Is HR its own worst enemy?

Written by
Changeboard Team

24 May 2010

24 May 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Understanding and managing the built-in tension

The success of HR partnerships will fundamentally be determined by the quality of HR people (i.e. their courage, capability and credibility) and the quality of the relationships between HR and the people it serves. By investing in relationships the inherent tensions, ambiguities and Challenges we all face in our day-to-day jobs do not become show stoppers rather they signify the health and vibrancy of HR and the wider organisation. This is what people will buy and this is what will secure a strategic future for HR

The HR partnership organisation, when implemented well, offers the potential for HR to get its own house in order and start dynamically engaging with the organisation as well as deliver significantly greater business value. The issue however is, do HR professionals have sufficient understanding of what the HR partnership model practically means and are they sufficiently strong to deal with the ambiguities, uncertainties and tensions which are inherent within this relationship based model?

Tension is the natural order of things

HR is being asked to add value to their organisation while being expected to continue to deliver improved efficiencies. This seemingly inherent contradiction is not peculiar to HR as most business units face similar tensions e.g. to centalise or decentralise; to create new products or grow existing ones. These contradictions have no right answer and organisations must therefore find a balance that best meets its goals at any moment in time.

Tension arises therefore as organisations need to risk spending money in order to create new revenues. The right level of investment for any individual organisation will be based on a range of factors including their strategy, heritage, competitors and market environment. CourageousHR call this tension the standardisation / customisation dynamic. 

Impact on human resources community

The HR partnership organisation actually emerged in response to this standardisation / customisation dynamic. However, attempts to create, in a diagrammatic form the HR partnership structure which can sufficiently capture the complexities and fluidity of this relationship based model has tended to fall short as they have concentrated on formal reporting relationships and deliverables.  

The existence of these three legged and four legged models are at best simplistic views as they do not reflect the reality of multiple and non-static reporting lines in organisations (especially multi-nationals). More importantly, these models give rise to a belief that there is one best model or structure for HR and that the role of the HR business partners is as the exclusive power brokers for HR.

CourageousHR have turned this on its head by instead focusing on the underlying reasons for the emergence of the HR partnership structure as well as by recognising the dynamic nature of the HR partnership structure. Our HR business alignment model captures the intricacies and complexities of the three key elements of the HR partnership structure:

  • HR Responsibilities, HR Roles and HR Deliverables.

For a fuller description and explanation of our HR partnership models go to

What does this mean for HR?

The HR partnership structure simply mirrors the organisations need to balance efficiency and revenue generation. Therefore, HR needs to:

  • Continue to support the organisation in reducing costs and being as efficient as possible. This can be delivered in direct savings or managing risks e.g. helping managers to make balanced decisions.
  • Support individual businesses to increase their revenues. This can be delivered through a variety of different approaches such as greater productivity e.g. increasing employee engagement; new products and services e.g. increased innovation; increased customer spend e.g. improved customer service; or entering new markets e.g. appropriate talent.

The HR partnership structure therefore has an inherent tension as HR professionals have to balance these two competing organisational needs.

HR roles - HR partners

The standardisation / customisation dynamic model also helps define the role of each part of the HR community (function).

HR partners

HR partners are responsible for ensuring that the needs of their business are represented to the HR community. While they have a continuing responsibility to ensure that the organisation need for efficiency (standardisation) is met, they are ideally placed to translate their business revenue need (customisation) into people deliverables. 

Importantly, the model also demonstrates that if an activity e.g. salary review, is standard across the organisation, there is no requirement for the HR partner to be responsible for its delivery (they add no extra value as it is the same activity for all businesses).

Where there is a potential to increase revenues, HR partners have a role in helping their business build an investment case and representing that investment to HR. However, they also have a responsibility to ensure that their business does not unnecessarily spend money where the returns cannot be justified or the resources are unavailable.

HR roles - COEs & shared services

HR operations, centres of expertise and shared service centres are responsible for ensuring the needs of the organisation are suitably represented to each business. While there is a clear responsibility to support agreed business customised activities, they are ideally placed to use their technical expertise to minimise costs and risks to the business. Importantly, the model shows that operations, COEs and SSCs should have responsibility for delivering standardised HR activities directly to the business.

Where there is a potential to increase revenues, operations, COEs and SSCs have a role in examining whether an organisational investment is justified based on available resources and whether it should be standardised across the organisation. However, if an investment is agreed, they have a responsibility to support the HR partner and deliver their part of the HR activities.

HR deliverables

The standardisation / customisation dynamic model also helps quantify HR deliverables.  

Where a deliverable is standardised

It is specific to the organisation e.g. the recruitment process. Standardised deliverables are typically the responsibility of HR operations, COE or SSC.

Where a deliverable is customised

It is specific to a business e.g. a sales incentive programme to a sales team. Customised deliverables are typically the responsibility of the HR partner, although they may not actually undertake the activity i.e. deliver them.

The Benefits of defining HR deliverables in this way is that it allows HR communities to make conscious decisions and establish protocols for who is both accountable for making sure the deliverable happens and who actually undertakes the activity.

Characteristics of a high performing HR community

A high performing HR community is able to recognise and openly manage the inherent tensions between standardisation and customisation. They know that the business world is in a constant state of change, that there is no one size fits all HR partnership operating model and that HR needs to continuously be able to respond and adapt its model and how it works. 

High performing HR communities also recognise that the existence of tension is a sign of health. Where there is no tension, the HR community is:

  • Probably not delivering one of its core responsibilities (typically the revenue or value adding one)
  • Unclear about the roles within HR and who is accountable for its various deliverables
  • Seeking to hide conflict

The sign of a powerful partnership between HR and the organisation is when all parties are able to articulate the standardisation / customised tension and proactively use it to achieve the organisations strategic goals.

Benefits to you and HR

By expressing your responsibilities, roles and deliverables in terms of the standardisation / customisation dynamic; you and the HR community will experience a number of Benefits:

  • Recognise that tension is normal, not the product of individuals being unable to get on with each other
  • Create a language that both HR and businesses can understand
  • Allows you to communicate HR deliverables in terms of organisation and business needs
  • Allows you to rationally communicate both the basics and value added that HR can offer and who is best placed to deliver them (line, centralised, outsourced)
  • Help clarify your role
  • Creates clear protocols and procedures to agree accountability and delivery where there is overlap in responsibilities i.e. a modified deliverable is involved
  • Supports the concept of the HR community all parts of HR are reliant on each other to deliver HR offerings
  • Demonstrates that there is no best HR structure model the focus should be on HR deliverables and the quality of HR individuals and their role
  • Reinforces the concept that every business is different and therefore the role of every different HR partner is different - if every business was the same then the HR partner role would be standardised.


Strategic future for HR

HR has the potential to demonstrate it has a distinctive contribution to make to the long-term success of organisations by claiming the people mandate. However, relying on re-structuring and name changes will not be enough. 

The success of HR partnerships will fundamentally be determined by the quality of HR people (i.e. their courage, capability and credibility) and the quality of the relationships between HR and the people it serves. By investing in relationships the inherent tensions, ambiguities and Challenges we all face in our day-to-day jobs do not become show stoppers rather they signify the health and vibrancy of HR and the wider organisation.  This is what people will buy and this is what will secure a strategic future for HR.

About Guy Ellis (see photo in author box above)

BA, BCom, MSC and Honorary Research Fellow of the Huck Centre for Management Research at the Henley Business School, University of Reading.

Since graduating in New Zealand, Guy has worked in HR for a number of global blue chip organisations including Hewlett Packard, Bank of America, Citibank, NatWest Global Financial Markets and in 2000, Aon Limited as HR Director of its UK Consulting Division.

In 2003 Guy established himself as an independent consultant and interim manager working for a number of global companies on a range of HR briefs. Following extensive research with blue chip companies, Guy published Tales of Talent: A Modern Fable for Todays Managers in 2006.  Written in an engaging, story-telling style, this book on organisational strategy and talent management provides decision makers with common sense solutions to aligning their employees and organisational objectives.

Guy can be contacted at: E-mail:    
Tel: +44 (0) 7799 862 693

About Chris O'Brien (see photo below)

BA (Hons), MSC Training.

Chris has over 20 years experience in the field of Organisational Learning & Development. He has an international track-record in leading and transforming training teams.

Having begun his training career in The Royal Bank of Scotland, Chris subsequently worked in a number of senior and leadership positions including global training director at SchlumbergerSema and AMP Financial Services. 

In 2003 Chris established his own successful consulting practice, Clear Solutions, to assist clients in shaping business focused and performance improving training strategies. 

Chris can be contacted at: E-mail:           
Tel: +44 (0) 7919 255 359