HR Doctor: Compartmentalisation

Personnel Today’s HR doctor Nick Holley diagnoses some diseases common to HR and suggests the cures that might restore it to health.



  • People compete within HR when the business only sees ‘One HR’.
  • When things go wrong HR people blame each other rather than taking accountability for solving the issues.
  • HR doesn’t think systemically.
  • HR doesn’t makes the linkages and joins everything up eg. compensation and benefits does Comp and Ben, learning and development does L&D…
  • HR doesn’t think across the business but only about their direct internal customers.


  • HR itself becomes splintered and pressurised by the business – but worst of all the issues that HR are dealing with require a systemic approach that an attack of compartmentalisation will prevent.
  • Most things aren’t solved by a training course alone or a change in the performance management system. They require joined up thinking: how does the reward system support the desired change in behaviour that the training course is trying to achieve?  How does the new performance management system link to the firm wide ERP or the learning management and reward systems? And have the people in the shared services centre been trained in how it works and their role in supporting it? No part of HR can be an island unto itself.


1 How many times have you been at an airport and your flight has been delayed?  It seems to happen frequently but what annoys me even more is when the airline comes over the intercom and announces that it “apologises for the delay but this is due to the late arrival of the incoming flight”. That is supposed to make it alright is it? No it doesn’t. It’s still your flight that is late arriving so you can’t use this as an excuse when my flight is delayed. 

It’s the same with HR. In Henley’s recent research into the ‘three box’ model of HR we interviewed a number of line managers. They don’t see Centres of Excellence, Shared Services and Business Partners. They don’t want to hear excuses when one blames the other. To them it is ‘One HR’ and they just want their issues fixed.

2 One interview highlighted the problem. I was speaking to a senior HR business partner. We got to discussing his relationship with the L&D Centre of Excellence. I asked him if he spoke to his equivalent who ran the centre. He replied: “Of course I do. She sits across the aisle from me and whenever she comes over I speak to her.” Not the answer I was hoping to hear.


Some of the cures are the ‘hard’ things:

  • One HR team with involvement from all parts of HR with strong leadership focusing the whole team on thinking as ‘One HR’.
  • A team or office coordinating planning and delivery, ensuring that resources are focused on the big picture of how HR can make a difference to the business.
  • Proper governance with clear accountabilities, handoffs, reporting and budgets coordinated across HR.
  • The right measures linked to variable compensation and consequences that focus on rewarding ‘One HR’-based behaviours.

But from our research it is the ‘softer’ things that make the real difference:

  • The leader needs to recruit for and reward the right behaviours: trust, collaboration, no egos, etc.  Egos are key: people in HR need to understand it’s not about them individually, it’s about the HR team and even more it’s about the business (As David Brent once said: “There’s no I in team, though there is ‘me’ if you look carefully.”)
  • The leader needs to move people around within HR and develop and coach the right behaviours.
  • It requires a shared understanding of and respect for everyone’s role.
  • There needs to be continuous engagement, real listening to each other and to the business. The problem is too many people are waiting to speak rather than really listening.
  • It means spending time building one team not just reporting on what happens or not, but on problem solving and developing the right behaviours together. It also means recognising and managing the inevitable tensions rather than denying them.

By Nick Holley, director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School. The centre works with members from the private, public and third sectors to change the debate around HR; carrying out applied research aimed at advancing current thinking, and delivering programmes to enhance the quality of business and partnering skills for senior and high-potential HR professionals.

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