. Personal credibility deals with the extent to which HR professionals embody the values of the firm and act with Attitude (Ulrich and Eichinger, 1998) in dealing with HR issues and creating results. The single biggest trend for across the ten years is that the most competent HR professionals outside of their functions silos to apply HR knowledge and skills to creating the human side of the business that delivers results to customers and shareholders.

This research continues to evolve as we explore what HR professionals must know and do to be effective. In our current research , we are defining what is required of the top HR executive by identifying the expectations of the top HR executive in 23 firms. We are also continuing to study how firms set expectations for their HR functions and the HR professionals within those firms.

The competence work we have pursued sets a standard and defines expectations for HR professionals. Without these competencies, investing in the development of HR professionals is a random act and while HR curriculum may be designed, it may not provide HR professionals with frameworks and/or tools necessary to turn business goals into results through HR practices. With these competencies in mind, the development of HR professionals may be integrated, focused, and result in the creation of a profession.

Human Resource Competency Study.  University of Michigan Business School, Executive Education.
Questions? Contact David Yakonich, Project Manager 734-615-4054
Last updated: August 29, 2001.