HR business partners are like the Marmite of the HR profession – you either love them or hate them. Bring the topic up in conversation and you’re guaranteed to polarise opinion.
Some in the HR profession are more disparaging than others. Vance Kearney, vice-president HR Europe, Middle East and Africa at technology company Oracle, when asked his opinions about business partners, replies: “Key is what they do. Wet nurse or serious adviser? The answer is often on the damp side.”
But this hasn’t stopped business partnering becoming a huge trend in HR. In fact, demand for HR business partners has reached such heights that keen jobseekers have been known to upgrade the experience on their CVs to imply that their HR manager role had business partner status.
The business partner model was introduced a decade ago by HR guru Dave Ulrich, but it is only in the past couple of years that organisations have been clamouring to hire business partners. Recruitment consultancy Michael Page Human Resources, for example, has seen a 79% increase in the number of business partner vacancies it has carried in the past year (from 882 to 1,576).
Even for those organisations that don’t implement the model, there is, of course, a strong argument that all HR practitioners should act as business partners. If HR isn’t partnering with the business and aligning itself with corporate goals, then what is it doing? On that basis it’s easy to see why cynics regard business partnering as nothing more than a rebadging exercise, as ‘business partnering’ in one organisation could mean something completely different in another.
So is it more than just the same old service delivered under a new brand name?
HR practitioners share a broad philosophy about the difference between a generalist HR person and a business partner, but in reality deliver a wide variety of support to their organisations, says Basil Le Roux, director of Michael Page Human Resources.
The basic premise of the model is that the business partner works with the business to add real strategic value, while the administrative support services that HR is traditionally known for are delivered by a shared-services unit.
Jane Saunders, managing partner at transformation consultancy Orion Partners, says: “A business partner has to understand the business, have an insight into the people challenges, and the ability to make effective links between the two.”
Changing the whole way that HR services are delivered isn’t something organisations enter into lightly. They have to look at why they’re doing it and whether it fits with their overall HR strategy. And it is pointless introducing it unless the HR department is already delivering a top-notch service.
“Unless the basic HR provision is of the right standard, there will be limited business appetite for discussions about strategy,” says Saunders. “Business partnering is only credible when the bread-and-butter HR service delivery works well.”
There needs to be buy-in from the top, of course, and line managers need to be educated in how it works, and what benefits there are to be achieved. And that can vary according to the organisation.
Ruth Mundy, HR director at professional support services group Mouchel Parkman, is a fan of business partnering, and has implemented it in her organisation. “Everything has to be joined up” for it to work,” she says. “The business partner needs to start by building relationships with all the key stakeholders in the management team, and getting under the skin of the business.”
Conflicts can arise where the business partner develops a stronger allegiance to the business than the wider HR team, says Mundy. “The most successful business partners manage both relationships on an equal basis, and I believe they bring huge benefits to the business,” she says.
But much of that depends on getting the right people to do the job. Mundy says that most of the company’s business partners were developed in-house, and they were chosen for the role by her and the managing director. But, she says, HR isn’t necessarily the first place to look – you can’t just give an HR manager a new job title and expect them to start behaving like a business partner, she adds.
John Maxted, managing director of Digby Morgan HR Search and Selection, says what organisations look for in their business partners is “practical experience, and not just theoretical doctrine picked up on an MBA course. They want professionals with genuine experience in a more commercial scenario, people with profit and loss experience [annual accounts that show a company’s trading performance], or who have had responsibility for specific business areas.”
Kearney agrees: “To be a serious business partner you need years of experience and a serious track record of solving real business problems,” he argues. “That’s why recruiters often make better business partners than HR people. They have real experience of understanding business issues and translating them into real people actions, whereas too many HR people are all about policy and political correctness.”
Bringing in outsiders
When Hugh Hood, group HR director at Transport for London (TfL), introduced business partnering, he brought in people from outside the organisation to lead the business partner teams, because internally people just didn’t have the skills.
“We hired people who knew what ‘good’ looks like, and who could lead the team out of its comfort zone into a different way of dealing with the business,” explains Hood (see the TfL case study on page 23.)
But getting people to adapt can be the trickiest challenge of all. Business partners, once given the brief to be truly strategic, often don’t know what to do, so they gradually edge their way back into the comfort of the generalist HR manager’s routine transactional duties. Saunders says that when this happens, businesses get the same output under a different label.
“Expectations are raised within the business for a more strategic HR service, and what they get is more of the same and often at increased cost,” she says.
She adds that there can also be a tendency to build hierarchies into the business partner structure that reflect the more traditional HR career paths, which leads to mini HR departments being built up under business partners, rather than making more effective use of the benefits of shared services.
“We’ve found that structuring it so that the business partners have neither budget nor resource is an effective way to ensure that they use the other elements of the service model more effectively,” advises Saunders.
So is the business partner here to stay? Fans argue that it is much more than just a fad. At Mouchel Parkman it has worked so successfully that the same approach has been adopted by finance and IT. Mundy says: “They are finding the same benefits, and it means that support functions all find themselves working towards common business goals.”.
The cynics argue that business partners are just one more unnecessary layer in the corporate structure.
“Business help is highly competitive and arguably overrated,” says Kearney. “There is a huge raft of non-productive overhead roles that burden businesses. With Sarbanes-Oxley experts, revenue recognition experts, business practice advisers, operations people, CSR advisers, diversity managers, business development and various other ‘bag carriers’ of more varieties than Heinz, who needs another ‘business partner’? Come the revolution, some of these will be in line for the firing squad, but hopefully not HR.”
Case study: Transport for London
For Transport for London (TfL), the biggest challenge in establishing the business partner model was proving the value it could add, according to TfL’s group HR director Hugh Hood.
He introduced business partnering as part of a radical overhaul of HR, when 18 departments were merged into one. But Hood says it is pointless introducing such a “radical step change” as business partnering unless it is driven by the chief executive and finance director.
“If there’s the impetus from the top, it drives the organisation to want to change,” says Hood. “If it’s ticking over and comfortable, why go through all the pain?”
Some of that pain involved getting over the ‘so what’ factor with line managers. But the biggest issue was changing the culture of HR. “With no in-tray of personnel stuff to execute, they wondered what they were supposed to be doing,” says Hood.
When the model was introduced 18 months ago, the HR business partners’ activities were 80% tactical and 20% strategic. But it’s the other way round now, says Hood.
The key to making it work is ensuring that line managers have easy access to HR services, leaving the business partners to focus on spotting problems and finding solutions to them.
Hood says: “Now it’s not about what the business wants to do next, but what the business needs to do next.”
TfL pulls itself together
Top tips making a success of the business partner model
Know your business Business partners must have great commercial knowledge to help build credibility and to enable the function to focus on the ‘right’ organisational issues.
Know your HR strategy You must understand why having business partners is the best option for your HR function, to avoid this becoming just a rebadging exercise. An ineffective or absent HR strategy will not be improved by a change of job roles.
Make sure you’re ready The transition to the business partner model may take years, so ensure you plan for this. Ensure the business, line managers and HR colleagues understand what is required of them and that you share objectives for the change.
Understand the technology Be aware of how it works with other departments looking to automate their transactional activity.
Plan rigorously Put your best people on the project, not your problem children. Cross-fertilise with the business and recruit new blood from the line. Remember poor HR people make poor business partners.
Source: Amita Sandhu, head of HR consulting, Inspira UK
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