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Strategic business partnering has always been a central plank of Ulrich style HR transformation. Along with obtaining greater efficiency in transactional processes, HR has had to find the means to engage better with the business on strategy formulation and execution. Yet, when one talks to HR directors about functional performance much of the frustration that emerges concerns strategic HR. Having cracked the administrative efficiency puzzle, these directors are left uncertain as to how best to deliver added business benefit at the higher content level.

So what are the reasons for this struggle to fully transform the performance of the function?

Organisational leaders have not sufficiently embraced the business partner concept as the function would want it. Why might that be? One critical factor has been the lack of consultation with managers on the creation of the new HR service delivery model. Driven by internal concerns about cost and effectiveness, HR Directors have seized on the so called Ulrich model to deliver results. Separating out transactional elements through shared services from the transformational through centres of expertise and business partners is a good idea in theory, but the execution has often been wanting. So line customers have been presented by a cheaper (for HR) model that makes interaction more complex. No longer ‘one stop shop’; instead multiple contact points including strategic development and change coming from the business partners.

This has led to the second problem that HR has frequently not successfully explained to senior line managers what the role of business partners might be beyond the vague statement of contribution to the people elements of business strategy. The predicament that arises is that managers do not often know what this means in a practical sense, and the business partners have not always helped them understand.

This may be because the business partners do not really know themselves. I once facilitated a discussion between business partners and their manager colleagues where it was apparent that each of the business partners had a different conception of their role and the management population varied between disinterest and genuine enthusiasm. The explanation as to why these differences was obvious: personal relationships were the essential basis for the role working well, or badly.

So a third challenge with the business partner concept has been the quality of staff appointed to the role. At its worst we have seen those who were HR advisers on a Friday being business partners on a Monday. At its best we have seen well thought through role descriptions created but not always a supply of those with the necessary skills applying because such talent is in short supply.

This is because it is a tough job to do well – balancing local needs with corporate centre injunctions; meeting customer demands yet insisting on pushing the strategic importance of people; challenging sub standard practice whilst being business centric, etc. The pressure of the job pulls it to operational fire fighting, sorting out the latest crisis or case. Many HR people are comfortable in this space not in the proper business partner realm.

Against such a bleak background what can be done to improve the situation? I would suggest three main actions.

  1. Hire the best people you can afford. It will usually take time to develop colleagues through the organisation unless you are very lucky. I would argue that above all else you require those with the experience and confidence to do the role well, along with the necessary knowledge and skills. And I would emphasise getting those with the right disposition – able to challenge, resilient against pressure, adaptable to changing circumstances, capable of building rapport, etc.
  2. Make sure the rest of the HR service delivery model is working effectively. In particular, if shared services or your administrative function is failing business partners, however good they are will spend all their time sorting out payroll queries, recruitment mistakes or training crises. More importantly, you need an effective case management system whereby managers take proper responsibility for managing their staff, only using HR when absolutely necessary. The HR staff to handle these exceptions should be appropriately staffed such that only the most complex or high profile is escalated to business partner level.
  3. Be sufficiently clear about the nature of the role without being unduly restrictive. I think it is right that the role content should flex by business unit and be agreed with management colleagues, but I would define some common principles. For example, I would not make business partners the single point of customer interface nor accountable for the whole HR service. The other parts of HR should accept responsibility for what they do. I would make them partners of the business rather than consultants or account managers to it. I would require them to be long term focused and attentive to the external environment within which the organisation operates as well as sensitive to internal needs.

Peter Reilly will be speaking at the Successful HR Business Partnering Conference 2014, if you liked his article make sure to join him on the 18th November at the event!


Peter Reilly the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies. He joined IES in 1995 after a 16 year career with Shell where he held various HR posts in the UK and abroad including both generalist jobs (eg as Personnel Manager for Shell UK’s Information and Computing division) and specialist roles (eg in compensation and benefits, recruitment and career development, and industrial relations). At the Institute he leads its work on the HR function and significantly contributes to the Reward and Performance Management theme. He has given consultancy support to organisations on issues in this area and is a regular speaker and commentator.

He is graduate in history and politics from Cambridge.

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