Generalist vs. Specialist

 An article in the August issue of HR Magazine, “Building a Better HR Team”, presents a good argument for the periodic examination of the mix of functional specialists and business-savvy generalist in an HR Department.  The author, Dave Zielinski, suggests that the recession has created new demands for HR which may influence organizational design.  He cites the following:

  • Increased demand for HR to assess operational and people decisions in terms of Return on Investment (ROI)
  • Increased demand for HR to reduce its own costs
  • Increased demand for HR to approach work from a more strategic position, rather than transactional

One of the ways organizations are dealing with these new demands is to look to the organizational design of the Generalist Model rather than Specialist Model.

Mr. Zielinski suggests that the HR Generalist provides an organization with a professional, well-rounded in HR experience, but also possessing strong business knowledge and excellent consulting skills.  This combination of competencies allows the individual the capabilities to partner with the C-Suite on strategic planning projects, but also work closely with operational units to brainstorm and resolve conflicts between process and people issues that are standing in the way of getting work done in an efficient and effective manner.

Retooling HR

Professor Peter Cappelli, from the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is quoted in the article, suggesting that building some Specialist functions into the job description of the HR Generalist is reasonable, but since the Specialist functions are usually not required on a continuous basis, it may be more cost effective to focus on hiring and retaining internal Generalists and outsourcing special needs when they arise.

The article details the design decisions of HR teams within organizations such as Google and Southwest Airlines.   Southwest moved to the Generalist model, a multiyear project, utilizing carefully selected veterans of the department for the transition.  The decision to transition to the HR Generalist Model was made as a result of an internal organizational assessment concluding that the organization had become too siloed and distanced from the business units.  Google is also structured on a Generalist Model, but they rely more on the internal Generalist to have more in-depth specialty backgrounds especially in the areas of Organization Development and Talent Assessment.

The re-tooling of 12 Southwest Specialist into HR Generalists included training, coaching and mentoring in areas such as business acumen, strong relational skills and strategic aptitude.  The training admittedly is an intense and time consuming process.  One way Google is speeding up the process of transferring HR Generalist knowledge and experience is through a yearlong “base camp” initiative which is structured on an MBA-like HR curriculum together with consultation skills training centered around working with clients, communicating effectively with senior executives and solving business problems.

SHRM HR Competency Model

In June, 2007 Robert J. Grossman published an article in HR Magazine outlining a study conducted by the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and The RBL Group in Salt Lake City, along with partners from the Society of Human Resource Management, (SHRM).  “This study, the Human Resource Competency Study, (HRCS), is known to be the longest-running, most extensive global HR competency study in existence”, according to Dave Ulrich, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan.  The resulting HR Competency Model is “simple” by design, but as you review it you will note the depth and complexity of its nature with:

  • Six (6) major categories of HR competencies
  • Talent Manager/Organization Designer
  • Culture and Change Steward
  • Strategy Architect
  • Operational Executor
  • Business Ally
  • Credible Activist
  • Two (2) major focuses for mastery
  • People
  • Business issues
  • Three (3) levels of building on HR focus and influence
  • Relationships
  • Systems and Processes
  • Organizational Capabilities

Both positions, Specialist and Generalist, add value to an organization.  As you consider what design is best for addressing the people needs of your organization, you may find this competency-model helpful in the development of your recruitment and/or training programs.

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