Prediction: The HR specialist will be back

HR Specialist will be back

The HR Partner role (the HR generalist) is very much in vogue.  Everywhere I look (here in Northern Europe) this model is being applied. In fact, over the last five years the title “HR Partner” has probably received a bit of a mini-revival again. It is cool to be a HR Partner theses days.

The introduction of the HR Partner model was right and welcome when it was introduced 20 years ago. HR had built ivory towers in company headquarters and did not know what was going on in the business. Managers and leaders did not feel that HR understood or even cared about what the company was about. They felt that HR was all about creating big processes and programs that did not match the business need. So a change was good. And in stepped Dave Ulrich and with him the HR Partner model. The pendulum began to swing back towards the generalist.

Now I believe things are about to change again. Why? Simply, because they have to. And because new trends are emerging which requires HR specialists to do the job. 20 years ago the structure of HR did not match the need of the business. I think the same is true again.

Many companies have hired HR Partners while downsizing HR specialists. The HR Partner is a generalist who is moved out in the business as close as possible to the unit-manager. The idea is that the partner should be the right hand man/woman to the function leader. The job itself is a mix of administrative and tactical work with a hint of strategic work in some (often rare) cases. The result: HR is now close to the business and is visible to the rest of the organization. But at the same time they must master everything HR related. They are jack of all trades.

This will change.

I don’t think that things will go back to the old. It never does. And nor should it. But specialists are needed. New and important trends are emerging which requires specialists. Just take the area of HR data which includes Big HR Data, Analytics and the fact that HR is being more software driven in general. To master this HR must employ specialists. But not in big centralized headquarter departments. Instead I think companies will create some HR Excellence Centers which will support both HR partners – of which there will be fewer – and corporate HR. They will be very specialized in key HR areas such as Social Media, Workforce Analytics, Talent Management, Leadership Development and Performance Management.

So my prediction for HR for 2020: Outsource more, focus on HR strategy and increase specialization. That will, by the way, make HR more influential and so much better.


  1. I think you are right about the need for HR specialists in both old and new HR work areas. You might also be right on the HR excellence center structure but I see one important bit missing. Smaller organisations will not be able to uphold these centers and will need to rely on external partners for these capabilities. In my view the need for HR specialists are primarily in process design and implementation and not so much in operations.
    If this was what you referred to with “outsource more”, then ignore the above :o)

    Thank you for yet another insightful post.

    1. Hi Rune,
      Fair point. In most small organizations HR is really ‘just’ an administrative fuction. They will face three choices; 1) continue to do that 2) outsouce the administrative and start to focus on the strategic stuff or 3) let other functions in the company do the specialized stuff. IT will be one such candidate.
      Thanks for the comment

  2. Accenture has recently published a very interesting article which they call: Trends reshaping the Future of HR: The Rise of The Extended workforce.
    If you have not read it, I for sure recommend it. It is highlighting the fact that the recent financial crisis proved that companies had become too big, slow and expensive. Therefore arguing for the company to get smaller in their core bur larger in their extended workforce. This allows for lower fixed costs and provides flexibility in the ever more project-based world.
    Have a look here:
    For HR, who could be responsible for staffing these future projects this demands a person who are strong in project management and knows the skills of both the local team, but also the extended workforce. Which then again will also effect what HR should focus on in Corporate Training, Talent Development and a lot of other areas. Eg. if you are not strong in managing distributed teams, how will you ever execute projects in an ever more distributed, mobile and online world?

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