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Credible Activism' Is Key HR Skill, Study Concludes

Being a ‘credible activist’ is the most critical skill for HR professionals and brings the most value to their employer, according to a study of more than 400 companies and 10,000 HR professionals and line management employees in eight regions of the globe.

The role requires that HR perform with an attitude.

“Human resource professionals must be both credible and active,” says Dave Ulrich, partner and co-founder of The RBL Group, one of several organizations that worked on the 2007 Human Resource Competency Study, which gathered data from respondents in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, China, Australia/Asia Pacific and India.

The RBL Group and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan worked on the study in cooperation with the Society for Human Resource Management, IAE Universidad Austral in Argentina, Irish Management Institute, Tsinghua University in China, the Australia Human Resource Institute and the National HRD Network in India.

The skills of a company’s HR professionals account for 20 percent of its business results and increasingly are becoming part of an organization’s competitive edge, the study found.

HR professionals, Ulrich said in a press release, “need to be trusted, respected, admired, listened to, but above all, have a point of view and take a position.”

“HR professionals who are credible, but not activists, are admired but do not have much impact. Those who are activists but not credible may have ideas but will not be listened to,” he added.

Only 20 percent of HR professionals currently are proficient as “credible activists” for their businesses, he estimated.

“Sixty percent of HR professionals can master this crucial skill with the right training and awareness, while the remaining 20 percent may not have the right skills and/or personality to listen and take action.”

There are five additional roles that HR professionals must master, according to the study:

  • Culture and change steward. Involves implementing strategy, projects or initiatives that help turn what is known into what is done.
  • Talent manager, organization designer.
  • Strategy architect. Requires a vision of how the organization can win in the future; demands an active part in establishing overall strategy to deliver that vision.
  • Operational executor. Includes such things as drafting, adapting and implementing policies that ensure employees’ basic needs—such as being paid, relocated and trained—are delivered efficiently.
  • Business ally. Know the social setting their companies operate in, how the business makes money, who its customers are and why they buy the products or services. Have a basic understanding of functions such as finance and marketing.

The talent manager/organizational designer deals with both sides of the same coin.

“Talent management focuses on how individuals enter, move up, across or out of the organization,” Ulrich said.

“Organization design focuses on the capabilities an organization has that are embedded in the structure, processes and policies that shape how the organization works.”

HR is not just about talent or organization, but the two together, he noted.

“Good talent without a supporting organization will not be sustained, and a good organization will not fully deliver without good talent.”

Being an architect of strategy requires recognizing business trends and their impact on the business, being able to forecast potential obstacles to the business’s success, and playing a part in establishing the overall plan to deliver the business’s strategy.

Being a credible activist, culture and change steward, talent manager/organizational designer, and strategy architect accounts for more than 75 percent of an HR professional’s success, the study found. That’s because CEOs are turning more frequently to HR for knowledge about developing talent, changing the organization’s culture and moving into new markets, according to Ulrich.

HR needs to make sure, he said, that HR practices “are aligned with customer expectations and strategy, integrated with each other, and innovative.” This helps make customer-driven business strategies real to the employees, he added.

Being a culture and change steward involves implementing strategy, projects or initiatives that help turn what is known into what is done, according to Ulrich.

“It’s no longer enough for human resource professionals to just want to contribute to the bottom line,” Ulrich said. “They need to know how to do this and have the ability to use what they know.”

This is the fifth HR Competency Study. Others were conducted in 1988, 1992, 1997 and 2002. The aim, according to The RBL Group’s web site, is to identify major competencies that HR professionals need and to track the major trends in the HR management field.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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