Father of Modern HR, Dave Ulrich on HR Trends for 2021

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In Conversation with Dave Ulrich, Professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan Partner, The RBL Group on HR 2021: Discovering Opportunities Out of Adversity.

Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and co-founder of The RBL Group. He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 30 books on organization, talent, leadership, and HR… He edited Human Resource Management 1990-1999, served on editorial board of 4 Journals, on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller, and Board of Trustees at Southern Virginia University, and is a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources. He is sharing with us his perspectives on how HR adds value to the business…

Q- How has been your experience in 2020 as an HR Thought Leader, and how do you look forward to the coming year?

The year 2020 has been an unprecedented year of global pandemic, manifest social injustice, political strife, economic turbulence, and emotional malaise (whew!). Countless people have suffered and, with others, I mourn with those that mourn and attempt to comfort those that need comfort. These challenging times have increased HR’s role and responsibility for people and organization success.

Now, it is time to peek into 2021 and anticipate what might happen next and emerge from these adversities.  

Q- How do you look the HR Trends in 2021?

In some ways the future is the same as the past in that HR should continue to help create, deliver, and capture value for internal (employee and organization) and external (customer, investor, and community) stakeholders. But, the future value will come from inventive thinking about principles, contributions, and actions. 

Three Principles in Progress: With the unprecedented 2020 crises, it is problematic to propose a definitive new normal or to speculate with precision what new practices will emerge from this virus. Instead, let me suggest three general principles in progress that likely to occur in 2021. 

  1. Increasing personalization. Personalization refers to leaders treating individuals differently based on their personal circumstances (lifestyle, age, style, demographics)  In addition personalization highlights more focus on emotional and empathic responses to individual needs.
  2. Redefining boundaries of work from place to values.  Traditionally, people go “to work”, are “at work”, and return “from work.”  With this mindset, work represented a physical space and place boundary.  In the future, work boundaries are more likely to be defined by values than place.  Employees (anywhere, anytime) who create value for customers are “at work”.
  3. Harnessing uncertainty.  While people and organizations want certainty (high predictability, low risk), these crises remind us that we need to learn to not just tolerate, but harness uncertainty.  From many disciplines (military, neurology, investment, health, and even religion), we can discern 5 practices for harnessing uncertainty: tame apprehensions, envision the future, regulate expectations, experiment nimbly, collaborate frequently.

These principles in progress become assumptions about how to think about the future of work in 2021.

Three Contributions: Based on these principles, HR professionals need to be clear about their unique contributions to value captured for all stakeholders from insights with impact about talent, organization, and leadership.  In formal and informal business dialogues, HR can explore emerging trends in for each of these contributions of HR work.

  1. Deliver improved individual talent. Employees will continue to be the key ingredients of any organization.  There will likely be an increased focus on soft skills (e.g., goal setting, engaging people, respecting differences) and even more attention to the employee experience through meaning (believe), learning and growth (become), and relationships (belong)..   
  2. Reinvent organization capability. HR and business leaders will be charged to build organization capabilities of information asymmetry, customer anticipation, agility, and the right culture.  In our research, these organization capabilities have 3 to 4 times the impact on business results that individual competencies (or talent).
  3. Create better leadership. Individual leaders matter in any age, but distributed and collective leadership matters more now than ever.  Leaders will likely exist throughout an organization at all levels who not only have the right basic leadership skills, but also the skills that create value for customers and investors.

As HR professionals discover insights in these three contributions, HR is not about HR, but about ensuring talent, organization, and leadership initiatives that help organizations succeed in their marketplace.  

Three HR Actions: Based on the principles in progress and contributions, HR will need to be delivered in innovative ways.

  1. Design the right HR department.  Too often transforming an HR department is only about the design and organization of the HR department.  We have found that there are two dimensions of an effective HR department: [1] 9 characteristics of an effective HR department and [2] 4 stages of an HR department evolution.  Rather than just redesign the HR department, this logic of 4 levels of maturity and 9 dimensions of HR offers a roadmap for HR transformation.
  1. Build the right HR competencies.  We have studied HR competencies and their impact on personal and business results for over thirty years.  We anticipate that 2021 will require HR professionals to have emerging skills in separating signal from noise, creating information asymmetries, creating social citizenship, and offering anticipatory solutions.   We are currently testing the relative impact of these HR competencies on key outcomes. 
  2. Offer an Organization Guidance System.  Given the evolution of information (analytics) and technology (digital), it is now time to provide an Organization Guidance System (OGS) to move talent, leadership, capability, and HR initiatives from being descriptive to prescriptive.  In 2021, business and HR leaders will be able to make data based portfolio decisions about how to deliver results with rigorous guidance (see www.rbl.ai

Q- Any concluding remarks?

To emerge from the 2020 crises,  HR can help organizations and individuals succeed by recognizing three principles of personalization, value based boundaries, and harnessing uncertainty;  delivering contributions in talent, leadership, and organization; and creating better HR departments and professionals through an Organization Guidance System.  By so doing, 2021 may offer a very exciting opportunity for HR to create, deliver, and capture value for all stakeholders. Thank you, Dave!

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