What Are We Learning About Reinventing HR?

By Dave Ulrich | July 25, 2023

Key Takeaways: 

  • HR is less about HR and more about using experience and expertise to create value for others.
  • HR reinvention is not a single or isolated initiative, but a range of actions where HR can create more value. 
  • Experienced leaders can learn to create a more effective HR function and build human capability through RBL's Leading for HR Excellence Masterclass.


The HR world is being continually reinvented, now more than ever. Why?

People, leadership, and organization issues are:

  • Receiving more attention from all stakeholders (executives, boards, investors, regulators, customers, communities, employees).
  • Becoming the primary differentiators for delivering results.
  • Generating oodles of innovative ideas, particularly in the use of technology where digital information will shape people and organization efforts.

I use our semiannual HR Learning Partnership (HRLP)—a nine-day, immersive learning experience where we envision what’s next for HR value creation so that we can take action today—as a forum for my learning. We just completed the 39th offering where we had amazing discussions on HR reinvention thanks to Dick Beatty as co-director, incredible faculty (Erin Wilson Burns, Joseph Hanson, Yetunde Hofmann MBA ChCCIPD FRSA, Jessica Johnson, Norm Smallwood, Charles Tharp, and Wendy Ulrich), and amazing participants. Most thanks to Ginger Bitter who manages and makes the program happen.

Based on this experience (and others), let me suggest four lessons learned that will help reinvent HR.

1. HR Overall Reinvention Logic

HR is less about HR and more about creating value for others, which has four major dimensions:

  • Environment that sets the context and defines stakeholders from the outside in.
  • Strategy that defines where and how to compete with agility.
  • Human capability that delivers talent (human capital, leadership, organization, and HR).
  • Analytics that offer guidance for improvement.

These four dimensions are categories of how to view HR with a broader perspective. Reinventing HR requires connecting these four dimensions with either a “so that” or “because of” logic (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overall Logic of Reinvention HR

2. HR Initiative Innovation

Within these four dimensions, we have numerous and timely HR innovations. Seeing a full (not complete) menu of innovative HR initiatives is helpful so that HR reinvention is not any single or isolated initiative but a range of actions where HR can create more value. In HRLP, we identified, and at least briefly discussed, 68 current initiative innovations (figure 2). For each of these initiatives, we are able to answer why it matters, what it means, and how to improve and make progress. Managing this large menu shows the breadth and depth of a reinvented HR. 


Strategy Internal

Human Capability


Organization Capability



HR for HR

Know general business trends

  1. Dealing with technology/digital 

  2. Responding to regulation (SEC) 

  3. Understanding geopolitics 

  4. Attending to ESG issues 

  5. Handling social/emotional issues (social injustice, terrorism, polarization) 

  6. Working with demographics of workforce 

Adapt to Stakeholder/Shareholder Expectations 

  1. Increasing investor intangibles 

  2. Building customer share 

  3. Disclosing human capability 

  4. Improving community reputation 

Adopt future of work assumptions

  1. Connecting outside and inside—creating value outside-in 

  2. Finding certainty in uncertainty 

  3. Navigating paradox 

  4. Personalizing work 

Be aware of internal context and strategy

  1. Differentiating in the marketplace

  2. Managing relationships and expectations of internal stakeholders (board, CEO, executive team)

  3. Handling corporate social activism (e.g., speak out on political and social issues)

  4. Defining and delivering on strategic agility

  5. Clarifying and focusing on where and how to compete

  6. Creating strategic unity for content and process

  7. Assisting with mergers and acquisitions and other partnerships

  8. Defining and executing a growth strategy

Establish organization capabilities that enable stakeholder value

  1. Hiring, developing, and managing people

  2. Acting with agility

  3. Establishing strategic clarity

  4. Delivering customer centricity

  5. Establishing the right culture

  6. Advancing collaboration

  7. Promoting social responsibility

  8. Expanding innovation

  9. Fostering efficiency

  10. Ensuring accountability

  11. Sharing information/analytics

  12. Leveraging technology

Upgrade the quality of people/workforce

  1. Acquiring talent

  2. Managing employee performance/rewards

  3. Developing employees

  4. Managing careers and promotions

  5. Communication with employees (listening)

  6. Encouraging diversity, equity, and inclusion

  7. Retaining the best employees

  8. Managing departing employees

  9. Improving and tracking employee sentiment

  10. Creating a positive employee experience

Create the right leaders at all levels

  1. Clarifying business case for leadership

  2. Defining what leaders be, know, and do

  3. Assessing leaders and leadership

  4. Developing leaders and leadership

  5. Measuring leadership impact

  6. Ensuring reputation

  7. Building leaders at the front line/role of people managers

  8. Ensuring ethical conduct

Deliver HR functional excellence

  1. Establishing HR reputation

  2. Serving HR customers

  3. Determining HR purpose

  4. Governing HR design

  5. Growing human capability

  6. Using HR analytics

  7. Using latest digital technology (AI)

  8. Refining HR practices

  9. Advancing HR professionals

  10. Strengthening HR relationships

  11. Managing HR careers

Track and measure human capability

  1. Knowing and using business financial outcomes

  2. Tracking sustainable stakeholders outcomes (customer, investor, community, employee, strategy)

  3. Using an HR scorecard for business results

  4. Meeting all compliance requirements­­­­­

3. Evolve HR by Navigating Paradox

HR reinvention is less a “from . . . to” and more an “and also” evolution where the past is prologue to a future. This requires paradoxical thought and action to build on the past to reinvent the future. Some of these paradoxes in each dimension are laid out below.

Overall HR reinvention logic:

  • Focusing on human capital (people) and also human capability (talent, leadership, and organization).
  • Building on the past or acting in the present and also envisioning a future.
  • Focusing on HR inside (employees) and also HR outside-in (external stakeholders).


  • Responding to environmental or contextual threats and also delivering value to all stakeholders.
  • Harnessing uncertainty by adapting and also by acting on what is certain.
  • Investing in innovative human capability and also disclosing human capability for stakeholder impact.


  • Creating a focused strategic agenda (where and how to compete) and also ensuring strategic agility.
  • Crafting a strategic direction and also generating strategic unity.

Human capability—Talent:

  • Treating all employees with respect and also personalizing the work experience one by one.
  • Having an employee value proposition and also a positive employee experience.

Human capability—Organization:

  • Having piecemeal HR initiatives and also integrating solutions around delivering organization capabilities. 
  • Establishing organization structure (roles, responsibilities) and also prioritizing organization capabilities (agility, innovation, customer service).
  • Seeing culture as a set of internal values and behaviors or norms and also seeing culture as a firm’s identity in the marketplace.

Human capability—Leadership:

  • Building leadership at the top and also leaders at all levels of the organization. 

Human capability—HR function:

  • Doing HR work by HR people and also business leaders.
  • Using technology that enables us to look back and consolidate the past (e.g., openAI) and also inspires us to imagine a better future.
  • Focusing an HR function on role clarity and also delivering a clear reputation and ensuring positive relationships. 


  • Having an HR scorecard and also having HR on the business scorecard. 
  • Using benchmarking and best practices and also utilizing guidance for what each individual organization should do. 
  • Making decisions on instinct and experience and also based on evidence and data.

These evolutions show the paradoxes that will help reinvent HR. Which strike you? What would you add for HR reinvention?

4. What are others learning?

Since learning is less about what is taught and more about what is received, we asked participants in HRLP to identify nuggets or insights that they believe will be part of both personal and HR reinvention. They responded:

  1. “So that” turns activity into value created for others.
  2. Create value from the outside in.
  3. Learn to navigate paradox.
  4. HR is about value creation more than action. 
  5. Accountability is a capability.
  6. Human capability is too important to leave to just HR people.
  7. Email is not a tool for communication but also documentation.
  8. Solve for what we do know.
  9. Avoid: “I love and am committed to analytics; let me tell you what I think."
  10. Focus on certainty in a world of uncertainty.
  11. A leader’s job is to do nothing if the people are competent and committed to doing the job. 
  12. The mean is a mean thing ... a warning for statistics
  13. Prioritize opportunity by examining the equation of: “impact x weakness x differentiation” of possible initiatives.
  14. Compensation is a powerful tool for communication.
  15. Organizations don’t change unless people change and vice versa. 
  16. Exclusion dehumanizes people; be inclusive through unconditional love.
  17. Ask: “Who should be involved in this discussion?” And “who is not here?
  18. If you are on the road to hell (wrong strategy), slow down; do not go faster. 
  19. From every problem will come an opportunity.
  20. We don’t talk about Bruno! (when talking about mental health)


Reinventing HR is not new and will continue. In our work, the “best year” of your life is always the “next twelve months.” Likewise, reinventing HR is about what’s next, not what has been. We ended this HRLP with a message of “hope” that HR is not limited by its past but can be reinvented by seizing uncertain futures with vision and increasing impact. 

Our team of seasoned consultants is proud to announce the launch of our newest, results-based guided learning journey, Leading for HR Excellence. This masterclass is designed specifically for experienced HR leaders who want to create a more effective HR function and build human capability. As always, please contact us with questions or to learn more. 

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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