Business partners are often perceived as the reliable link between the central operations of HR and what’s happening on the ground. But what happens if they challenge established practices and innovate? HR strategist Giles O’Halloran asked business experimentation specialist Rob James.
Isn’t experimentation something we should be doing across all business functions? What do we mean by business experimentation?
Experimentation does cover a wide spectrum. At one end it is simply trying something out – repositioning supermarket products or new ways of conducting meetings. At the other we see more complex experiments like prototypes and concept cars. Here, our focus is the middle ground – a six-step methodology where we take a problem and identify, discover, ideate, define, experiment and evaluate.
People professionals are sometimes perceived as following fads, which does nothing to build professional confidence or credibility. Is there a risk that experimentation will be seen as just another fad?
No, it’s actually the very opposite. Throughout millennia, merchants have experimented with ways of trading their wares. In business, sport, culture and most spheres of human activity, progress is made by exploring more innovative ways of doing things. Experimentation underpins progress, and this methodology provides a framework to support it.
Why can business experimentation add value to HR?
It’s a business tool that should feature in every manager’s toolbox. However, it has a natural home in HR. I frequently use it as a learning vehicle in leadership development programmes and in organisational change, both of which sit within the CIPD’s profession map. We also find the skills and mindsets required to facilitate the experiment process are more often found amongst people professionals.
HR business partner
I often hear concerns from HR business partners (HRBPs) about working at a senior level. The irony is that most are capable, but often lack the confidence. Could this help to change that?
Let me illustrate with a recent pharma industry example. I work closely with ‘people partners’ throughout the process: co-facilitating workshops, webinars, team calls and the like. In this instance, the person was new to the organisation and perceived as ‘junior’. The ‘client’ was a senior team with an experienced leader.
The experiment explored complex strategic choices and as we progressed, the BP gradually assumed more responsibility. Her knowledge of the process, its nuances, and her ability to challenge and support developed over the four-month period.
When the team prepared their board presentations, they insisted on her involvement, and she continues as a trusted advisor. She recently explained how she was now working as a ‘true business partner’ after requests from two other teams from different functions.
Another challenge I observe is moving from transactional work to influencing strategic decisions. How can experimentation elevate the BP role?
A non-negotiable in experimentation is that the topic must have potential to create value. It means the ‘client’ must demonstrate how their topic will impact on business’ strategic priorities.
The BP blends the role of facilitator and provocateur by helping the team to connect the dots and ensure business outcomes. Inevitably, these conversations are future-focused with a holistic view of the business rather than transactional and the BP becomes central to that process.
In my experience, many organisations see business partnering and the Ulrich model as being done to them, rather than with them. I always highlight this risk when working with HR teams. How might this help?
It is the client that decides the experiment topic: where, how, when it is going to happen and the anticipated outcomes.
They are working on something that is important to their business and the BP works with them to provide a ‘service’ of facilitation that helps produce the results on which decisions can be made.
Think of the BP as a mountain guide. The team (or client) wants to try a new route and the guide has the map and the knowledge of what is ahead, helping them to navigate the best routes and manage the risks.
I have observed many organisations revitalising the Ulrich model and looking afresh at their post-pandemic environment. How could business experimentation add to the HR value proposition?
It really depends on how much ‘revitalisation’ is considered. Firstly, the experiment facilitator role combines two aspects of the original Ulrich model (strategic partner and change agent). An organisation committed to the model might review ways in which the BP/experiment role could add value across those functions.
Secondly, if a more disruptive approach to the model was required, experimentation can help find a better fit by exploring new ways of doing things. Sometimes this allows HR to explore and reshape its services in areas such as retention, recruitment advertising, performance management and onboarding.
So how can HR business partners try this out?
There are three key pieces of advice I’d offer if HR professionals are thinking of trying this out:
- Understand more about the methodology and the experimental mindset. Googling ‘Business Experimentation’ provides many articles and books.
- Contact a professional to discuss. Every organisation is different so get an idea how it might work for you.
- Just do it. Choose something simple like improving an HR process. Be disciplined and use the process to formulate a hypothesis and test it.