HR Business Partners: Yes, please? No thanks? ...or somewhere just-right in-between?

Blog posts

25 Aug 2015

Duncan BrownDuncan Brown

Questioning the role and effectiveness of HR business partners (HRBPs) in a room packed full of them might seem like a somewhat high-risk venture. Yet IES’s latest HR Network meeting, expertly led by our own Peter Reilly (does anyone know more about UK HR functions?), did just that and certainly demonstrated the role of this group, to bring evidence-based HR into practice and to ‘tell it like it is’, not how we might all want it to be.

The timing was good, as the HR function seems to be going through one of its regular bouts of philosophical navel-gazing, which have been evident ever since Peter Drucker described it in 1954 as a ‘hodge-podge of incidental techniques’ that fails to add value. Dave Ulrich’s extremely influential ‘three-legged stool’ model of the function, which advocated clear internal divisions into high-level, strategic business partners, technical experts and administrative processes as the means to add value seems after almost 20 years to be running out of steam, yet no clear alternative has emerged.

Three articles currently available for free over the summer on the Harvard Business Review website debate the role and challenges of HR and the best way forward, including Wharton professor Peter Capelli’s Why we love to hate HR .

These challenges and some of the solutions were both in evidence at our HR Network meeting as employers as diverse as the Royal Navy, OneSource and Ministry of Justice shared some surprisingly similar experiences and learning. Caroline Callan, HRBP at HM Passport Office, gave an excellent honest and insightful account of the regular restructurings affecting HR there (link to Member events web address), and echoing some of our own research findings. On the plus side IES’s research for CIPD found that HRBPs had added to the senior, board-level influence of HR and enhanced its business focus – ‘Business partners are now wanted at senior partner meetings’ a law firm told us.

But our study also found common difficulties in finding staff of the right calibre to play this role, meaning that they often were ‘stuck’ in day-to-day traditional case and admin work, as well as trying to communicate the new HR model to the line and persuading them to carry out their own people management responsibilities effectively for themselves.

Ram Charan’s answer in his Harvard Business Review article is to split HR in half, removing/outsourcing the administration and process components and forming a new all-powerful triumvirate at the top of the corporation of CEO, Chief Finance Officer and Chief HR Officer.

Hmmm. Given that our event and research has highlighted lack of communications and co-ordination within the function, and with the line as a key problem of the HR business partnering model – ‘they promise the earth because they leave someone else to deliver’ complained one lower graded HR officer in our study – then splitting HR in two hardly seems likely to improve things.

Better internal dialogue with stakeholders to agree the optimum balance between HR and line managers’ responsibilities for people, and improved co-ordination within the various parts of the function were initiatives being tried with some success by a number of our Network members, such as the monthly HRBP meetings at the Home Office described by Caroline.

And, while Cappelli and Charan’s call for HR to proactively grab hold of the organisational change agenda at board level, and the detail of job design throughout the organisation, was supported and illustrated at our meeting, a re-configuring and evolution of the HR function design itself in response to their learning and changes in the employer seemed to be a feature of the more successful cases. This was in fact recommended by Ulrich himself, who opposed the universal ‘best practice’ application of his HR design. Just another of the ‘bright shiny objects’ used by competitors which Boudreau and Rice, in their Harvard Business Review article, recommend HR resists borrowing in search of ‘quick wins’, instead developing unique and evidence-driven solutions based on a deep understanding of the business and culture of the employer.

In structure and design, for example, should there be HRBPs as solo operators directly reporting into their business units, as was often the initial set-up situation, which gave local focus but risked the HRBPs ‘going native’ without a joined-up HR strategy across the organisation? Or should there be an HRBP team with a broad remit of responsibilities, including operational HR work, to ensure their desired HR strategies and policies can actually be delivered in practice? One of our delegates, for example, had moved from more widespread HRBP teams towards fewer, higher-skilled HRBPs so as to better deliver that desired strategic-level and more focused contribution, supported by improved communications with and training of their line manager partners.

Peter concluded that the question should really be how HRBPs can best deliver, (can you really imagine a successful HR function that doesn’t partner with the line?!), rather than whether they should exist and work or not. Whatever specific role definition is arrived at for HRBPs, it needs to strike the optimum balance of HR and line roles and responsibilities and innovative and advisory work, given the needs and integration of the organisation and their own and their line management colleagues’ capabilities.

All were in agreement with Caroline Callan conclusion that ‘Ulrich’s model needs to be adapted not adopted, and then needs to adapt further as the organisation continues to change’.