Rarely has an idea so radically reshaped an entire profession as Dave Ulrich’s book Human Resource Champions, and its concept of HR business partners. It’s two decades since the celebrated academic published his model of how HR could fundamentally realign itself to business needs. And the debate has never stopped.
In essence, the HR business partner model is straightforward: shared, centralised HR services blast through operational grunt work, functional experts work their magic, and strategically minded HR business partners embed themselves into business units, adding real value to the bottom line.
Stuart Woollard, director of King’s College London’s HRM Learning Board, is one of many who claim things haven’t turned out that way: “The implicit promise of an HR business partner role is to contribute to the value of an organisation through facilitating more effective human capital management.” In reality, he says: “Business partners have been part of a dominant HR functional structure that remains reactive, procedurally focused and transaction-oriented.”
Ulrich never claimed to have invented the “three-legged stool” model of HR, though his name has become synonymous with it. His priority has always been to frame HR in a way that frees the function’s more strategic minds to bring their skills to bear to improve customer service.
But reality has intruded on his ideal. For starters, when line managers aren’t willing or able to take on aspects of HR responsibilities, HR can’t become more strategic. And when HR can’t explain its own transformation to the rest of the business, the idea of an HR business partner is dead in the water.
“The business partner role is best suited and most effective in larger organisations,” says Jessica Cooper, a research adviser on HR transformation at the CIPD. “And it is only successful if transactional work can be reduced through the use of shared services or outsourcing.”
The business partner model’s greatest fans are undoubtedly inside HR, with a 2014 survey from consultancy Orion Partners finding 77 per cent of respondents reported the Ulrich model had a positive impact on their services. Neil Tune, UK HR director of Fitness First, is a fan, and has worked with versions of the role while at GE and Hays. He says it helps his HR team build relationships with other functions: “Business partners can really support the people strategies and tools being implemented, and help establish the function’s credibility”.
HR Outlook research from the CIPD in 2013 showed credibility to be fragile, when it reported a misalignment between what business partners thought were the priorities for the business and those reported by business leaders. That was echoed by research from consultancy CEB in 2014, which showed three out of four senior HR leaders expect their business partners to be strategic partners, but fewer than one-fifth of managers feel that’s happening.
While there’s clearly a frequent lack of clarity over the role, blaming that on Ulrich – as author Ram Charan implicitly did in a much-discussed 2014 article titled ‘It’s Time to Split HR’ – may be to miss the point. The details of his model, from where to draw the line with shared services and standardisation to what exactly a business partner should do, will vary depending on the organisation.
“A lot of people say HR structure is a three-legged stool, but that’s not at all what the model says,” Ulrich tells People Management. “The model says your HR structure needs to match your business structure. If your business is centralised and functional, your HR function should be centralised and functional.”
Ulrich points out the error of blindly implementing the early notions of the model in today’s context, two decades, several books and many studies later. “It’s frustrating to me that people are not seeing the evolution of the idea,” he says. “My television set from the 1990s isn’t relevant today either. I hope I’ve been able to evolve ideas.”
So what’s the fix? CEB says it’s perfectly possible to double the level of effective business partners within a couple of years – though that calls for a well-defined outline of what organisations need, a reliable way of measuring ability and performance, and a clearer means of demonstrating that performance in metrics the rest of the organisation cares about.
Committing to empowering business partners may mean splashing the cash. Woollard says mature HR practitioners need to be highly sophisticated, influential and equipped with compelling evidence. “To truly partner with the business, an HR professional must also be able to work alongside and share in management decision-making, all the way to the C-suite,” he says.
Rebadged HR managers need to be replaced with heavy-hitting business partners who demand respect, he adds. The Ulrich model suggests an unrealistic level of talent – gregarious and business-savvy individuals with an encyclopaedic knowledge of HR best practice, say some. Clearly, the reality will need to be more mundane.
“Having commercial experience is vital for all HR professionals, and I see more of this emerging,” says Tune. All Fitness First’s business partners are encouraged to gain CIPD qualifications, he says, but he adds: “My best partners have been recruited from the line, which has really helped them build credibility with operations teams.”
In the meantime, if you are an HR business partner, it’s probably best to ask yourself a few key questions: whether you understand business strategy and how HR supports it, both in theory and in practice; what drives and occupies line managers and leaders; and whether you prove your value in ways the business recognises. And, of course, whether you’re prepared to carry on doing a great job for your business every day while the debate about your value rages on…
Become an effective HR business partner by attending the HR Business Partner Development Programme
Attend the CIPD HR Business Partner Conference and Workshop on 24-25 March 2015
Look out for forthcoming CIPD research on HR operating models: visit the CIPD Knowledge hub for more information