Backlash against human resources business partner model as managers question results

A backlash against the much-feted human resources (HR) business partner model appears to have begun after research revealed that more than half of managers were unconvinced by the structure.

Only 47% of the managers polled by research firm Roffey Park said that business partnering was in any way successful in their organisation. One in four said the model was ineffective, while the rest were undecided on the merits of the increasingly popular system.

The business partner model has been hailed as the way forward for the profession since HR academic Dave Ulrich first wrote about it in 1997.

It was supposed to modernise the function, making it more valuable to chief executives, and is now the most common structure, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Almost half of the 479 managers polled had business partners in their organisation.

However, those critical of the model said all too often it had only involved a change in title, and had not resulted in strategic thinking, with comments such as: “Too much reliance on the intranet”, and “Greater conflict within HR” in the survey.

Angela Baron, organisation and resourcing adviser at the CIPD, said she was unsurprised by the results. “A lot of people have latched on to the business partner title, but not changed anything,” she told Personnel Today. “Others remain unconvinced that it is the right way forward for people management.”

Gabriele Arend, HR director at beauty products manufacturer Elizabeth Arden, said she disagreed with any model splitting HR professionals into recruiting, training and employee relations experts.

Her company is moving towards a more traditional structure, where HR staff are trained to develop a generalist knowledge. “This encourages a trust relationship between staff and their HR partner, but also allows department heads to discuss their issues with one HR partner rather than three,” she said.

What is an HR business partner?

HR academic Dave Ulrich launched the business partner model with his 1997 book Human Resource Champions: the Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results.

It set out a future where basic administrative HR was taken care of by low-cost, shared-service centres, while a small team of ‘business partners’ were given higher-paid jobs concentrating on people strategies. In the middle were teams of specialists.

The CIPD website definition states: “Business partnering makes HR accountable to the business, and expects HR to add real value. This is a shift away from traditional HR functions where purpose, priorities and successes were defined within HR.”

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