Outside input is needed to make HR strategic

In the HR function’s bid to be a strategic, boardroom player – and dispose
of its label as the ‘tea, toast and toilet paper provider’ – it invented the
role of the HR business partner. But do these beasts really exist?

Without a doubt, HR’s life through the ages has focused on the more mundane
activities of company life. Organising the Christmas party and handling queries
on holiday entitlement, maternity and paternity leave, employee change notes,
employee relations, recruitment, training and development and the like,
dominate the agenda. These activities are hardly of strategic importance or
vital to a business, but nevertheless, somebody has to do it.

Here’s where the HR business partner fits in. HR departments have tried to
bundle many of these non-core activities into HR shared services. Assuming that
HR has got its act together with HR shared services through outsourcing or the
more difficult DIY approach, then the remaining HR staff are free to take on
the mantle of HR business partner, ie, strategic adviser.

So what does the role entail? Without doubt, it is to help senior management
to resource and develop the necessary skills to meet the demands of the
business plan. This starts with an early involvement in the plan, and calls for
knowledge of strategy, markets, products, competition, and the commercial and
financial challenges the business faces. It also demands an understanding of
the HR impact on each of these.

The HR business partner will need to articulate the type of organisational
design required to meet these challenges, and influence the business to ensure
the right structures and culture are developed. Additionally, the HR business
partner will need to underpin this activity through appropriate policies to
attract, develop and retain the right talent.

But, as with all senior managers, the HR business partner needs to be
financially astute, and able to turn ideas into robust plans with a positive
and measurable bottom line impact. Only then will they be able to strategically
influence the direction of their business, and gain credibility with their

Coaching, facilitation and change management skills are all basic
requirements, but I question the need for a detailed understanding of the HR
basics – this can be left to those more capable of delivering transactional
processes, and therefore CIPD qualifications are not a pre-requisite.

But have today’s HR departments got the skills to meet this challenge? Can
home-grown HR professionals really make the grade of a business partner?

I believe HR business partners are few and far between, and if the HR
function is to seize the opportunity to help truly run a business, it must look
beyond the function to recruit and develop the HR stars of the future.
Operations, finance, commercial and even legal managers, could all prove a useful
source of candidates. But the question is: will they want to work in HR?

By Alan Bailey, Head of communications and change management, Xchanging

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