The 30 year evolution of HR competencies—Have HR Professionals made progress?

By Dave Ulrich | May 9, 2017

Have HR professionals improved their competencies over the last 30 years? This is an important question because we hear continued laments about incompetence of HR professionals. In addition, HR professionals tend to be hyper self-critical and self-obsessed. After hearing ongoing critiques of the lack of progress of HR professionals, we can finally provide empirical evidence on the evolution of HR competencies.

Note: This article is drawn from the book Victory Through Organization by Dave Ulrich, David Kryscynski, Michael Ulrich, Wayne Brockbank.

Have HR professionals improved their competencies over the last 30 years?

This is an important question because we hear continued laments about incompetence of HR professionals. In addition, HR professionals tend to be hyper self-critical and self-obsessed.

After hearing ongoing critiques of the lack of progress of HR professionals, we can finally provide empirical evidence on the evolution of HR competencies. For 30 years, and over 7 rounds, we have collected data on the competencies of HR professionals. Each of the seven rounds represents a cross section of the HR profession and the status of HR competencies. These results are reported in Table 1.

Table 1: Competencies of HR Professionals over 30 Years and 7 Rounds
Michigan, RBL, and many global partners over the seven rounds HR competency studies
  Round 1
Round 2
Round 3
Round 4
Round 5
Round 6
Round 7
Total respondents 10,291 4,556 3,229 9,182 10,063 20,023 31,868
Business units 1,200 441 678 692 413 635 1,395
Associate raters 8,884 3,805 2,565 5,890 8,414 17,385 27,904
HR participants 1,407 751 664 1,192 1,671 2,638 3,964
1. Business Business Knowledge
Business Knowledge
Business Knowledge
Business Knowledge
Business Ally
Strategic Positioner
Strategic Positioner
Strategic Contribution
Strategic Architect
2. Human Resources tools HR Delivery
HR Delivery
HR Delivery
HR Delivery
Talent Manager & Organization Designer
HR Innovator & Integrator
Human Capital Curator
Total Rewards Steward
3. HR Information, Analysis, Operations HR Technology
Operational Executor
Technology or Information Proponent
Technology and Media Integrator
Compliance Manager
Analytics Designer and Interpreter
4. Change Change
Change and culture were combined into strategic contribution
Culture and Steward
Change Champion
Culture and Change Champion

Paradox Navigator
5. Organization and Culture     Culture
Organization Capability Builder
6. Personal   Personal Credibility
Personal Credibility
Personal Credibility
Credible Activist
Credible Activist
Credible Activist

(Helping HR professionals evolve and improve in their competencies has been my personal mission for over 30 years. Because it would be impossible to improve without self-awareness, we created the HR Competency Assessment—the best way to recognize your strengths and weaknesses so that you can achieve your full potential. To take the assessment, click here.)

This table offers many insights on the evolution of how to be an effective HR professionals:

  1. Each of the seven rounds are independent, in that they represent a cross section of HR professionals (HR Participants) who rate themselves on competencies and Associate raters who rate them. The seven rounds of data collection include a total of over 90,000 total respondents.

  2. In the research, we had between 120 and 140 specific competencies (knowledge, skill, and ability) of HR professionals. In each round we changed about 30 to 40% of these individual competence items. The new specific competencies were identified with research partners (leading HR associations) from around the world. To see patterns, we performed factor analysis to organize these items into competence domains.

  3. Over the 7 rounds, the factor analyses showed an increase in the complexity of HR competencies. In 1987, we found three domains: business knowledge, HR delivery, and management of change. In 1992, we found 4 domains, then 5 domains in 1997, then ultimately 9 domains in 2016. Being a competent HR professional has become increasingly complex, with some of the recent competencies (analytics designer and interpreter; technology and social media integrator) reflecting how HR competencies reflect general business trends. Competencies for HR professionals have evolved with changing business conditions.

  4. In the table, we report the mean scores on the domains in each round for all the respondents (HR Participants and Associate Raters). The pattern is very clear for all competence domains: HR professionals have dramatically improved over the last 30 years as shown by these score differences between 1987 and 2016.

    • Business: 4.13–3.17 = .96
    • HR delivery: 4.02–3.33 = .69
    • Change: 4.01–3.65= .37
    • Personal proficiency (1992): 4.33–3.78 = .55

    These are dramatic improvements in the overall competence for HR professionals. If a company had this kind of leap in employee engagement scores, they would be overjoyed!

  5. HR professionals are notoriously self critical.

    Why do HR professionals not recognize this progress? While these improvement result are notable, we consistently see more negative than positive reviews of HR. Why?

    • HR professionals are notoriously self critical. In each round of the data, we compared the HR Participants (self report) to Associate Participants (other raters). In every round and on every HR competence domain, HR participants rated themselves lower than their HR and non-Associates rated them. For example, in the 2016 (round 7) data, the data show that HR professionals rate themselves lower than others rate them. In Table 2, HR professionals self score (column 2) is lower than HR Associate ratings which is lower than non-HR Associate ratings. HR professionals tend to be harsh on themselves, perhaps having an inevitable identity crisis. This self criticism shows up in essays on the HR profession, often bemoaning what is wrong with HR efforts—in performance appraisal, HR governance, business partner models, and so forth. Maybe it is time to build on HR strengths and successes while creating a better future.
    • HR professionals tend to tend to rely on their unique experiences. Obviously some HR professionals are not as effective as others, but those who experience these less effective HR professionals tend to generalize to the entire profession rather than recognizing that each experience may be unique. In addition, many of the books written about and presentations on HR fail to recognize the extensive work and studies of HR that have gone on before. An HR professional wants to write about or present his/her experience without recognizing the work others have done. Ignoring previous work makes it difficult to make and recognize progress. This self reliance and lack of building on other insights may keep the profession from moving ahead.
    Table 2: Round 7 Competency Domain Averages by Rater Type
    Competency Domains 1. All Raters [1] Non-self ratings 2. Self-Ratings 3. HR Associate Ratings 4. Non-HR Associate Ratings
    Strategic Positioner 4.13 4.05 4.13 4.21
    Credible Activist 4.33 4.35 4.29 4.42
    Paradox Navigator 3.99 3.87 3.98 4.08
    Culture and Change Champion 4.03 3.96 4.02 4.11
    Human Capital Curator 4.01 3.90 4.01 4.08
    Analytics Designer and Interpreter 4.01 3.89 4.04 4.06
    Total Rewards Steward 3.88 3.76 3.86 3.95
    Technology and Media Integrator 3.92 3.77 3.93 3.96
    Compliance Manager 4.32 4.34 4.30 4.38
    Overall Averages 4.07 3.99 4.06 4.14
    • [1] Non-self Raters

Conclusion: Are we there yet?

Maybe it is time for the HR profession to recognize and appreciate progress that has been made. While individual experiences may differ, our data clearly shows that HR professionals have become more competent over the last 30 years. Instead of bemoaning what HR professionals lack, maybe it is time to relish the progress that has been made. Do these results imply that HR “has arrived?” No, there is always more to do, but the base for moving forward is strong and getting stronger.

For decades, we have been committed to delivering business value through HR ideas with impact on organization, leadership, and talent and HR Learning Partnership (HRLP) has been central to our agenda. To learn more about our program and download a brochure, click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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